“My world view has been entirely shaken”

Isabel O’Brien, first year student in the Dual BA Programme between Sciences Po and Columbia University, has been awarded the 2018 Henri de Castries scholarshipBelow is an excerpt of her personal statement.

"My father lived in Oswego his whole life, as did his father, as did my great-grandfather before him. When I meet a stranger who has never heard of Oswego (and, to be frank, most people haven’t), the first way I describe my hometown is through numbers — 18,000 people, 300 inches of snow each winter, 25% of the population below the poverty line, and just one hour’s drive from the Canadian border.

Still, there are a lot of things that numbers don’t say. I can express that Oswego is small, but it’s hard to explain to outsiders the quietness of Oswego, and its stillness. I’ll state that Oswego is snowy, but I can’t explain the cyclicality of the seasons — the five-month winter, the muddy spring, the mild summer and ephemeral fall, which come and go each year eerily unchanging, just like they did the year before. I can claim that Oswego is poor, but it’s hard to explain the way that our one bookstore is always empty, but the bars which litter nearly every street corner are always full, no matter what day of the week it is.

At the age of eighteen, I got on a plane and bid Oswego goodbye. Unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t staying in Upstate New York, not even the tri-state area. I was heading to France.

To make an eighteen-year-long story short, my ‘‘academic interest,’’ or rather, my passion, is travel. Not just in the literal sense, with planes, trains, and automobiles, but travel through experience. Reading was the first type of travel I experienced, and I often wonder what could have happened to me had I not read as a child. I was always fascinated by something new, whether it be the French Revolution one month or Ancient China the next. I would devour books at what felt like the speed of light, being taken places that I could only dream of going to. 

And then I came to Sciences Po. Today, my best friends are from all over the world — from China to Colombia to, of course, France. The amount that I’ve learned from them in the past eight months is too much to describe in a 1,500-word essay. Nonetheless, my world view has been entirely shaken. The globe to me now is simultaneously both bigger and smaller than how I saw it less than a year ago.

I’ve met people from what feels like everywhere. I see their issues as more nuanced and complicated than I originally did. I see their struggles and their politics and know that, even if I study them my whole life, I will never truly understand it the way they do. Yet, I know there is an inherent similarity between us, and on campus it stretches beyond our obsessions with politics and social sciences. As a child, people who lived abroad were a fascination that I read about in books, incomprehensible and insurmountable in their differences from my own way of life. Now I see that, at the very core of it all, we have the same goals, the same fears. The world is complicated, diverse, and different, but at their very core, people are not."

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