"Equal opportunities must also be territorial"
- Salomé Berlioux © Thomas Arrivé
A native of the Allier region (centre of France), Salomé Berlioux fought a long battle against self-censorship before graduating from the School of Public Affairs at Sciences Po. In 2016, she began the fight on a large scale by founding the Chemins d'Avenirs association, which today helps 1,000 young people from rural areas and small towns to overcome the obstacles hindering their ambitions. Interview with a determined alumna.
You come from a rural area, far away from the elitist sectors and the codes that go with them? What was your educational background?
Salomé Berlioux: I grew up in the Allier region and took my baccalaureate in Nevers, in the Nièvre region. At the time, my philosophy teacher advised me to only aim for preparatory classes in Clermont-Ferrand or Dijon. I was very attached to Allier, but I also wanted to discover other horizons. I applied to Paris. I was lucky enough to join a literary preparatory class at the Fénelon high school. I studied literature for five years, including the master's degree De la Renaissance aux Lumières ("From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment") offered by Ecole Normale Supérieure and Sorbonne University. It was later, thanks to Sciences Po, that I understood that I could open myself up to many other paths.
How did you discover Sciences Po?
Salomé Berlioux: I heard about it a few weeks before the baccalaureate, far too late to prepare myself, even though I was immediately attracted to the school. A few years later, eligible for the master's degree, I missed the oral admission exam. It must be said that I had absolutely no mastery of the codes that allowed me to shine there. I took my chance and finally entered the School of Public Affairs. Sciences Po is a school to which I owe a lot: I finally felt that the doors were opening to a future that was less determined by my geographical origins. I lived with my grandparents and, as a scholarship student, I paid no tuition fees: nothing would have been possible without it.
When and how did you become interested in young people in rural areas and the obstacles they face?
Salomé Berlioux: During my studies, I taught high school students who also wanted to join Sciences Po. Year after year, it became clear to me that young people from rural areas worked just as hard as others, but failed more often than their urban peers. This was the case at Sciences Po, but also, more broadly, in other selective fields of study. My individual case had a collective resonance. It must be said that 23% of under 20 year olds grow up in rural areas, and 42% in small towns, for example, Moulins, Verdun, Charleville-Mézières... The majority of these young people are full of potential, but face many obstacles and for a long time were left out of public policies.
In 2016, you founded the association "Chemins d'Avenirs" to help young people in rural areas break down these obstacles. The association now has 12 employees and supports a thousand young people throughout France. What is the originality of your action?
Salomé Berlioux: Since the public authorities did not offer any specific schemes for young people living far from large cities, it was up to civil society to take action! We were the first organisation to support young people in rural areas, regardless of their school results and whatever their ambitions: whether they wanted to become a diplomat, a craftsman, an engineer or a farmer. The imperative is not to send them all to Grandes Ecoles, but to allow them to be free to realise their potential. Today, this is far from being the case. These young people are often constrained to stay home for economic or psychological reasons, with fewer cultural, academic or professional opportunities close to home and fewer "role models" to identify with. Their range of possibilities is reduced, from the outset, whereas their geographical origins could represent a real asset. Our mission is to accompany them to achieve their career goals, but also, on a larger scale, to forge links between territories, generations and professions, for the benefit of national cohesion.
Testimonials of participants in Chemins d'Avenirs (in French):
Salomé Berlioux: We cater to all profiles, from junior high school through high school. The only criterion for joining the association is to be motivated. In fact, the majority of the young people who apply to join us are students with an average age of between 8 and 13, whom nobody seems to bet on... and yet they can go very far, in addition to students who have dropped out of school or, on the contrary, who are excellent students. The association meticulously tackles the chain of obstacles that limits their aspirations, by fighting against the lack of information and self-censorship bias, but also by proposing concrete solutions in the field. Together with the Ministry of National Education and our private partners, we have thus built a method of self-knowledge for our mentees. Sponsorship is another pillar of our action, based on the mentoring model which has proved its worth in other areas. We also offer themed training courses for young people and additional opportunities for our beneficiaries (internships, scholarships, empowerment workshops, meetings with professionals). Our aim is not to reinvent everything, but to build an ecosystem of success. We rely above all on common sense and pragmatism, measuring our impact every year using qualitative and quantitative indicators of success.
Do you have examples of simple actions that open up possibilities?
Salomé Berlioux: Let's take the example of the admission oral exams. In this area, information is the lifeblood. All you have to do is explain to young people in rural areas how these oral exams work, and what they are expected to do. It's obvious, these pupils are no less intelligent than the others! But if they are not given the keys, they remain passive during these interviews. We help candidates from isolated territories to become proactive during their oral examinations. We help them to get internships and to have associative commitments that will say a lot about their personality. But in my opinion, we need to go further, by making the territorial criterion part of the social opening approach of the Grandes Ecoles and selective courses. Similarly, companies would benefit from changing their definition of diversity by integrating the territorial dimension.
Where is the association today and what are your objectives for the future?
Salomé Berlioux: Today the association supports 1,000 young people, with 1,000 mentors throughout the territory and local and national partnerships. We are now going to intensify the work in our 8 partner academies before continuing our growth and also increase our economic independence. At the same time, we are stepping up our advocacy work. By 2023, Chemins d'Avenirs will have individually accompanied 3,000 young people. Internally, the question is that of our systemic impact and the levers of transformation that we can use. But it is also up to policy makers to take up the issue, in order to reach the young people concerned on a massive scale. We need to move up a gear. I am hopeful.
Do you have any suggestions for more effective public policies in this area?
Salomé Berlioux: With the associations of the Collectif Mentorat, we have been working for almost a year to ensure that our combined experiences lead to a national mentoring programme, supported by the state. Mentoring is a real lever for social advancement and self-actualization, in which we firmly believe and which produces quantifiable results. The challenge today is that every young person who needs it should be accompanied by a professional from the public or private sector and should be able to move forward with confidence in building his or her career path. This would be a fantastic signal to work against the territorial and social fractures of the post-health crisis and a sign of hope for national cohesion.
Article originally published by Sciences Po's editorial team.
- About Salomé Berlioux: With a Master's degree in Public affairs from Sciences Po, Salomé Berlioux has worked in a strategic communications consultancy and in ministerial cabinets, notably at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She is the founder and managing director of the association Chemins d'Avenirs. She is co-author of Les Invisibles de la République (with Erkki Maillard, éditions Robert Laffont, January 2019). She was commissioned by the Minister of National Education and Youth on the theme of "Guidance and equal opportunities in France's rural areas and small towns'' and submitted her report last March. Her new essay « Nos campagnes suspendues – La France périphérique face à la crise » was been published in October 2020 by L'Observatoire.
- On the association Chemins d'Avenirs