The Other Sciences Po

By Madeline Wyatt.

” I’ve never felt more on my own as a student than I do now”

Sciences Po; whisper it with me—you know the one: the firm but fleeting female voice that speaks of professionalism and competence. Certainly it is meant to attract prospective pupils, reassure current students, and indulge alumni, but what about those who feel none of that? Four different students—all who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that they remain anonymous—challenge the image Sciences Po has painted, instead constructing a far more perilous institution, one plagued by academic, administrative, and social hazards. They have been given the pseudonyms Cybil, Rachel, Gabrielle, and Ashan.

While all of the interviews were conducted separately and independent of one another, all four had near identical statements on the university: what they paid for was indeed not what they received. 

“I feel jipped,” Cybil said, “I’m shocked, a bit dismayed, and totally disillusioned in the way that Sciences Po advertises itself versus how it actually is.” Cybil instead argues that Sciences Po advertises the prestige of the seven campuses combined instead of focusing on the individual programs and merits of each campus. The school allows its prestige to speak for itself without regard for quality of education. 

Rachel experienced a similar phenomenon, realizing upon reflection how little she truly knew about the program, rather she was enamored with the romantic image of which she held the university. 

“It came back to bite me,” she spoke candidly, “there is so little information out there on the university, but I still feel bamboozled.” 

She was told that Sciences Po was the best school in all of France, its intellect and academic status bar none. “They call it the ‘Harvard of France’ but I don’t know where the hell that came from,” she said. Students are especially aware of the prestige of the university, assuming that the reputation corresponds with academic rigor. 

“I’m paying ten thousand euros to attend the University of Nice… I might as well have gone there for the same education,” Gabrielle stated in her interview. She additionally pointed out the number of professors who are full time lycée teachers. While there is nothing inherently wrong with borrowing professors from Nice or from high schools, she states that it surely begs the question as to whether or not students should be paying thousands of euros while, at Nice, they could have as easily experienced the same professors for merely two hundred. 

As Sciences Po is the most expensive school in France, Rachel couldn’t help but wonder how or why that ever came to be the case. “For what?” she asked. “The teachers don’t answer questions and are hardly helpful with assignments, sometimes even contradicting themselves.” 

In that same vein, Cybil complained of “shallow” and “disorganized” classes, asserting that she could have “had a more academically enriching experience” at other universities she was accepted to. Cybil had been accepted to multiple other top universities, but she was ultimately driven towards Sciences Po because she perceived it as being conducive to her long term goals. Now, however, she’s concerned about the long term consequences of a Sciences Po education with regard to preparation for graduate school. 

“Many classes don’t even give us homework yet they hand us a midterm and final expecting us to know what to do with no prior grades or instruction.” She noted how professors “seemed shocked when the class didn’t understand how to write an essay with no prior instruction.” For Cybil, students are left drowning and waiting for help, all the while professors remain oblivious to the crisis students find themselves in. 

More distressingly, she references, is the recent AJ+ Français poll which revealed that nearly six in ten Sciences Po students suffer from anxiety and four in ten are experiencing depression, suggesting something here is very wrong and going unaddressed.

Rachel’s explanation for the students’ suffering is simple, charging the university as having a “blatant disregard for student well-being.” Cybil noted a similar issue, acknowledging the fact that there is a campus mental health team in place, but institutional failures render it worthless—“half the time the doctors aren’t even on campus and furthermore they don’t even respond to their emails so it’s like it doesn’t even exist in the first place.” 

 Cybil places the brunt of Sciences Po’s failures on the administration. “I’ve never felt more on my own as a student than I do now,” Cybil started, having acknowledged and experienced that the French system of education is markedly more ‘spartan’ than other education systems; but to her, it doesn’t absolve the actions of the administrative, criticizing them for a number of pitfalls. 

“They are rude, uninviting, unfriendly, and I feel like honestly I’ve never encountered… a more incapable, incompetent administration than Sciences Po’s,” she charged. She alongside the others cite myriad examples when they attempted many times to contact the administration regarding various issues, yet their emails were left unanswered, leaving them to fend for themselves. Rachel wasn’t in the least bit surprised by this, having already experienced it and been warned of the severity. “From the get go we were told, ‘the administration sucks, you have to get used to it, that’s just how France is,’ but the community we build here more than makes up for it… I was expecting this tight-knit community, but it’s not that.”

When one institution she was expecting to fail her did, she wasn’t surprised, but when the social aspect also failed her, she became disillusioned. Plainly put, she admitted that “[she] thought we’d left high school” because of how rampant the cliques were here. Cybil blames most of the cliquish social tendencies on the dual BA students. “I think there’s a divide between the dual BA students and the rest of the student body…  it’s especially true of the American students because most of them are in the dual BA program with Columbia University.” Rachel concurred with that sentiment, adding on that she believes “it’s near impossible to talk to them [because] they have such a superiority complex.” For Rachel, it was difficult at first to meet people with whom she held common interests, as she argues that Sciences Po is synonymous with party culture—much to her surprise and dismay. 

“I applied to Sciences Po because it specifically didn’t have frats,” she said, “but I get here and the entire thing is frat!” She had told me incredulously during the interview. Across all interviews one thing became clear: it was nearly impossible to have a social life if you didn’t party or drink. 

“Drinking is such an ingrained part of this culture that you feel awkward if you don’t drink,” Rachel said, feeling alienated given her distaste for most alcohol. Gabrielle was less put off by the alcohol and more so by the lack of opportunity for social events that aren’t parties. She complained that people likely saw her as an introvert when the opposite couldn’t be more true, it was just that she had “interests other than parties.”

Ashan argued the social aspect was difficult because of cultural differences— “it’s hard to be friends with them because they’re all smoking and drinking. If they’re smoking weed it’s basically like I’m smoking as well, and I’m not okay with that.” It was to Ashan’s great surprise that the social culture here was like that, even saying, “I thought I was haram back home but here I’m an angel masha’Allah—I hadn’t realized that everyone here was haram haram.” 

Gabrielle noticed this as well and explained, “people here wear Islam like a coat, and they wear it when it’s convenient.” 

Ashan responded and was quick to score the fact that by no means were they trying to be the “haram police,” rather she feels they were perplexed by the fact that when Ramadan comes around people begin practicing faithfulness again, arguing that “it feels like tokenism because the rest of the year they shed it.” 

While Ashan explicitly called Sciences Po “islamophobic,” Gabrielle noted a similar occurence: “we’re staunchly against anti-semitism—as we should be—but when it comes to islamophobia, we’re far less willing to condemn it.” Ashan evidenced prior videoed incidents with various islamophobic slurs and chants being hurled, and citing just this semester how “it’s deeply uncomfortable when they say mujahadeen, especially when they’re not a part of the Muslim community.” Occurrences like these, she feels, make social life at Sciences Po a test of endurance, fighting western tropes and orientalism. 

When I pressed the question if they regretted attending Sciences Po, some noted that although they are dissatisfied with the administrative and academic nature of Sciences Po they find refuge in the community they found, taking comfort in the group struggle. It was Rachel who summed it up best: “I hate Sciences Po, but I don’t regret the friends I’ve made.” Yet some reiterated that when they haven’t found that community, because they don’t party or they don’t drink, they’re left utterly alone and without comfort from the absurdity of the university. While they could transfer to another university, the interviewees felt trapped financially because they’ve already paid tuition and it wouldn’t be worth it to lose the money they’ve already spent. 

Indeed, all four agreed that their image of Menton and Sciences Po was fueled by social media images and captions romanticizing the experience, refusing to show the dark side where the majority of students have anxiety and/or depression. They expressed sentiments along the lines that they were sold an exquisite experience, a glimpse at a fantastic future, and a trove of magnificent memories. 

Menton, deceptively hailed as the city of lemons, is instead filled with oranges, and it is conceivably most fitting then that Sciences Po—perhaps most guilty of selling students lemons—should be located there, as they too are no exception to the farce.  

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