Bread, cheese, and engineering in France

Bonjour Olin community!

Je m'appelle Steven. I'm a junior from Michigan, studying Electrical and Computer Engineering here at Olin.

This semester (Spring 2011), I studied at Ecole Polytechnique, near Paris, France.

The image of Polytechnique to the French public are the uniformed students who march in the annual Bastille day parade, a 130 year tradition

Carol Kelly, Olin's wonderful study away coordinator, asked me a while ago to cross post my blog on Olin's student blog. But by the time we figured everything out, my semester at Polytechnique was over (I ended 1 April)!

So in this blog post, I'll tell you a bit about how I ended up at Polytechnique, why I'm still in Europe a month after my study away semester ended, and show a blurb from a blog post I wrote two months ago, when I was still at Polytechnique.

Why study away?

I knew I wanted to study away by fall of my sophomore year. I wanted to have a new experience and meet new people. Plus, I found Olin seniors generally enjoyed their last year at Olin more if they took a semester off or studied away. 4 years at Olin is awesome, but it's still good to take a break.

And where exactly to study away? All I knew was that I wanted to go to a non-English speaking school in Europe, to have as diverse a experience as possible.

Then one day I was playing soccer and saw Marc Sweetgall (Olin '10) wearing a "Ecole Polytechnique" t-shirt. I remembered my high school French teacher talked about how in France, one of the top schools was a quasi-military engineering school named Ecole Polytechnique.

I asked Marc about it, decided to apply, and voila! One year later I went from being in the newest engineering school in the U.S. to one of the oldest engineering schools in the world (1794).

Throughout my 3 months there, I've made great friends from around the world.

In this picture: 2 Portuguese, 1 Lebanese, 1 Italian, 2 Morroccans, 1 Vietnamese, and 2 Americans enjoying acorda, a traditonal Portuguese dish 

I've also had great experiences: playing with a professional orchestra (they don't use letters to name their notes), going to a fancy ball (a 120-year old tradition at Polytechnique), eating lots of different cheeses and bread, trying to learn quantum mechanics on my own, and of course.... traveling.

Since last week, I've been on a month-long counterclockwise tour of Western Europe. I'm currently in Vienna with Jeffrey Atkinson '12.

OK. Enough about traveling. You want to hear about an interesting cultural experience right? Here's something I wrote back in Feburary:

The world is flat... and trilingual

The world is flat...

And trilingual

The past 3 days, I've been hanging around Paris, doing the whole tourist thing (Louvre, Notre Dame,...) with some of my friends in PEI (Programme Echange International). I'm not going to talk about it, because it's nothing new. I'll talk about how international my experience in France has been.

X has several "types of students":
    Students in the " Cycle Ingenerie": this is the equivalent to US undergrad. People in this program have to do a one year of military/service, and are the ones who get to march down the Champs Elysée on Bastille Day. Of these students (500 in each class)
o   400 are native French
o   100 are international students
o   ~30 students are in PEI. This is the program I'm in.

    Master's students: these are students who are only here for 1 or 2 years, depending on what education system they come from. 

Most of the people who live on campus are the students in the first group. Most of the native French students leave campus on the weekends to be with family in/around Paris. This weekend though, 500 of them rented a train to go ski in the alps. Yes, a train! With a disco wagon (according to my sources). So, I've spent a lot of time with the only other students on campus: people in PEI.

Everyone speaks 3 languages, or more.

As I said earlier, everyone here speaks 3 languages or more (Native English-speaking peoples might be possible exception): their mother tongue, English, and French. Some of the PEI students I've met so far include people from:

·     Argentina, Cambodia, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan

Masters students I've met come from more countries, including:

·     Chile, China, India, Lebanon

Ah, you say, where are the Americans? Read on and find out...

"All my American friends speak Chinese"

A couple of us stopped by the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) in Paris to watch some of the other PEI students ice skating. I ended up meeting a guy named Ilya (for those of you francophones, note the irony). I was about to say, "Ah, so you're the other American I've been hearing about!", when he came up to me and started saying: "你好吗?我叫 Ilya". We then proceeded to have the whole conversation in Chinese. Ilya is actually Russian-American, but speaks Chinese + French. He's the only American I've met so far who goes to X in some form or fashion (for those who are curious, he's a New Yorker, from Columbia).

My friend Alexandre (the guy who cooked the sardines), joked with me: "All the Americans I know speak Chinese to each other, not English". Apparently the semester before, there was another Chinese-American, who only spoke Chinese with Ilya.

Dinner in English

On Saturday night, I walk into the kitchen to cook, to find everyone speaking English (all the PEIs usually speak French, unless they're trying to explain something complicated to me). I asked why. They told me there was a non-French speaker in our presence. So that's how I end up meeting Laura, American #2 for me, who was visiting her boyfriend, Théo, who studies here at X.

Alexandre (Portuguese), me, Theo (French), and Pedro (Portuguese)

Me: How did you two meet?

Théo: I was doing a research internship at MIT, in Boston

Laura: And I lived in the same house in Boston.


Me: Ah! I come from Boston too!

Laura + Theo: Actually, we saw your sweatshirt. We know a student from Olin, but you probably don't know him

Me: I bet I do.

Laura+ Theo: Matt Ritter* lived in the same house as us (Pika @ MIT).

Me: of course I know Matt Ritter! I had dinner in Pika a month ago!

*Matt Ritter is from the class of 2010/2011, depending on who you ask

Thanks to Carol Kelley for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences with all of you. 

I hope you enjoyed reading the post. If you want to read more, check out my blog.