Ecole normale supérieure de Lyon
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The ENS de Lyon viewed by Sara Watson

Published on : February 10, 2016

Her experience at the ENS de Lyon as a graduate student from 2005 to 2010.

The ENS de Lyon viewed by Sara Watson
I came to the ENS when I was nineteen, a shy bookworm, not knowing what to expect. The university building was only a couple of years old, and there was an exciting sense of newness and opportunity at the school. During the first assembly, seated between an aspiring philosopher and a budding historian, I felt a bit intimidated, especially since the Dean was telling us how the next few years would very happy years, so you’d better enjoy them. But it is very hard to stay shy at the ENS. Contrary to most French universities, the Ecole has a campus with dorms, both on the science and humanities sites, which meant for us that we were immediately plunged into social life, as well as academic enrolment. You slip into activities when you live on a campus. Your flatmate is involved in the theatre club, so on a whim you join it too. A neighbour coaxes you into getting on the football team. The small scale of the school means it is impossible to miss whatever is going on, be it a photographic exhibition or a new play at the Kantor Theatre.

Unfortunately, there are downsides to this whole experience. First of all, you will be coddled. You may well be spoiled for life. You may well not realize that most universities do not have the time to encourage, push and nurture their students the way the ENS does. You come to take it for granted that your professors will know and care far more about you than you could expect. Another danger is the amazing access to so many transdisciplinary classes. During my first year I attended a Constitutional Law course which made me seriously reconsider my interest in American literature and turn to the dark side of history of ideas. During my third year at a Physics department event, I was shown experiments, watching laser-bright liquids shimmer in the dark lab, among other magic tricks, and sorrowfully wondered why I had mistaken my vocation. Being at university is learning how to choose among alternative versions of your life, and this is particularly true at the ENS, when you meet passionate people in so many different fields during the course of your studies.

A small university is not for everybody. You cannot easily disappear into inconspicuousness. You meet the same people at parties. It can be stifling, sometimes. But for many of us, those years of falling in love with ideas, and discovering wonderful roads to travel, were very happy indeed.

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