Two Months of College Abroad: Confessions of a New Sciences Piste

Bonjour, y’all.  

I assume many of our amazing and loyal readers already know, but this August I moved from Sofia, Bulgaria – my home for my humble 19 years on this Earth – to Reims, France, which will accommodate moi for the next two and support me in my attempt to successfully graduate from a French higher education institution. So yes, croissants and other donations are accepted at any times.

Although I’ve been residing in the Champagne and King-Crowning capital for a mere two and a half months, the colorful student life at Sciences Po has already got me pondering about what the student experience could or should be like, whether we’re making the most out of it and how this totally new era in our lives will shape us.

During the week-long October break, I got some extra time to reflect on the first half of the first semester in Sciences Po (according to most sophomores – the hardest), while simultaneously getting an objectively deserved break from it. My first thoughts when trying to summarize the beginning of what feels like a new chapter of not only my ever-struggling academic career, but also of my life in general, were the following:

 “We partied a lot. Didn’t ever drink champagne. Yikes, French is hard. I never imagined that getting 10/20 could make me so happy.”

Yet, lately I’ve been thinking that, although in general I’ve been super happy living in France, I could find ways to be more efficient and get even closer to ‘making the most out of it’. Yes, yes, I know it’s early for New Year’s resolutions and adopting a new-year-new-me mentality mid-semester, but you know what – pourquoi pas? 

Overcoming Fear of Missing Out

So the first objective would be to actually get over that integration week mindset that one should attend absolutely everything: every party and social function, join every association, or otherwise you’d be severely missing out. Might be just me, but upon arriving in Reims, the poor naive two-months-ago version of myself might have actually thought that time traveling and being at two places at a time existed in college. 

Basically, what I’ve come to realize is that early student life is beaming with interesting events, it’s easy to make friends and that’s amazing, but if at some point you start feeling guilty for not attending or participating in an event (because there’s always something happening), then that in a way sabotages all those cool opportunities. Not to say watching Netflix every minute when not studying is a better option, but not being too hard on yourself if you don’t go out every night might be. 

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Teaching Yourself a Subject

The second thing I realized is that although people, often rightfully, complain about the quality of the education they’re getting even in a renowned school like Sciences Po (hi there l’élite de la nation), you still have endless opportunities to learn stuff that are actually interesting. Yes, some lectures are chaotic or boring or confusing, but hey, I for one need to remind myself on a daily basis that I spent my last 8 years in a math school and I was dreaming of somebody taking history, sociology or philosophy seriously. Now I have this, and although it’s not perfect, at least it’s legitimized and people are all interested in social sciences. 

I think this could be valid in a broader sense – most people go to college because they’re genuinely interested in their subject of choice, and even if you end up having a lecturer who just reads his notes monotonously for two hours, chances are, it’s still at least partially connected to what you care about. Plus, we have all these books in the library and smart French kids who talk about politics so that was a quick self-reminder that although studying political science sometimes equals studying the art of bullshitting, don’t be lazy, Krisi, learn something – get your money’s worth. 

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Yes, I am aware how cliché this one may sound, but there’s something to be said about how starting university at a new place in a new country for a lot of us is already such a big jump out of the well-established borders of your comfort zone; however, it is relatively easy to fall into a new comfy routine and not hold up to all the pre-college promises. I’ve heard people say how they told themselves they’ll really be unapologetically themselves in college or many other admirable goals and honestly, nothing but wild respect if you feel like you’re getting there. 

My pre-college resolution, as far as I remember, was to do adopt a really do-whatever-you-want-text-the-guy-first mentality and be bold, yet the other day at the library, I asked a friend to go to the restroom with me because I didn’t want to pass by everybody walking on my own. But once you think about it retrospectively and you realise that for instance even though X months could have passed in which you’ve been conveniently postponing making those changes, you could still get back on track. That being said – the rest of the semester, here I come!

Livin’ in a material Sciences Po world and I am a material Sciences Po girl

The last of my semi broad semi private advice would be to sometimes take the time and truly get out of the college bubble. It doesn’t mean that the bubble isn’t a happy place, but the thing with Sciences Po is (and I’m betting it’s not only my university) that it swallows you into its particular self-centred universe where everything, for better or worse, moves on its orbit – you talk, party, eat and breathe ScPo. Days could pass and there might be a wild and loud festival in the center of the city, but I wouldn’t know because I live literally in front of the campus and almost all of my friends live within 7 to 10 minutes of that area. It’s definitely convenient and it makes things easier, but sometimes it gets to the point where you don’t know anything else that’s going on. 

For me, going to study in a quiet salon de thé instead of the overcrowded library from time to time was very therapeutic. Speaking to the place’s owner isn’t like being completely integrated into the Reimois community, but it’s something. And another thing: starting a job outside of campus can always be a good way not only to make some extra money, but also to actually feel as if you’re living in a real city and not just on a campus. Say hello to your new Opera de Reims usher! 

And finally, the last thing I associate with the bubble (or the getting out of the bubble) is that when I was applying to Sciences Po, I was reading a multitude of media outlets for at least 30 minutes a day – Bulgarian, French, U.S. news and more, to prepare for the oral exam. Contrary to my expectations, ever since I actually became a student here, I read way less news. It’s true that in college you have way more work, but still I intend on starting to read the news every morning for at least 15 minutes, because lately the only news outlet has been the Sciences Po Facebook group where associations spam events information – so not too sophisticated, I know. Although the Sciences Po Institute for Shitposting for Bourgeois Teens memes are good.

All in all, during the break, as I got to visit friends outside of France and discuss with them our college experiences – some of whom just starting and others living abroad for more than 4 years, I got inspired to actually be aware of how I spend my time here. Those past two months passed so quickly that they made me think ‘Hey, before I know it, it will be over’. 

So to get back to my initial thoughts, I shared: We partied a lot. Didn’t ever drink champagne. Yikes, French is hard. I never imagined that getting 10/20 could make me so happy. What I would try to do from now on  is to find that balance between going out, but not just for the sake of going out, studying and reading outside of class, staying engaged in the campus life, but also getting out in the city and being informed about news beyond the college newspaper, and generally just be happy. Oh yes, and start drinking champagne!

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The Art of Selling Yourself, Or My Career Dilemma

Hello potential and future employers, nothing to see here. Please direct yourselves to the nearest exit.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to fill out a survey for my upcoming “Brands as Disruptors in Creative Industries” class. Wow, those are a lot of buzzwords in one title. But I guess it makes sense, since, as I would come to find out, the one and only educational framework of this class was “how to use fancy buzzwords and stylish logos to fabricate a fake brand identity”. But more on that later.

The survey our teachers sent us was essentially asking us to list our favorite brands (everyone loves Netflix these days, surprisingly to no one) and our least favorite ones (what do you know, people aren’t big fans of Facebook and the Zucc stealing their data). But the last question really struck a chord: “Do you think a person can be a brand? If yes, give examples.”

Obviously, if they’re asking for examples, then the answer must be yes, my college-educated, eager-to-please conformist self thought to herself. So, the academic research genius that I was, I listed the three first names that pop up when you type “can people be brands” on Google: Oprah, Steve Jobs, Kim Kardashian. It was only about a month later, when I was starting to apply for internships and work/study contracts (the infamous “alternance”) that I realized I had forgotten to put one obvious name in the list of person-brands: me.

Wait, was I supposed to have an identity?

It all started with a meeting I had with my academic advisor, during which she was supposed to give me guidance and advice on how to find internships. She asked me what I wanted to do and what my “dream job” was. “Marketing director for a progressive digital media company”, I answered without hesitation, even though this was less of a dream job and more of a “dream compromise”, a way to reconcile my passion for journalism and media with my equally strong passion for getting paid a living wage.

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Anyway, the quick “dreaming for cynicists” sesh was followed by an admittedly useful CV boosting workshop and then, the question I had feared all along: “So, what are your hobbies outside of school? What are the things that define your identity and that would make your profile stand out to employers amidst an ocean of aspiring digital marketers?”

Boom! Just like that, the Pandora box of years’ worth of insecurities and illegitimacy fears was opened. What was my identity outside of school? Did I really have one? Does blogging count as a distinctive hobby if everyone else is doing it these days? Do feminism or environmentalism count as real convictions if you don’t have a Twitter account entirely dedicated to that? What good is swing dancing if you’re only doing it for fun and haven’t won any awards?

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Those are just some of the implicit questions that my academic advisor raised in what was, I hope, a well-meaning effort to help me valorize my strengths and render my CV more unique. But rather than making me question the utility of all my life choices and time spent in the last four and more years, I think she had another objective in mind: to help me craft my own personal brand.

“You have a lot of interests and that’s good”, my advisor told me. “Now you need to streamline them and caricaturize your online identity”.

Fake it till you fake it

After all, it didn’t really matter to potential employers what I thought about climate change or what kind of books I read, if it wasn’t somehow incorporated into the oversimplified crash-course image of myself that I’m giving them in the form of an A4 piece of paper and a bunch of hyperlinks to my social media profiles. “You have a lot of interests and that’s good”, my advisor told me. “Now you need to streamline them and caricaturize your online identity”.

High-passion

And that, I did. I changed my Twitter cover photo to a Michelle Obama quote about female empowerment. I picked up my zero waste Instagram again. I color-coordinated all my accounts. I put more storytelling and design efforts into my work portfolio than I’ve ever put into any of my actual work.

I just slightly adapted the image of myself that I was going to present to the requirements of the job. Isn’t this precisely what marketing is, anyway?

But I didn’t just stop there. Enter the shapeshifting: I started changing up certain parts of my CV and portfolio according to the job and company I was applying for. If it was an offer for a marketing analytics position in a more tech-oriented company, I’d focus on how “data-driven” I was and reference my (quite disputable) programming skills. If it was content marketing or a position at a media company, I’d highlight my writing skills and my experience working in the industry.

It wasn’t the cherry-picking of “relevant qualities” in itself that bothered me that much. It was how well it seemed to be working. Less than a month later, I had already landed an exciting marketing internship at a leading data software startup. I felt proud and accomplished. After all, why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I actually lied on my CV or on my interview (and don’t we all lie just a little bit?). I just slightly adapted the image of myself that I was going to present to the requirements of the job. Isn’t this precisely what marketing is, anyway?

Okay Google, can I be a marketing person with true convictions, oh, and also make money?

Ironically, my apparent mastering of the tools of my aspired professional field and my subsequent success led to my realization of its hollowness. Yes, crafting and successfully selling a curated brand image of myself was a useful exercise that my “Brands as Disruptors…” professors would be proud of. Certainly, it required resourcefulness and creativity and most of all, I had fun doing it.

But in the end, what was its purpose? Retweeting more articles about gender discrimination or posting more photos of my reusable coffee cup didn’t get me more involved in any of those movements. It sure made me want to get more involved, but I was too busy picking the right insta filters. Marketing may be a fun and creative way to communicate powerful messages (or powerful cat food ads, depending on your industry and your way of looking at it), but ultimately it doesn’t have any other proper value than the one you’re creating for the shareholders.

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This professional nihilism may seem strange coming from someone who just got a great job offer from a great company that is hailed all over the internet for its quality products and services, good values and healthy corporate culture. And the fact is, I am very excited and looking forward to working there. Almost as excited as I am about getting paid and *almost*being able to afford living in Paris!

For the time being, my decision to work in marketing seems a strategically good one considering my living situation, my skills set and my aspirations. In the long term though, I’m not sure if I want my lasting “brand” to be that of the eccentric corporate exec who talks about class struggle and CO2 emissions while driving her Tesla and sipping on her 7-euro soy latte in her reusable coffee cup. Or do I?

As always, thanks for listening to my TED talk.

Featured photo by Kalina Yankova

Is my yogurt obsession killing our planet? My environmental dilemma

I was supposed to write about my trip to Greece this week. As summer seems to be finally coming to an end in Paris, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit that hot week in August on the Greek mainland, with its long sandy beaches, the mystical aura of Mount Olympus, the shameless overeating at mezze restaurants, the Greek yogurt in the mornings…

Ah, yogurt. The jewel in the crown of dairy products, my Balkan pride, my everyday necessity. Not to brag, but in my many various encounters with the magical white creamy texture that has come to be easily my favorite flavor in the world, I have distinguished myself as a sort of “yogurt connoisseur”. I can tell you for a fact that mainstream French yogurt sucks (come get me, Danone, I’m not afraid) and your only chance of finding anything remotely eatable is if you go for that bougie four-euro yaourt fermier. Similarly, Russian yogurt is not to be trusted: if it looks like yogurt, spells “yogurt” and is in the yogurt section in the supermarket, it’s probably still sour cream, because Russians don’t seem to understand how flavor and seasoning work. Or truth, for that matter, but that’s a topic for another post.

Surprisingly, Greek yogurt is also not my favorite one, and not just because they monopolized the global market demand for “authenticity”. While it may be the most popular healthy snack that every American lifestyle vlogger would swear upon as the best thing for your diet, Greek yogurt actually has a lot more fat and calories than the traditional Bulgarian one. When it comes to my favorite type of food, I remain a nationalist to the core (although, after my trip to Istanbul, I had to reluctantly give Turkish yogurt the honorable second place).

 

 

The road to environmental hell is paved with good intentions

After this lengthy exposition of my dairy snobbishness, I can finally talk about the real topic and raison d’être of this whole article: sustainability. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about sustainable development, primarily in the context of environmental issues, but what does sustainable really mean? If we have to really simplify it, a sustainable society is one that can produce everything it needs in the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

If sustainable development was a subject in school, humanity would be that one kid who doesn’t even try to pretend to give a damn, because his daddy is the main sponsor of the school. Except, he doesn’t know or doesn’t care to know that daddy’s resources are running out, and so is the principle’s patience with his BS. In other words, our consumerist society is not living or even trying to live within the environmental limits of our planet and this is all now coming back to bite us in the form of climate change and pollution.

All of this is not to say that I am not part of this consumerist society, of that spoiled kid who is not willing to give up the privileges that he grew up with and that he has today for the sake of tomorrow. Growing up in Bulgaria, being an environmentalist was not even a thing. We mocked vegans, because we thought their only reasoning was that “animals are our friends” and that eating kebabcheta is evil. No one ever talked about the environmental implications of animal agriculture and I never thought to Google it.

 

 

I did have a slight eco-friendly phase towards the end of high school, when recycling containers started to appear on every street corner in Sofia. By that time, I had already started to embrace “progressive ideas” and thought that recycling would fit my ideological image well. I tried to convince my parents to recycle our trash, without success. They didn’t want to have three separate trash cans in the house, it was annoying and too much work. Later on, I tried to convince them to bring their own bags, instead of getting new plastic ones every time they go grocery shopping. Again, it was annoying and too much work. I contented myself with an “oh, well, at least I tried”, even though I didn’t try to recycle myself or offer to do the shopping, and I kept buying coffee in single-use plastic cups from the school cafeteria every single day.

 

My carbon footprint in a nutshell yogurt jar

But what does this all have to do with yogurt? Well, for starters, yogurt usually comes in a plastic packaging. Even after I moved to France and started recycling, occasionally bought food from local organic farming (only occasionally though, since I am on a student budget) and even became what I call a “forced quasi-vegetarian” (again, student budget), I never really considered the environmental impact of my beloved breakfast.

Oh, how I wish it was only the plastic packaging. I already made a promise to myself to go back to buying the expensive the yaourt fermier from “La Ruche Qui Dit Oui”, which comes in glass jars that you can return to the farmers for reuse when you pick up your next order. But the big elephant in the room that I have been ignoring is that yogurt, much like the meat that I pride myself on reducing to twice a month, comes from animal agriculture. Or, in other words, my everyday breakfast, afternoon and evening snack comes directly from the industry responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gases and one third of our fresh water withdrawal.

 

 

Yogurtspiracy, or why we can’t have nice things

It’s weird that even after I started becoming aware of the livestock production’s environmental impact, I ignored how my daily hyperconsumption of yogurt was a part of that. I felt guilty for eating meat, so I tried to limit myself to eating it only occasionally, and mostly chicken, since its carbon footprint is significantly lower than that of beef or pork. I could even imagine giving up on meat altogether one day, if I become more directly involved in the environmentalist cause and need to set an example (or if things really go to shit and we’re faced with impending environmental disaster, but like, we’ll all have to give up way more than that in this scenario). I already avoid other dairy products like milk and cheese, not so much for ecological reasons, but simply because cheese is a mortal sin if you’re trying not to gain weight in France. But giving up on my yogurt???

 

 

This was my personal ethical dilemma while watching “Cowspiracy” the other night instead of studying for my midterms. I still don’t have an answer. Will I eventually give up meat and all other dairy products and cut my carbon emissions in every other possible way, so that I can have yogurt as my one guilty pleasure? Will I try to gradually switch to vegan yogurt, even though I know it will never be the same? Or maybe goat milk-based yogurt, since goats are a more sustainable livestock? Will I just accept that my individual environmental impact is insignificant and if I’m not willing to give up on one treat, I probably won’t become a powerful advocate for environmentalist action either, so I should just go back to writing my feminist articles?

The truth is, I don’t know. For now, I’ll try to switch to an 80% plant-based diet with a little dairy and meat (essentially my diet now, but with one third of my current yogurt consumption), try to shop all-organic, adopt a zero waste mindset and most of all, go back to studying for my midterms, cause if I want to make a change in this world, apparently I need to know how to draw a cash flow chart first. Thanks for listening to my TED talk.