The Pros and Cons of Sciences Po (PSIA)

Having just completed my first semester as a master’s student in International Development, I thought I’d share some thoughts about the reality of this highly prestigious French school. What are the pros and cons of Sciences Po?

My favorite thing about Sciences PO? The hands-on and practical classes.
My least favorite thing? Too much time spent in the underground metro.
Academic Life

Pros: lots of student organizations, lots of hands-on and practical classes, classes in both French and English, extremely international and multilingual student body, students are sometimes better informed than teachers (which leads to great class discussions), some professors take the class to bars/restaurants at the end of the year, and there is a huge emphasis on bringing professionals into the classroom as guest speakers and potential connections for internships

Cons: little time for student organizations, little time to go out with peers, you can only skip two classes per course per semester, and some professors have top-down lecture approaches combined with monotonous voices

Thinking about applying to Sciences Po?
I can review your letter of motivation!

 

Transport

Probably the worst part about life in Paris is that the city is huge. Since Sciences Po is in the 7th arrondissement (the city center) and apartments there are very expensive, most students have around a 30 minute commute to school.
This means that it is important to schedule classes wisely so as to not spend hours of dead time in the city, unable to go home between classes because the commute makes it not worth it.
Personally, my commute is nearly 1 hour. In exchange, I have a nice house with a garden and an affordable rent. I have spend hours trying to figure out if I can get a scooter or motorcycle to reduce the time I spend underground on the metro, but so far I haven’t been able to confirm that I can legally drive a scooter in France.

Costs

Living costs in Paris are high. I recently saw an article claiming that Paris is the second most expensive city to live in. If you can find an apartment in Paris nearby the school, expect is to be very expensive (think 1000€/month for rent). Most students are spread out across the city and pay around 500€-750€ per month. The good news is that many student also get the CAF (French governmental aid for housing), which can reimburse something like 100€-250€ per month, depending.

Sciences Po will help you to set up a bank account, but it often take a long time for the paperwork to go through to get your card (and thus access money, get a phone plan, etc.) Here are my sarcastic thoughts on that from earlier in the year.

Tuition fees are quite high at Sciences Po (13,700€ per year for my first year as a master’s student) and I understand that they are going up for next year. French students benefit from aid based on their families’ incomes, but international students are often expected to pay in full. American students have the benefit of being able to apply for US student loans using FAFSA. Otherwise, some students receive Emilie Boutmy scholarships from Sciences Po.

The pros of these costs? Nearly all the computers in the library are Macs. The school gives you 15€ of credit for printing at the beginning of the year (hurray! 0.1% of tuition back!)

Thinking about applying to Sciences Po?
I can review your letter of motivation!

I’ve also written posts with some free tips on writing your motivation letter. And this post, which answers some questions sent to me from a Sciences Po applicant. You can learn more about my experience applying for Sciences Po’s Emile Boutmy Scholarship.

You can also leave me a question in the comments.

Why It’s Not So Bad to Fail at Language Learning

Here is a great New York Times article on the benefits of language learning – even when the language is not successfully learned. It talks about some of the cognitive benefits of trying to learn a new language and thus why it’s no so bad to fail at language learning:

“The Benefits of Failing at French”

My 56-year-old mother has spent the last 2 years living in Istanbul, Turkey, studying Turkish while teaching art in English. Although her Turkish remains far from fluent (and this is her first attempt to learn a language!), she has mastered the ability to communicate with a variety of people in Turkish to accomplish such tasks as directing a taxi, ordering food, navigating Turkish computer programs at her school, and making polite conversation.

Her comments?
“I think that studying a language has improved my memory in many ways. I remain hopeful that I will get the opportunity to try to learn another language. I also think I’ve become more tolerant of my own mistakes and forgive myself for not being able to perform up to my own expectations. So what if I don’t ever become fluent? What does it matter?”

Her contract in Turkey has ended. So, she’s preparing to leave for a new 2-year contract at a school in Ethiopia where she hopes to learn some Amharic. This is surely a daunting task for anyone but, as I always say, the most difficult language to learn is the language you don’t want to learn. Conversely, the easiest language to learn is the one you are excited about.

Sciences Po: When will I know about the Boutmy Scholarship?

I just found out I have been offered a Boutmy scholarship at Sciences Po!

(I’ve written a lot of posts about Sciences Po.)

After months of awaiting a scholarship decision, I’ve decided to post this announcement on my blog so that others may find it next year and know when to expect to find out about scholarship decisions.

After emailing them, I was initially told that I would hear about the Boutmy by late May. After late May passed, I emailed them again and was told late June.

I will be attending the Master in International Development program, 2014-2016.

TIMELINE FOR SCIENCES PO

February 12, 2013 – Completed my Sciences Po application, which included a request for the Boutmy Scholarship

April 17, 2014 – Received notice of acceptance

June 23, 2014 – Received notice of Emilie Boutmy scholarship acceptance

September 1, 2014 – Start date for classes in Paris

Note that these are the deadlines from my personal application process – the process may be different for others! (Acceptances occur on a rolling basis so they will almost definitely be different. However, all the Boutmy scholarships are released at the same time.)

Still working on your application for Sciences Po?
I can review your letter of motivation!

I’ve also written posts with some free tips on writing your motivation letter. And this post, which answers some questions sent to me from a Sciences Po applicant.

For more information about the Boutmy scholarship, check out the official webpage for it at: http://formation.sciences-po.fr/en/contenu/the-emile-boutmy-scholarship

 

Language Learning Tip: Read a Novel

Let’s see: you’ve taken a course or two, learned the basics, searched for speaking partners… now what? Here is a language learning tip for you:

When I was learning my first language, Spanish, I quickly became frustrated because I didn’t feel like I was making much progress. Especially when there are no natives around to practice with, it can be hard to feel the fruits of your efforts. It wasn’t until my teacher assigned us to read a novel in Spanish that I really realized how much I could understand!

But isn’t it hard to read a novel?

I initially thought reading a book would be WAAAY beyond me.
But I soon realized that by only looking up words when I really needed to, I could actually understand most of the book- and even enjoy it- even though I couldn’t yet have a decent conversation in Spanish.

Reading a novel is easier than you think

This is partly because many words in Latin languages (Spanish, French, etc.) look similar to English words. So even though you have never seen them before and couldn’t think to say them or recognize them when you hear them, they are easy enough to pick out in writing.

In fact, sometimes reading is a better way to pick up a language at first than by oral communication. That’s because there isn’t any pressure from others to perform and you can take all the time you want to stare at words and look them up. In the process, you can learn valuable vocabulary and sentence structures which can later be used orally.

Sure, watching television or reading the news in your target language is “better practice” for you… but if your level isn’t quite up to the task it may be too difficult or uninteresting.

The key is to choose a book that is interesting to you and that you’ve already read before or already know what it’s about. My go-to book? Harry Potter. It’s available in tons of different languages and it’s a story you likely already know. [Plus, after making your way through the book you may be able to watch a dubbed version of the movie and understand it better than you would otherwise since you’ll already have learned most of the relevant vocabulary.]

Avoid small children’s books

Despite what many people may think, these stories are actually not easier for non-native learners. Children’s books or picture books use short sentences without much detail, so there is little room for you to guess what is going on if you don’t know all the vocabulary. Novels, on the other hand, usually repeat things, describe things, and have lots of small details for you to catch – or leave behind – without jeopardizing your general understanding of the book.

  • Books whose stories you already know are easier and more interesting to try and read in a foreign language since, through context, you may be able to guess a lot of words without having to look them up (even if they don’t look similar to their English translations).
  • Reading gives you a great feeling of accomplishment because you can physically see  how many pages you can make it through.
  • You can learn plenty of vocabulary by reading a book.

The one important thing to note is that you shouldn’t use the dictionary for every new word. Just  the ones that are repeated a lot or seem integral to your understanding of the story. You can’t be a perfectionist on this or you’ll risk losing interest due to slow progress.

Tried this already? How’d it work? Leave a comment.

Culture and Soup

Culture and soup– the question of how to really get a taste of a different culture is one that basically every guidebook tries to address. Once you’ve finished seeing all the touristic landmarks (which probably most locals avoid), you start to wonder what life is actually like in the area. To answer this question, many services like couchsurfing are extremely helpful.

But as far as cuisine goes, there is no better suggestion than trying the local soup.

What’s good about soup?

The thing is: soup is cheap. Soup is what happens when all your leftovers get thrown together in a pot to make a meal. Thus, soup exists almost everywhere, and is always a good way to see what kinds of leftovers people have to work with, which in turn tells a good deal about available ingredients and other local dishes.

IMG_5567
Soup in Senegal

Americans can’t deny the homey quality of mom’s Chicken Noodle soup, the marvelous cure-all for what ails you.

Nor can they deny the creamy goodness of Campbell’s Tomato soup, captured by no less than Andy Warhol, and only made better with floating goldfish crackers.

No Spaniard can deny the importance of Cocido Montañés, a traditional bean soup from northern Cantabria.

Perhaps once a thing of the country, this stew now sells for high prices in swanky restaurants for tourists.

In Bolivia, the thick pork stew called Fricasé is well known to cure local hangovers.

Often only available on weekend mornings, the purpose of this soup is clear.

During my time Senegal, a friend came to visit me and asked about soup.

My host family didn’t generally eat soup, because soup, they indicated, was for peasants. I asked around a bit more until I finally found a friend who was willing to help get us some soup.

We left the upper class neighborhood where I lived and ventured into the streets of a  poorer area. There, we found a makeshift shack in the middle of a street, bustling with people waiting in line for soup at just 10 cents a bowl.

We nudged our way through the crowd and soon found ourselves eating some of the thickest, grisliest stew I’d ever tasted. Despite the food quality, I was pleased to find myself surrounded by smiling, laughing locals who were overjoyed to share their food with us… and despite 5 months spent in Senegal, this remains one of my most treasured cultural experiences.

Whether it’s now been glorified for sale in fancy restaurants, like the Cocido Montañés, or commercialized and idealized like Campbell’s Tomato soup, or simply remains a food of poverty, as in Senegal, soup is certainly a gem for every traveler to watch out for.

Want to taste a culture? Try soup.

“Dealing with” your period abroad

What is the best way to deal with your period abroad?

Dealing with your period abroad can be a bit tricky. And as a student, I’ve found that most study abroad programs don’t properly prepare you for the challenges involved.

Not all countries have the same sanitary or birth control products. Plus, the stress of travel can cause your period to be extremely late or not occur whatsoever.

Feminine Sanitary Products – And Their Availability – During Travel

Pads

Do you use sanitary pads for your period? Then you’ll be pleased to know that they are the reigning international feminine product.

They can usually be found in either grocery stores or pharmacies.

Tampons

If you use tampons, you will have to know where to look to find them.  In many countries, tampons are not very popular because using them is associated with a loss of virginity. Many women plan to remain virgins until marriage (or at least keep up such an appearance). Therefore, they never use tampons.

So far, I have never been to a country where I couldn’t find them in a pharmacy in a city. However, they are almost never found in grocery stores and they may be impossible to find in rural areas.

Keep in mind that you might not want to publicize the fact that you are using them. Even as a foreigner, you may be subject to social stigma if people assume you are not a virgin — especially if you aren’t married.

In many places, the only tampons available are those which are inserted with the finger. If you are not familiar with these tampons, you might consider experimenting with them before a long trip abroad. They’re easy to use, but take some getting used to. They may also be cause for concern if there is no way to wash your hands directly after using them – this is an even bigger sanitary concern when using a moon cup.

Moon Cup

The moon cup is a lesser-known menstruation solution.

It is a reusable cup that it inserted into the vagina in order to catch the blood. The likelihood of finding these in a store anywhere is slim (though they are becoming more popular), and most likely you will have to order one offline. That said, since it is reusable you can take it with you when you go abroad.

There are many travelers that swear by this method since it creates less waste and removes of the necessity of searching for sanitary products while in a foreign country. The problem, though, is that you are likely to come across restrooms where it will be impossible to effectively clean the cup. This is especially true if you are traveling to rural Africa or any area with pit toilets (that do not flush).

Also, sinks may be in a public area. So ask yourself if you’re comfortable washing out your menstrual blood where other women can watch.

Birth Control

In many countries birth control can be obtained cheaply and without a prescription.

However, you may not be able to find a specific brand. Ask yourself if you are comfortable changing the amounts and types of hormones in your body by switching to a readily-available brand in your host country. Depending on how long you are going to be abroad, you might just decide to bring a few extra packs from home for your trip.

In other countries, a doctor’s prescription is required for birth control.

This is, for example, generally the case in Europe. If you’re still adamant about using birth control to deal with your period abroad, your best option is probably to stock up on birth control before heading out. However, it you plan to be abroad for over a year, you might look into using the medical system in your host country.

In France, for example, medical insurance is required for all foreign students, even if you are only there for a year. Moreover, women’s health services are free and really good quality. Plus, heading to the doctor’s office can be a good test for your language skills… if you’re up for the challenge!


Should I use injectable contraceptives to stop my period while abroad? 

I was once appalled to read a study abroad preparation guide that suggested the use of injectable contraceptives, like Depo-Provera®, to stop periods during travel (for 3 months at a time) in order to avoid “dealing with them.”

This could be a great option if you are already using injectables. That said, if you’ve already got a great regimen going, don’t feel obligated to switch things up just because your period might be “annoying.”

After all, travel already puts your body through incredible stress. If you are thinking about changing birth control method, you should probably do it long before you start traveling so you can make sure the new method works well with your body.


What about using birth control to skip my period?

A lot of girls who already take birth control experiment with skipping the sugar pills (or placebos) in order to avoid having a period at what might be an “awkward moment.”

I understand that some birth control prescriptions are made so that this is possible. However, you should double-check with your doctor before trying it.


My period stopped, but I’m not pregnant? It could be stress-related!

It is true that the stress of being abroad may cause your period to be early, late, or more or less frequent.

In some cases you might stop having your period altogether.

I know women who simply did not have their periods during most of a full year while abroad! It’s not because they were pregnant, but because of the stress on their bodies. And it wasn’t necessarily stress that they felt mentally.

If you think about it, it’s actually a good thing. Your body is protecting itself by refusing to allow you to reproduce if you’re too stressed out!


Should I take start taking birth control before traveling to regulate my period abroad?

In order to prevent the scare of a late, early, or non-existant periods, it is sometimes suggested to start taking birth control. Plus, birth control can help with cramps and acne. After all, these are issues that nobody wants to deal with while hiking up mountains or crossing countries with only a backpack.

I have personally always used birth control during my travels. Because of this, I have always had easy to deal with, regular menstruations. That said, it bears repeating that you shouldn’t feel obligated to take birth control just because you are traveling. Plenty of women (ahem — most women) have periods every month, in every country of the world. There are options.

If you do decide to start taking birth control, you should probably start long before you leave to make sure it works well with your body.

 

[Cover photo: Orchid from the Orchid Festival in Concepción, Bolivia.]

Hair Removal and Travel

Am I Clean and Tidy?

What is the best way to shave your legs when you’re constantly traveling? There are several options for hair removal (be it armpits, legs, etc.), but when you’re caught in a flurry of flights, hostels, and public transport, some ways may be easier than others. The fact is: you can’t always expect to have a hot bathtub to leisurely shave your legs.

Waxing: This requires more money and an appointment. Unless you do it at home (I’ve never been so successful), in which case it requires the wax, strips, and often some way to heat the wax. For traveling, this is obviously not the ideal option since you may not know the language well enough to make an appointment along the way and you may not have your time (or money!) budgeted well enough to make an appointment. Additionally, you may not have room in your luggage for the waxing equipment and may not have an easy way to heat the wax.

Shaving: This doesn’t last as long as waxing and razors might cause a problem if you are flying without check luggage. Also, it can be a bit uncomfortable to do (razor burn!) if you don’t have hot water and shaving cream. That said, it is pretty easy to get razors almost anywhere and they are usually pretty cheap if you can live with the disposable ones. This is a good option, though still not an ideal one.

Epilation: About a year ago I bought an EpiLady epilator. It’s a small, battery-powered machine (about the size of two decks of cards) that contains lots of tiny tweezers in it. Essentially, it tweezes your hairs out at the root, providing a long-lasting shave. The best part about it though is that it can be taken anywhere, even on planes, and once you buy the machine you won’t need to buy anything else (no waxing strips or extra razor blades, etc.) However, it can take a long hour to get rid of all your unwanted hair and, the first few times at least, it hurts!

Permanent methods: Think– laser hair removal. I suspect that this is the best hair removal method of all. I have yet to try this, however, so I cannot say for sure. Admittedly, the price is extremely restrictive on this method especially since the process may need to be repeated more than once to get rid of all hair. However, the good news is that it is cheaper in some countries than others, which may make it more affordable depending on where you travel and for how long.

[Cover photo: Mirror at a museum in Cardiff, Wales.]

Thinking in a foreign language

The moment you will be able to really feel comfort in a foreign language is when you start to think in it. By that, I mean you start to use the language in automatic responses… you’re not translating in your head or searching a long time for words.

Once you can start thinking in the language, words will flow and you will start to feel like you understand the concept of ‘fluency’, even though you are not yet there. But there are a lot of misconceptions about this kind of ‘thought fluency.’

First of all, most people think you need a high level to be able to think in a language. This is wrong.

You do not need a high level to be able to think in a langauge.

In fact, think about what happens when you learn a new word in your native language. If I tell you that water is now called ‘su,’ you will have no problems integrating that word into your normal vocabularly. Immediately, you will be able to use the word — ‘Can I have some su?’ or ‘Are you thirsty? Do you want soda or su?’

The other big misconception is probably that you gain this fluency just by grammar and vocabulary study.

Grammar and vocabulary alone will never allow you to think in a foreign language.

You have to practice thinking in your target language if you ever want to be able to do it. I have met so many people who know tons of words and understand extremely well the grammar of a language, but unless you can think in the language, conversation is going to be difficult.

 

How to Start Thinking in a Foreign Language

1. Look around you

Whether you are in a room or walking outside or wherever you are, look around you.

2. Clear your head  of words

Actually, this is easy. When we look around we aren’t usually thinking ‘Hey, there’s a clock and there’s a chair…’ In fact, normally we aren’t saying anything to ourselves at all regarding our surroundings. If we are thinking something, we are either thinking about things that are not directly related to our surroundings or we are thinking in pictures or abstract concepts– but we are not saying words to ourselves. So try to look around without any words coming to your head at all.

3. Allow the target language to come out

Now, try to think (or better yet, say out loud!) whatever words you can in your target language about your surroundings.

It doesn’t matter if it’s not grammatically correct or if it’s not interesting. If all you can do is colors– that’s fine. Actually, I would suggest starting with colors. Just look around and let the color name come to you in the target language without thinking about the word in your native language.

If what comes to your mind isn’t related to your surroundings, say it anyways. Basically, you are verbalizing stream of concsiousness in a foreign language.
(‘Now I’m thinking in French, and I’m only going to think in French, and I see a thing but I’m not sure what it is in French but it’s blue, I like blue, but that thing isn’t blue, it’s black, I like black….’)

4. Don’t know it? Move on!

Face it– you don’t know what everything is in your native language either. Right now I’m sitting in a room with one of those things with beads on it used to count… an abacus? That’s not a word that comes easily to me!

The important thing is not to know any words but rather to use what you do know and to totally ignore and skip over what you don’t. Increasingly your vocabularly or grammar should be done in an actually study session. This activity is just about preparing your brain for fluid foreign thinking.

 

 

If you give this a try, let me know how it goes. If you have another trick that you use, please share that too!

[Cover photo: Paris, France.]

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