What they did not tell me when I applied for Erasmus in Paris is that I would be surrounded by Americans half of the time whose contribution is either a timid silence broken by texting, or a loud commentary on the lines of the State of the Union address. As I sit in the sweaty Boutmy lecture theatre on an August afternoon, I hear a Floridian guy opting for a softer version of the latter and express his opinion on the overcrowded hall, as 500 students try to access rooms on three floors to attend the legendary leçons inaugurales: “The French have no idea how to be organised, but as long as I have their name on my CV is fine… after all, it’s Sciences Po!”
The video the university’s representative shows us not even five minutes later is another hint to its reputation as a mecca of social and political sciences. Aspiring leaders from across the world gather in front of a camera to promote the proud elite of sciencepistes, and the ambassadors’ smiles are tastefully crafted for the video. The lady on stage mentions former camarade Macron’s name and stresses the importance of connecting with fellow students for an exceptional year, in which only individuals who will shape our future are allowed… If any of that were realistic, I would probably be happy to witness the show.
After two months at the Parisian Oxford, as the workload and psychological fatigue have pushed me to rename it, I can say that this has been the most rewarding and yet confusing choice in my life. Coming from the Southern Italian province, I had already found Glasgow an amazing improvement from a social and academic point of view – despite the up-and-downs of coping with anxiety and depression throughout my time there. Once out of the Italian Kingdom of Boredom, I proved myself that I can reach good results no matter what context I work in, managed to spread the word among international students on the benefits of a good ol’ pasta e muddrica, and learned to embrace the fact of needing people as much as people need me.
And yet none of this is crucial when entering Sciences Po, where you can learn about peacekeeping from a former Blue Helmet and have breakfast with Bruno Stagno Ugarte, while the next French President is being groomed in continuation of prestigious preparatory classes. You are assessed on your resistance in spite of deadlines, the breadth of your general culture, your ability to network and make an impact. In other words, be the winner among 13 thousand people who are programmed to do the same: what an interesting reward for someone who has spent their life working to enter a Grande École.
My only certainty is that I am not and will probably never be a world changer, no matter how much that is insisted on in campus advertising. There are plenty of valuable personalities crowding the university; each one has a range of experiences that would upset anybody who, like me, has no particularly relevant background. But quel surprise!, it is impossible to truly understand them until you mention how isolated you feel, and that seems to be the common curse for all of us in this hunger game.
For a month and a half, except for international students who attend the Model United Nation society and my phenomenal flatmate, I barely talked to any classmate even though I tried to strike a conversation. So far, the only group work I had was solved by means of e-mails as the other members had other tasks to focus on – which is somehow clearer now that I survived the most intense midterm week of my educational path. But is that the only reason?
The elitism of certain universities is an unbearable burden; this is something I am slowly realising and becoming more open about. All of a sudden, on a quite miserable morning, two girls attending the 8 a.m. geopolitics class have made the effort to talk to me – and did so for a good forty minutes, in what felt like a miraculous confession time. The kick-off? My admission of displeasure about not being able to express myself before, and their similar disappointment. The common theme in the conversation, I realise, is a certain shyness that is also visible in the polite composure of their gestures and word choice.
Sciences Po creates perfect orators, but it does not necessarily prepare them to communicate their unease about it. You feel like there is never time to socialise in class because of the information flow, as if everybody is minding their own business – and then you realise that feeling is shared by those who you thought were doing the same thing. The fact that someone appreciated a show of weakness gives a glimpse of what impact this race for the next public administration vacancy has on basic personal connection.
I am no longer surprised that a guy like Macron has gained a reputation for classist outbursts and for being out of touch: if all you have been learning is to put yourself under pressure for a long-term professional project, your framework of reference can hardly include the thought of your or anybody else’s concerns. It is a race against the guy from next door as much as the girl from the remote country, and despite the good reputation of the school you will wonder if you will get out of it with something more than a nice reference to showcase at interviews.
This reminds me that a few weeks back, while I was sitting in an open space at the Centre Pompidou, a woman’s voice caught my attention as her questions were not being answered. Looking up to find out the reason for such a monologue, I was surprised to see she was teaching simple words to a Vietnamese cook who had just arrived in Paris. The mix of unconvinced nodding and shaking hands was less heart-breaking compared to the only reply he could provide with conviction. Not surprisingly, it was a yes to the universal question: “Do you feel alone?”.
And if sciencepistes and non-sciencepistes alike share that feeling, why should the Grande École system not recognise the essential virtues of compassion towards ourselves and others?