In this Q&A, we interview Alexis Cheney, an American student in the first year of a dual Master’s degree programme between Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She shares her experiences taking virtual classes and studying in Paris during a lockdown.
Why did you choose the PSIA dual degree programme with Columbia? What is your Master’s and concentration?
Alexis Cheney: Where to begin! I was considering six different international affairs graduate programs, but this one was my first choice for many reasons. It offers the opportunity to experience both European and American academic systems, study international affairs through European and American lenses, and access the multitude of resources of two top-tier universities (their faculty, students, library collections, career centers, conferences, alumni networks, etc.). Also, of all the international affairs programs I considered, no other programs offered the possibility to study so many subjects of interest within just two years. I am pursuing both a Master in International Public Management (at PSIA) and a Master in Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy (at SIPA). Plus, both universities offer the opportunity to concentrate in communications, which has been a longstanding interest of mine. Lastly, not only do I love the cultural richness of Paris and New York City, the program opens doors to career opportunities in both Europe and the United States.
You worked for several years between undergraduate and graduate studies, what is it like being a student again?
AC: I’m not going to lie, it has certainly been an adjustment! I worked for two years as a paralegal within the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. and then two years as a Project Manager within a marketing agency in Paris. On the one hand, I have enjoyed being a student again since I am my own boss in a sense. On the other hand, I do miss having evenings and weekends free. All in all, though, I don’t feel at a disadvantage for having taken time off between my studies. In fact, the skills I learned in professional settings such as teamwork and project management have actually been quite useful when collaborating with classmates on group projects, of which we have many!
How was your integration as an international student in your programme?
AC: Since 70% of students at PSIA come from countries outside of France, I was in good company! At the beginning of the academic year, each school hosts an inaugural lecture. The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court delivered the address for PSIA, which was an exciting way to start the year. Also, before classes start each semester, PSIA offers students the chance to participate in an intensive French program, which is a great way to learn the language or improve your level, if necessary. I will be taking an advanced French course on French heritage in January before the start of second semester. Although speaking French isn’t essential since classes at PSIA are in English, it can be helpful for navigating Paris. Also, students may choose to partake in a buddy program and get paired with a second year Sciences Po student to help get acclimated. I got paired with a French student in the law school who kindly offered to answer any questions and grab coffee. Lastly, I’m looking forward to Welcome Back Week in January, which includes the Youth & Leaders Summit, orientation sessions, and a meet and greet with classmates.
What was the highlight of your first semester?
AC: If I am completely honest, in the context of the current health crisis, I have to say that it was being able to spend time with classmates in person. Over fall break, I had sent a message to students in my master’s program to see if anyone would be interested in going hiking for a few days. A few classmates responded so we organized a trip to the Château de Fontainebleau and its surrounding forest (see picture above). The castle is only an hour away from Paris by train. It was really nice to take a break from technology, to spend time with classmates in real life, and to walk in nature. We’re now planning our next getaway in Brittany!
Your classes were virtual in the fall. How did professors and classmates make virtual learning manageable?
AC: Students and professors got creative and used tools such as Wooclap to make sure that classes remained interactive. In my International History of Economic Policy class with Professor Rostowski, the former Finance Minister of Poland, for example, students organized separate Zoom calls in small groups to discuss the material and get to know each other. We even organized in-person “watch parties” for larger lectures, complete with French pastries of course. Professors also continued to host virtual office hours, which were very helpful, and a nice way to better learn the subject matter and meet each other in a less formal setting than the Zoom classroom.
How does your experience of PSIA compare to your expectations?
AC: Before starting the Master’s, I had heard that the French education system tends to be more hands-off than the American one so I anticipated that it would be difficult to get in touch with professors and advisors. Fortunately, this hasn’t been my experience at all! My academic advising team, Mimi Maung-Trentin and Elvedina Cappelle have been eager to jump on Zoom calls for advising sessions and respond to emails quite quickly. I have also been able to benefit from one-on-one advising sessions with Véronique Jaffro, who is the career counselor dedicated specifically to PSIA. Plus, while writing a research paper for a course about gender equality, I even received assistance from a librarian to find resources in English and French related to my topic. In all, I have been pleasantly surprised by the support offered to students.
How did being a Sciences Po student affect your experience of the October lockdown?
AC: I was fortunate to have found a comfortable and affordable apartment via the Sciences Po housing website and a roommate through a PSIA Facebook group. When my German roommate decided to return home for the lockdown, a friend and classmate from Hong Kong moved in. Although it was an intense period academically and in Paris overall, we ended up having a blast! We cooked up a storm (see the fruit of our labor), watched “The Crown,” and even played music together since she plays guitar and I sing. It also helped that the Sciences Po library remained open. Having a refuge outside the home during the day made a difference.
What was your favourite class?
AC: I really enjoyed Today’s Public Diplomacy with Professor Tomescu-Hatto. Even through Zoom, our class formed a strong community. Plus, the discussion itself was always lively and interesting. We discussed soft power, nation branding, and virtual diplomacy, among other topics. As luck would have it, I had applied for a summer internship within the public diplomacy division of the United States State Department in the fall. During the November interview, I mentioned the course and later received an offer!
What are you looking forward to next semester?
AC: I am looking forward to soaking up all that I can of Sciences Po and Paris during my last five months. I hope to attend the virtual PSIA events, attend more professor office hours, and visit Paris museum exhibits and restaurants once they reopen.
What do you hope to do after graduating from the dual degree programme?
AC: After graduating, I hope to work in the communications office of an international organization or non-profit, such as the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD and Sciences Po have a strong relationship so many students intern there or receive full-time offers after graduation. I will begin a communications internship within their Directorate of Education and Skills in January. I’d say that the dual degree program is already helping me reach my goals.