Of the 1600+ students at Sciences Po, about half are international. Yet, even with this high international population, some students find themselves as the only ones from their country.
Two of these students, Zimbabwean Chiedza Banga and Croatian Antonio Vrabec, both 1As, thought there would be another student in their year of the same nationality. Vrabec describes scrolling through a 1A WhatsApp group chat unsuccessful trying to find someone whose number had the same country code. Similarly, until she arrived on campus, Banga held some hope there would be at least one person of the same nationality as her.
“I assumed that there would be at least one or two other [Zimbabwewans]. I didn’t realize that there would be nobody else, especially because Sciences Po kind of markets itself as an international place,” Banga said. “I was somewhat surprised to see that I was the only one from my country. I’ve [already] lived in places where I was the only Zimbabwean around so it didn’t necessarily take away from my admission or me being here, but it was just a bit of a surprise at first.”
Japanese exchange student Yuma Asano adds to the sentiment saying “It still feels weird,” being the only person of Japanese ethnicity who grew up in Japan.
“I thought there’d be somebody else so it was a bit shocking coming here and realizing there’s almost nobody else. I knew there wouldn’t be many but the fact that nobody was from Japan was surprising,” Asano said.
While both Banga, Asano and Vrabec had previously been in places where they were the only ones of their nationality, it was 1A Hallelujah Gle from Laos’ first time. Like all of the other interviewed students, she wasn’t surprised that there was nobody else from Laos on campus but it was still “a bit surreal” for her.
“This is definitely the first time I’m not a part of the majority because I’ve only lived in Laos and been around other Laos my whole life. It definitely makes you feel a bit special,” Gle said. “When I introduce myself people are always like, ‘Oh, you’re the first person I’ve ever met from Laos!’ You get to be like a little tour guide. Sometimes, people don’t even know Laos so I’ll pull it up on a map and show them, it’s always fun. Since I live abroad now, I’m pretty sure that it’ll become something I’ll do a lot in my life.”
A particular feature of Laos culture that Gle misses is her country’s cuisine since it’s hard to find Lao ingredients or restaurants due to geographic distance. This statement is echoed by Asano and Filipino Czerina Garcia, an exchange student, who also cite other big differences caused by geographic distance.
“I would say that the culture shock here was the architecture. I’m used to big skyscrapers so seeing the old Gothic architecture here has been cool. Another one is that sometimes, Europeans will just say something and you give another Asian person a look that vindicates you. Like ‘you thought that was weird too right?’ I obviously have nothing against Europeans but it can be hard being here because Europeans are just so different from Filipinos and other Asians.”
Added on to the cultural challenges some students face comes the language barrier because, despite their strong linguistic skills, many still feel a desire to speak their native language. Even though 1A Paniz Banihashemi from Iran has spoken English since she was three years old, she still misses speaking her native language, Farsi, especially as she doesn’t speak French so can’t communicate with everybody around her.
“I feel sad [about] not being able to speak my native language but I feel closer to my culture because I’m [the only here from it,]” Banihashemi said. “I speak Farsi on the phone with my parents but I miss the way I would speak with friends back home. I’ve managed to find people who have ties to Iran and have connected to them but none of them speak Farsi well as they all grew up outside of Iran and don’t really participate in Persian culture.”
At first, 2A Mathilde Bergsaker from Norway faced a somewhat similar problem linguistically since she had difficulty switching to mostly thinking in English. But, having already been at Sciences Po for a year, she has gotten used to thinking in English to the point that speaking Norwegian now “feels slower in [her] head.” She still, however, makes an effort to speak her native language with the two other Norwegians on campus and with Swedish and Danish students who, due to the historical blending of the languages, can understand her.
“[The three Norwegian students] try to get together about once a month so we can talk and we do that with other Northern European students too. I understand like 70% of what [the Swedish and Danish students] are saying and it would definitely be easier to speak English. But, we make an effort [to speak our native languages] because it’s kind of like a pride thing,” Mathilde said.
Vrabec and Banga have also found communities related to the geographic regions they’re from. For Vabrec this has been the still forming Eastern European association Sciences Borsht. For Banga, it’s the African Students’ Association (ASPA). However, although she is very grateful for the association, she faces linguistic difficulties since she doesn’t speak French.
“Joining ASPA helped a lot. Most of [the members] come from Western [African] countries but it’s still nice to listen to Afro beats or introduce my country to people who are not too familiar with it. It does make me feel quite at ease to see people who are also the only ones from their country as there are many in the club,” Banga said. “But, while most of [the members] speak English, they are more comfortable in French since they’re from francophone countries. Most of the time, the conversations are in French so it does get a bit jarring. Sometimes, they’ll suddenly remember that I don’t speak French and we’ll speak in English. But, I don’t want to take away from how connected [they] feel to their culture when they’re speaking in French since the club is a safe space for everyone to be comfortable.”
Even with the multitude of clubs on campus, some cultures, such as Garcia’s, aren’t represented as there are so few students from her geographic area. So, as many of the other interviewees have done, she found friends from “all over the world,” specifically from the “strong and common-minded” exchange student community.
However, even though most of the students interviewed have had a largely positive experience, Banihashemi has found herself in unpleasant conversations about Iran.
“People talk about Iran all the time and it feels so weird to me because it’s very clear that their perspective of my country is a perspective they get from looking at the government and not the country as a whole. People have asked me my opinion on religion and oppression right after I say I’m Iranian but none of them ever ask me about my culture. It’s like when they see me as an Iranian woman, they only see the oppression that my country is facing, but we’re so much more than that,” Banihashemi said. “A lot of people assume my political and religious beliefs based on where I am from, and I understand why they do that. But, I find it a bit odd as they are almost always wrong and they don’t do it to people from other cultures. It would be like if I assumed every French person was Catholic: it’s a really immature and irresponsible comment to make.”
Similarly, exchange student Ali Jallad from Palestine has also been asked about his political views relating to his country and has had to defend himself from opposing ones.
“Palestinians are very vocal about the Palestinian culture and because of that we always connect. We’re in a unique situation where we kind of have to debate our existence and always advocate for it. [Since I’m the only Palestinian on campus,] the burden kind of fell on me to [defend my country] which was a big shock because usually, there’s a community behind you on this kind of stuff,” Jallad said. “I understand why people talk about it to me because it’s huge news. But, what I don’t appreciate is people coming up to me and trying to explain it to me, like I don’t know what’s happening, like my family isn’t affected by this. I’ve had a couple of people call me a terrorist and I’m not a fan of that. But overall, I think most people have just been respectful because they want to learn, they want to understand what’s happening.”
Despite this, Jallad, like the others interviewed, believes in sharing his love of his home country with others. This seems to unite all the interviewees including Vrabec.
“Being one of the only people from Croatia, I feel some pride and that I have to represent my country well and make them proud,” Vrabec said. “Sometimes it would be nice to get to speak my mother tongue, but coming here, meeting people who I thought I would never meet from parts of the world I only read about is very rewarding for me as a person.”