Author: Emily Tarbet
I’m Emily, and I spent my 3rd year studying abroad at SciencesPo in Paris, France: and I can honestly say I had a life-changing experience. As a Law with French student, I also took the majority of my classes in French, and vastly improved my language skills as a result. Hopefully I can give some insight into what life studying abroad in Paris is like!
SciencesPo is great at encouraging integration. The university offers a Welcome Programme, costing 250 euros, running for about 10 days at the end of August before term starts. Groups of between 10 and 20 exchange students are put together, led by a 4th year French student, and get taken on tours of Paris and to social events and parties, as well as receiving French and methodology classes (which are really beneficial as the SciencesPo methodology is quite specific and very different to Glasgow). This allows you to meet some of the huge exchange student population at SciencesPo, from countries all over the world, but also gives you a French point of contact at the university if you ever have any questions throughout the year!
There are 5 main student bodies which each organise socials throughout the year (including galas in super fancy locations)! The sports and arts student bodies also run their own respective classes, which tend to cost between 50 and 100 euros per semester. These range from yoga to art history, and you can also get recognition for them on your transcript if your attendance is high enough. The International Students society also runs a buddy scheme, where you are partnered with a French student: a great opportunity to practice your French! Outwith the main student bodies there are also a vast range of other student associations you can get involved in, all of which are listed on SciencesPo’s website.
Tourism and travelling
Paris has a huge range of tourist activities and cultural attractions to visit – even in 10 months I didn’t see everything I wanted to! There are the obvious ones – the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe (the best view in Paris in my opinion!) but my other personal highlights include Sainte-Chappelle, the Musée Rodin, the flea markets and Atelier des Lumières. I also loved visiting the Palace of Versailles, and Disneyland Paris, each about an hours’ train away from the city centre.
A lot of Parisian tourist attractions are either free, or heavily reduced entry for students and EU citizens under 25. Travelling within the city is also pretty reasonable – the most cost-effective thing to do is buy an ImagineR student travel pass. It costs 350 euros for the entire year and allows you to travel at any time on all forms of public transport within Paris.
Eating and drinking out in Paris is very expensive – I was shocked in my first few days there to pay 14 euros for a toastie, and a further 5 euros for a soft drink! However, there are lots of cafes around SciencesPo that offer good student deals and you can find cheaper places if you stay away from the main tourist attractions.
There are very few negative aspects of Paris: expense is one, and the fact that it is full of tourists pretty much year-round is another. The biggest pitfall, however, is probably that you always have to keep an eye on your safety and security, as in any capital city. Be particularly careful around big tourist attractions and on public transport with your bags and pockets!
In terms of travel from Paris to the rest of the world, it would be hard to find another place with better travel links. There are flights to absolutely everywhere from Charles de Gaulle airport, and regular trains from the city centre to other major cities in France. You can also take the train to other European countries, like Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg. There are Easyjet flights back to Glasgow and Edinburgh every day, making it really easy to come home when you want to. All of these things are reasonably priced if you book them far enough in advance, but prices do hike up if you book last minute.
I found logistics fairly straightforward – I took 2 large suitcases and hand luggage with me to start with, brought another case out in November with winter jumpers etc. when it started to get colder. I did manage to get everything back into those cases when coming home, but it was definitely a much tighter squeeze second time round!
I stayed in The Student Hotel (essentially private halls) in La Défense, the business district of Paris just outside the city centre. It was really well located for shops and public transport, and a nice quiet area away from the hustle and bustle of the centre. It did take about 45 minutes to get to SciencesPo, but my commute is twice that when I’m at home so it felt like nothing to me! I had my own room and bathroom but shared a kitchen with 9 other international students. It was a very comfortable and secure place to stay, with lots of amenities, but it was also really expensive. It did remove the stress of trying to find an apartment, which I know to be challenging from hearing the experience of friends, but if that’s your preferred option you tend to find good offers on Erasmus Facebook groups. I recommend joining these as soon as you know where you’re going, whatever your destination!
I bought most of my homeware, kitchen utensils etc. from Flying Tiger, which was really cheap. I didn’t take out a French phone contract – instead I took out a contract in the UK with Tesco Mobile that allowed me to use my texts, calls and data in Europe at no extra cost before I went. However, be wary of this – Tesco didn’t advise me that they had a ‘fair usage policy’, under which I would start being charged extra if I used my data more abroad than I did at home for a prolonged period of time. I spent a lot of time complaining to Tesco about this and eventually got it sorted – but just be wary!
I did open a French bank account, but only because this was necessary to receive housing benefit from the French government (which you should definitely apply for). This was straightforward for me as lots of the student bodies at SciencesPo had partnerships with French banks near campus offering good deals, so I just picked one and went to the branch. They had a dedicated advisor there for SciencesPo students who spoke English (as did all the other consultants I spoke to), so if I was unsure about anything I could clarify easily, and opening the account was really straightforward.
Law with a language
As a Law and French student, I took all but one of my classes in French. This was undeniably difficult and an added academic challenge: as well as getting used to an entirely new way of teaching and learning complicated material, I had to do it in a second language. However, I was surprised by how quickly I did start to get used to it. I found lectures to be a good way of tracking my improvement: every week I would feel like I picked up a greater percentage of what the lecturer was saying, and I used textbooks and online resources to fill the gaps that I missed. I also met lots of students from other English-speaking countries that were studying in French in every class, so we could all help each other out!
My biggest tip for anyone studying abroad, but particularly law with language students, is to take language classes (if they are offered) whilst there. Not only are they a nice break from the more demanding law classes, but they let you go back over the grammar basics on a regular basis and even practice presenting and writing about some of your law topics in a more informal environment.
Practicing my language outside the academic context was surprisingly more difficult. In Paris, the vast majority of people speak very good English, and they don’t necessarily have a lot of patience for somebody trying to speak French and making lots of mistakes. Once people in shops, restaurants etc. heard my accent, or I made a grammar mistake that gave away the fact I wasn’t a native, they would often just automatically start speaking to me in English which was quite frustrating. It takes a lot of determination to push through that, but if you can your French will be much better for it. I found French students to be really willing to speak French with me, and just to help exchange students out in general, so take advantage of that!
In terms of specific information about SciencesPo, I would say it is a very unique institution. It’s very prestigious, so professors do expect a lot in terms of participation and original thinking, but you also get an excellent calibre of teaching, often by experts and practitioners in their field. SciencesPo teaches economics, international relations, history, law, sociology, political science and humanities, and so there are opportunities to take really unique courses in other fields of study that you wouldn’t get the chance to do at Glasgow. The method of teaching is also very interdisciplinary, so even in law classes you tend to find that threads of these other fields come into the course material.
There is a lot of continuous assessment at SciencesPo for tutorial-based classes which can take the form of oral presentations (which I was required to do in pretty much every course I took), written work or exams. The lecture component of lecture courses tends to be assessed by final written exams in December and May.
What do I wish I knew?
Finally, what do I wish someone had told me before I went abroad? I wish that it had been portrayed to me in a more realistic way. As much as it is a fantastic and life-changing experience there are also some incredibly hard moments, and I genuinely don’t recall anyone ever telling me how challenging it can be. It is so important when making such a big transition to take care of your mental health and not push yourself beyond your limits. You should absolutely take as many opportunities as you can and throw yourself into it, but also recognise when you should take a break. You don’t have to travel every weekend or be out every night: everybody’s experience is different and if your experience is different to the ‘typical’ image of study abroad that doesn’t make it any less special. You should do the things that make you happy, and make sure you’re getting what you want out of your experience without worrying about anyone else is doing!