Maxine Sa Couta attended a semester exchange at Sciences Po. Here is her story.
As the beginning of my exchange approached I began to feel the pressure to get all of my affairs in order. Finding well located, affordable and comfortable accommodation in Paris is close to impossible. Having spent what felt like a lifetime looking at apartments and studios online I decided to take another avenue. In Paris, like Stellenbosch, there are student residences. The greatest difference being that the residence halls are not reserved for one university but rather any university in Paris. Here the students are incredibly diverse. I am staying in Foyer International des étudiantes. There there are over 60 nationalities represented from all over the world, including Estonia, Japan and Mauritius. Like a residence as we know, I rent a room with a small side room with a sink. The View of my room is of Boulevard Saint- Michel, one of the most famous and beautiful boulevards of Paris.
Being located in the fifth arrondissement, practically the heart of Paris, I am incredibly lucky to be close to almost everything and living in the Latin Quarter known to be the most beautiful and luxurious area of Paris. My school, Sciences Po is a 15-minute walk and the Jardin de Luxembourg is a 4-minute walk. I would strongly recommend a future exchange student to consider living in a foyer, it is incredibly welcoming, there is plenty of freedom and serves the purpose of a home far more than it does a “residence hall”. Settling in was very easy for me as this was far from my first trip to Paris and I’ve holidayed in Europe every June for most of my life, so the culture difference, which their certainly is- was not new to me. A friend from Stellenbosch had already arrived and was staying in the room two doors down from mine, doing largely the same subjects, this made life very easy.
Sciences Po is an incredibly international school with over 40% of Students being international, the real difficulty is finding French students in the English lectures. The orientation was appropriately brief and quite helpful, registration was incredibly straightforward and it was an interesting sight to see so many people from such bizarre corners of the world.
The first issue I faced in Paris was the universities policy to only allow one module of Chinese to be taken; this meant I was short of Stellenbosch credits, to overcome this I will be taking a home module via correspondence as well. The second issue was the actually Chinese course. My lectures are all taught solely in English. However, my Chinese course is taught only in French, as my lecturer cannot speak English. This has resulted in me double translating from French to English and then to Chinese. It is not ideal but it has brought many laughs and even more confusion.
So far, I am having a wonderful time in Paris, Mia and I have made a wonderful bunch of friends and am traveling around Europe with them. Two weeks ago, we took a weekend trip to Brussels, Belgium and are now busy planning a trip to Barcelona, Spain. Settling in and adapting to life in France has been exceptionally easy.
I have been studying in Paris for four months now, things are going well. The academics are very different. I am taking Politics of Protest, taught by a German professor, Citizen Politics taught by a French professor who is part of the political statistical analysis team for elections in France. I also take Nations and Nationalism a history module. My final module is Chinese taught only in French, which has caused entertaining miscommunications. The style of lecture is similar to Stellenbosch, though all classes are compulsory and missing three results in an incomplete. The work that is expected is less in quantity than Stellenbosch, though the marking is much stricter and people are too accustomed to failing. Each week I have a lot of work because I am also taking a Stellenbosch module of Chinese, together it becomes a bit demanding. The biggest academic difference I have experienced at Sciences Po is the entirely different writing style. Having to relearn how to structure a piece of work has been a bit frustrating after having practiced a different way for many years.
Paris is not so much a culture shock. The only noticeable difference to me is the amount that people smoke, and at such an early age. It is not ayoba. Otherwise, I feel that I have adapted nicely, the concept of everything being closed on a Sunday has stuck and I am no longer hungry on Sundays. The weather has really perked up with the arrival of spring. The trees are thick with leaves and flowers; there are also a lot more people on the streets. Knowing that I am not in Paris too much longer has resulted in me capitalising on the croissants and pain au chocolat. I am very happy in Paris and not looking forward to leaving at all. I anticipated being a bit homesick but that really has not happened; my friends here are from all over the world, but majority from Brazil and Europe- It’s clear I will miss them dearly. I am planning a trip to Disney land and Versailles with some of them at the end of the month. At the end of April, I will go to my home in Portugal for the summer. I feel very happy and blessed to able to have experienced this wonderful exchange, it has really changed my perspective and the way I think.
I have returned from Paris with a heavy heart, though happy to be back home and with my family and friends. Having learnt so much on my exchange, it seems only fair to share my knowledge that could help someone else going on exchange especially to Paris or ScienesPo.
Organising the logistics of your exchange can be most frustrating and tedious, it is stressful as so much of the detail can only be organized at the time before you leave home, when you would really rather be spending quality time with your family and friends.
In hindsight I would recommend organizing your accommodation first, in Paris there is plenty of accommodation, the trick is to be realistic about how you can live comfortably. Like everything else, the cost of accommodation in Paris is expensive. There is no confusion about the lack of a French word for ‘cheap’ because nothing is. Once you have your accommodation, the lease with your landlord must be carefully read. Depending on the size of the apartment/studio, one can apply for APL, which is a French student housing subsidy dependant on your rent and size of apartment. This must be done early on your arrival (your landlord should know if your space is APL applicable). Most of my friends who received ALP received about 200 Euros back a month.
The next thing to do is of course your academics, organize your courses as best you can and be realistic that courses change and conscious that unlike South Africa, the courses fill up and you can be denied registration. I would not recommend attending the optional SCPO introduction week. However, the other administration events are very important. Before you arrive in Paris, I would recommend having at least six ID size photos. If you are going to study in Paris for one year the best transport card is the ImaginR card, otherwise the Navigo card is fantastic (bus, metro, tram) unlimited for 67 Euros a month, another expense to consider. If you are happy to cycle (and face the cold) you can get a Velib card (there is a Velib bike stop on St. Peres practically inside SCPO), which is also great but finding a bike is not always easy. As far as transport in Paris is concerned, it’s very accessible and you should rather use UBER cabs to normal street taxi’s (who will over charge you unless you speak eloquent French). I urge any exchange students to remember that Paris, like any city, holds dangers especially for those who are unaware (taking any RER late at night is not a good idea).
Organizing your accommodation, academics and mode of transport are the primers. Once this is sorted, you should be fine going with the flow for the rest. Living in Paris as a student is very different to being on holiday with your family. Shop for fresh food on Sundays (Bastille market is the biggest and best) I would suggest buying all your produce here (easily the cheapest and freshest).
Leaving my exchange was very sad for me, not leaving Paris because I know I will be back, but leaving exchange is sad because you will never be in the same wonderful situation again with the same friends who truly become your family with Sunday lunches and travel buddies. The best advice I can give is embrace the cultural differences, language barriers and experiences with new friends. Say yes to trips and opportunities, and embrace the lifestyle of your new city, there is a reason the people live the way they do.