Madeleine - Sciences Po

B Science
Semester 2, 2018
It’s not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain

Academic experience

I am a psychology student by practice however I chose to study at Sciences Po because I really wanted to study, live and work in Paris. Due to my limited French language proficiency, I took all my classes in English except for my A2 French language course. Since I could not study in my preferred field, I dabbled in many different areas of the humanities, trying to avoid political science as much as possible (NB: kind of hard when you're at a school called Sciences Politiques). I took 5 classes, plus my language course: Holocaust in History, How we Change the Social World, Strategic Studies, Comparative Social Policy and Varieties of Regulatory Capitalism (that was a killer!). I really enjoyed my history, French and philosophy classes but, as I figured going in, political science is not for me. Yet even though I was thoroughly challenged in a discipline that I did not even possess general knowledge about, I took a great deal of pride in the fact that I was trying something new and, as it turned out, succeeding. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed in the first week when the assessment was outlined to us, thinking that I was going to fail in these scary new disciplines. But by the end of the semester, I had written a 10 page essay on comparative political economy, amongst other things, despite not knowing what "political economy" even was in the beginning. At the start of my exchange, I could not have possibly imagined the value of what I would be learning, not just in terms of my broadened understanding of precise disciplines, but how that knowledge would improve my understanding of the world and how that learning would contribute to my personal skill set. 
In terms of registration, it's a mess. Everyone signs on to all the courses all at the same time. Oh, except for the domestic students who get to do it a few days before so they take what they want and we get left with the rest. My advice: be ready as the clock ticks over (remember the time difference!) with your ideal timetable and a few hundred back-ups. Slots will go very quickly because some courses are smaller than others and some of them may already be full with domestic students. But don't be shy to continue checking across the sign up period because I had a terrible timetable to begin with and then I was able to sign up for my preferred courses as slots eventually became available.

Personal experience

The things that I will miss most from my exchange are my friends, the French language (or rather, being immersed in it), Europe (or, again, being immersed in it) and the pastries. Not only did I make new friends with whom I shared unforgettable experiences, explore new corners of the world (like the endless acres of maze on the Versailles Estate, not on purpose actually) and improve my French language skills back to where they should be, but all those experiences changed me as a person. I learnt to be more outgoing, more impulsive, to accept that sometimes you won't get to where you want to go but you'll get to somewhere better (and sometimes you just end up lost in a ditch with some sheep). Now that I've returned home, I feel as though I have to say goodbye to the wonderful experiences that I had while I was away but exchange also taught me that you don't have to be 16 547 kms from home to learn, experience or do something new.

Accommodation

Ok, so France is not Australia or the US, therefore, they do not do the whole college thing and since Paris is a big city where it is hard enough to try and assemble a university campus, there is no student housing either. Thus, you must find your own accommodation. There are many ways to do this and I put a lot of time and effort into determining the best option, despite the fact that I did not actually select the best option, in hindsight.
First, some notes to start with.
1. Be clear on your budget. Even for a tiny studio outside of central Paris, you will probably pay at least 500 euro per month for anything functional. If you want to be in something bigger than 9m2, you will pay more. If you want to be inside the períphique, you will pay more. 
2. Figure out if you want to rent a studio or if you would prefer to have roommates or even a home stay can be arranged, I believe.
3. Never agree to anything or send someone money before you have seen the apartment or signed a contract. This can be annoying if you want to settle your accommodation before you arrive so I suggest you arrive at least a week or two early. Even then, you may be resigned to living in hostels/similar until you find a place.
In terms of where to start looking, I would suggest you start with Facebook student exchange pages (for both your home and host university) and search/ask for any available studios or rooms in shared apartments. There are also some apartment buildings that act mostly as student residences on the edge of Paris but they are all studios, so each to their own. If you are more interested in sharing, then there are many Apartment sharing agency websites that have lots of listings for a range of budgets.
Personally, I found my accommodation with a company called Comforts of Home. I paid them a lot of money to set me up with an apartment and roommates. All in all, it was a pretty good deal. My roommates were fantastic, the apartment was great and I was close to campus as well as anything that I could possibly need (like 5 supermarkets within 300m of the apartment, including one two floors below my bedroom). The only issue was that the rates were very expensive and I was constantly stressed about losing part of my security deposit for small things such as dirty floors and clogged sinks because of the way the company came after my money. As a first-time exchange student, CoH was good because it provided me with stable and secure housing that I could organise pre-arrival. If I went back in time, I doubt that I would choose a different option but if I were to go again, I definitely would not choose CoH again.

Costs

As I mentioned, I paid a lot in rent (to the tune of 900 euro per month, with an added 850 euro security deposit) but that is avoidable. But even if you find a cheaper place, you are still sure to end up putting quite a big chunk of money towards rent (it is Paris after all!). Food was easy because my roommates and I would all shop together and share our groceries so we ended up spending around 20 euro per week each and then some depending on how much we ate out. It's easy to organise cheap and easy meals for yourself if you put a bit of effort in and food isn't too expensive in Paris. I shopped mostly at supermarkets as I had heard that the fresh food markets are generally more expensive. 
In terms of transport, if you can get everywhere you need to go on a daily basis by walking or maybe even by bike, then don't bother getting a Navigo card - you won't use it enough for it to be cost-effective. If you are travelling on any public transport daily then you will probably find that a Navigo card works best. I paid 75 euros per month for unlimited access to the metro, buses, RERs, etc. which seemed expensive at the time but, in hindsight, it's actually not too bad.
If you want to explore other French cities nearby Paris, there are many great options and for some that are close enough, even last minute tickets are not too expensive (maybe 20-30 euros return). To travel international, if you are booking early then flights are most likely to be the cheapest, just watch out for hidden fees like checked baggage and fees for printing your boarding pass at the airport. If you are only travelling for the weekend and only have one carry-on bag, you can get some good deals though. 
I believe I spent $17000+ from beginning to end but I probably spent more than average as I travelled for 3 weeks before and 4 weeks after my exchange as well as numerous weekend trips during the semester. I would say that the recommended 12 000-15 000 would be perfectly sufficient depending on how you choose to spend it.

Challenge

Exchange involves, and often requires, that you uproot yourself from everything familiar and slap yourself down in a foreign country with foreign surroundings and people that talk funny. How does one even adjust to that? In the beginning, I just told myself that "it's only 6 months" and "I can make it" because that's the only way to deal with it. But, eventually, the shock wears off and you don't know how you are suddenly ok with the strange food/people/surroundings but you are. Besides, it's hard to stay down forever when there are so many brilliant and wonderful things to discover outside of Australia. One thing that I really understand from my exchange was how lucky I am to live here (with relatively few organised riots) but also how important it is to expose yourself to different cultures.

Professional Development

I believe that my exchange has made me much more confident and resilient than I used to be. The personal challenges that I faced have forced me to cope better in a range of stressful and emotional situations. Furthermore, those challenges have helped me to better recognise that my true capabilities stretch further than I imagined and brought to light the value of a can-do attitude.

Highlight

This is indeed the question on everyone's lips when they hear that you've been on exchange. At first, you ponder because there's so many options and each one is better than the other for different reasons. I don't know why I've been responding with this particular moment but it is one where I felt truly content and alive during my exchange. 
It was the end of the third week of university and two of my roommates and I took the RER to Versailles for the day. The whole day was perfect: the late start, the uninterrupted train ride south, the visit to various rooms in the Versailles castle, my first Parisian macarons of the trip (the first of many) and the walk of the gardens featuring dancing fountains. It was even pretty fun when we got lost in the maze that is the north-east section of the Trianon estate. The reason that the day was great was because I got to spend it with good friends in a beautifully historic place and we even got KFC to eat on the train home. We were sitting on the floor of the train chatting after a long day of exploring, eating our chicken and just not caring about being heavily judged by any Parisian who could see or hear us. 

*Also, another contender for highlight of my trip would be visiting Reims on my birthday and toasting my 20th with champagne from Champagne.*

Top tips

I would suggest only selecting this university if you are in fact interested in political science - which would seem self-explanatory but not to me, apparently - as there are not a great deal of other varieties offered. Also, Paris is expensive but awesome so just be aware of both of those things because you will want to stay and continue spending your money. Oh, and get involved in the welcome program, it's a great way to meet other international students, get a kick start on your social network, experience Paris for the first time and get to know the language, culture and Science Po methodology.