"Asia is where the 21st century is happening!"

"Asia is where the 21st century is happening!"

Interview with Florent Bonaventure, director of the Le Havre campus
  • Florent Bonaventure, Collégiades 2017 ©Sciences PoFlorent Bonaventure, Collégiades 2017 ©Sciences Po

Florent Bonaventure, director of the Le Havre campus since 2013, is as fascinated by Asia as his students in the Europe-Asia programme. This committed, enthusiastic 36-year old history lecturer does his utmost to ensure his students can have a fulfilling student life as well as a first-class education.

“Africa and the Middle East are quite well-known in France, but we know very little about Asia. There are too few French researchers working on Asia, but that's where the 21st century is happening!” Seated in a cafe near Sciences Po’s Paris campus, with all the ease of a regular, Florent Bonaventure waxed lyrical about Asia. 

The current director of the Le Havre campus graduated from Sciences Po in 2004 with a degree in International Relations and from the University of Nanterre in 2005 with the agrégation in history. He first turned to Africa, with an internship at an NGO in Madagascar, before going to Yale on an academic exchange. Following a few years of teaching, he became the first director of Sciences Po’s Europe-Africa programme in 2011.

After two years developing the programme, in 2013 he took over from Delphine Grouès—who had been appointed director of studies and pedagogical innovation at Sciences Po—as director of the Le Havre campus, a position of a completely different scale. “In Le Havre, besides taking care of students, I also have to meet businesses, maintain good relations with local authorities, etc.” With all these other tasks, it was not as easy to stay as close to the students as he would have liked.

Meeting students' expectations

“We’ve hit our stride now,” he said proudly, adjusting his ever-present tie. “In four years, we've gone from 90 students per cohort to 140 and from three dual degrees to seven.” This young specialist of American history has worked hard to understand a continent that he actually knew fairly little about. “I've read a lot and I started Chinese classes, although I haven't had time to keep them up,” he said. “I also took a course in Japanese culture and etiquette, which has served me well on certain trips."

The students on the Le Havre campus appreciate his efforts, affectionately calling him “Bonav”. “He was very active right from the start, with new ideas and projects for the campus that he encouraged groups and associations to participate in,” said Marie Kenza Yousri, a student on the dual-degree programme with Keio University, Japan. “And even during our third year [abroad], he’s keen to have dinner with students from Le Havre on an internship or exchange in the countries he visits, so he can ask about their impressions.”

On his first business trip to Singapore, the new director quickly realised he had his work cut out for him. “I was working from 7am to 11pm,” he recalled. “I learned a lot in those few days.” He spends about three weeks in Asia each year, between Hong Kong, a city whose bustle he loves, India, Japan and many other countries; these trips give him the chance to understand more about the cultures and backgrounds of his students.

“In countries like India or Singapore, for example, where the school system is very competitive, the students who want to come to Sciences Po are particularly bright,” he said. “We have to make sure we live up to their expectations.” Bonaventure continues to teach history to stay in touch with the students. Despite a few disparities in level, he sees nothing insurmountable: “They all arrive with difficulties in some area, which ends up fostering mutual support. The students work hard and are quick to get up to speed.”

Avtansh Behal, a student at Le Havre who is about to leave for London for his third undergraduate year, remembers going through some difficult moments where such mutual support was precious. “Talking among friends about our problems with the various languages we were learning was quite interesting, but mainly very reassuring because we felt we were not the only ones having trouble.”

Encouraging involvement in non-profits, sports and the arts

Studying at the Sciences Po Undergraduate College requires a lot of investment and hard work. Bonaventure is aware of this, and makes sure that students’ daily life is not all study. “I try to see to it that they don't just stay in their bubble; that they get out and discover France,” he explained.

Thanks to the Student Office, Arts Bureau, Sports Association and a public-speaking club, student life is a real feature of the Norman campus. The year is punctuated with cultural events, such as the Indian festival of Diwali, when the campus is bedecked with colour.

Another highlight of student life is the annual Collégiades, when students from all seven Sciences Po campuses get together for a big artistic and sports tournament. Bonaventure wouldn't miss it for the world; he loves to watch his students perform and compete. “Seeing him cheering us on every year galvanizes us, and I was amazed at how much he knew about everything, even about our campus music team!” said Aditya Bhattacharya, an Indian student who has just completed her two years in Le Havre.

Outside class time and off campus, students take part in group projects such as screening Asian films at the Le Havre prison, and even organising sailing regattas for the most venturesome.

Continually diversifying the campus community

“In my view, the campus in Le Havre is the most culturally enriching of the Sciences Po campuses. It really is a place where the world meets!” said Linda Xu, a Le Havre student in the dual Bachelor’s degree programme between Sciences Po and the University of British Columbia.

With 40% of students coming from Asia, 40% from France, and 20% from the rest of the world, the Le Havre campus stands out for its multiculturalism, at which its director still marvels. “This campus is one of the few places where mainland Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, Taiwanese and Chinese Americans can meet at the age of 17 or 18,” he said. Yet the former head of the Europe-Africa programme would like to see more students from across the Mediterranean coming to discover Asia, and vice versa. “We have a young Nigerian on campus, who is particularly interested in China,” he explained. "When you see that China is active everywhere on the African continent, and when you observe Japan's influence on many countries, you think: that guy's got the right idea!”

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