Presentation of ENS Lyon
ENS Lyon is one of three French écoles normales supérieures. The other two are located in Paris and Cachan. The écoles normales supérieures accept students from the third year of undergraduate studies, which is called L3 in French. Most students are recruited from competitive entrance examinations called concours. Typically, they have spent the first two years of their undergraduate studies at so-called classes prépas or CPGE to prepare for these exams. As a result, the level of the students is high and the exams are challenging, especially as they are directed towards students who have intensively prepared the concours. This should not be underestimated and has to be taken into account when deciding whether to do an exchange year at ENS Lyon. However, I must emphasise that ENS Lyon provides a great environment if you are passionate about your subject. Almost all other students want to get into academic research or higher education. Spending a year abroad at ENS Lyon was a great opportunity for me, and I believe it has had a positive impact both on my academic and personal development.
There are two campuses, which are within roughly 10 minutes of walking distance between each other. The first one, called Monod, is located at 46 Allée d'Italie and is where the departments of natural sciences are located. The other one is called Descartes, and hosts the humanities departments. When enrolling, you can choose to live at either Monod or Descartes. I didn't put anything down, and I was assigned to Monod. In general, science students live in Monod and humanities students live in Descartes. In hindsight, I would have preferred to stay at Descartes, even if this would have meant higher rent.Monod, is located at 46 Allée d'Italie and is where the departments of natural sciences are located. The other one is called Descartes, and hosts the humanities departments. When enrolling, you can choose to live at either Monod or Descartes. I didn't put anything down, and I was assigned to Monod. In general, science students live in Monod and humanities students live in Descartes. In hindsight, I would have preferred to stay at Descartes, even if this would have meant higher rent.
Accommodation in Monod Since Monod hosts all activities in the natural sciences, it will be much closer to your lecture halls and classrooms. You only have to cross about 50 meters to get from the residence to the science departments, so it really is very close! I really liked this, as lectures tend to start quite early in the morning. However, the buildings at Monod are older and not quite as nice as those in Descartes. The residence is divided into small flats, which can be of the following type: F1 (single en-suite room, equipped with a small kitchen); F2 (two separate rooms, with a common kitchen and bathroom); F1-bis: (double room, with a shared kitchen and a shared bathroom). The rent is a lot cheaper in the double rooms and not putting down a preference when enrolling will probably result in being assigned a double room at Monod.
Accommodation in Descartes As is mentioned above, the residence in Descartes is a bit nicer than the one at Monod. I found that the gardens at Descartes are beautiful, especially during spring and summer. The residence houses mainly humanities students, but it is perfectly fine to ask for a room there as a student of the natural sciences. In fact, several people on the mathematics course had done just that! The way it is organised is a bit closer to the on-campus accommodation I encountered while at Warwick. The residence is divided into flats of between three and five people, who share a kitchen and dining area. All rooms at Descartes are single and are en-suite, and the rent is comparable to the rent for an F1 or F2-type room in Monod.
ENS offers a wide range of language courses for all students, from beginner to advanced level. You can decide yourself whether to take these classes for credit or not. I took Italian classes from beginner level, and I haven't regretted my decision! Contrary to the language centre in Warwick, you don't have to pay additional fees if you don't take the classes for credit.
There is also a French language course for foreign students called FLE. I think it starts about two weeks before the beginning of term and lasts throughout termtime. I chose not to attend this course as I had attended a French-speaking school as a child. However, this course is very useful for people who are a bit insecure about their level! It will also give you the opportunity to meet people before the beginning of term. However, on a more personal note, it seems to me that some Erasmus students who meet other international students through this course before the start of term tend to interact with nobody else for the whole year. Incoming students should be aware of that risk, as I think it's a shame to spend a year abroad without interacting with local students!
As an international student, the first thing to do is to go to the International Office, which is located at 15 parvis René Descartes, in the 7th arrondissement. The building is located next to the tube station Debourg. Typically, the International Office will have sent you a list of documents you need to bring during the summer. Don't panic if you don't have them all ready, as I didn't either. Of course, they would have preferred if I had had them all with me, but they didn't really mind my handing them in a couple of days later. Once I had found the International Office, essentially everything else was taken of. They explained what to do next and where to collect keys for accommodation. I thought the International Office had organised the arrival of international students really well. There are a couple of documents I needed to provide before collecting your keys, such as insurance, a deposit etc. I recommend you have those ready, as the accommodation office seems to be less lenient then the International Office in that regard.
There are about 50 first-year students (i.e. starting their third year) in the Mathematics department. For these students, essentially all courses are mandatory. As an Erasmus student, you can choose your subjects more freely (though that depends on your Erasmus coordinators). All lectures were held in French.
I took all classes that were mandatory for local students, apart from the English-language classes. I think this helped with interacting with the other students on your course – I couldn't help but feel that some of the other Erasmus students, who only took a couple of classes, were not really seen as part of the class. Another reason why you shouldn't drop too many modules is that lecturers sometimes assume knowledge from other subjects. This can happen (and indeed has happened during my year abroad) during lectures, on problem sheets or on exams. Hence, I would strongly recommend taking at least the main subjects: Algèbre, Topologie, Calcul différentiel and Intégration. One of the other Erasmus students in my year did not take Algèbre, and was badly surprised when the Calcul différentiel exam assumed knowledge of normal subgroups and the Topologie exam included two exercices dealing with ideals and algebras. In the second term, there will be reading modules, where about six students take turns in presenting chapters of a book to each other. I did two of those, but underestimated the time it would take to give a good presentation; I think that my work on the other modules may have suffered a bit under this, especially towards the beginning of the second term.
In general, the problem classes play a more central rôle at ENS than they did at Warwick. Attendance is mandatory, and you should try not to miss them. Of course, if you miss one of them, other students will be keen to help you out with their notes. Because the school is quite small, people get to know each other more easily – this was very nice! The subjects taught during the first term were examined in January, in the first week after the Christmas break. Assessment was based only on the midterms and the finals. However, not having assessed assignments should not mislead one into thinking that the problem sheets can be forgotten about. The exams are not easy, but most class teachers will gladly help you if there are things that you struggle with. I thought there was more interaction with the teaching assistants than at Warwick, and I would definitely see this as a positive aspect of my year abroad.
Especially in the first couple of weeks, there are many events organised by the student union. This gives students the opportunity to meet other people in a less formal setting than the classroom. Towards the beginning of the year, there is a weekend, called WEI (weekend d'intégration), organised by the student union to help the first-years settle into the university. I did not regret attending this weekend, as I met people that I stayed friends with for my whole year abroad.
The student union also offers a wide range of sports, and most of the clubs will be happy to accept beginners. I took fencing classes at a local club called SEL Lyon, about half an hour from ENS. This is the way a lot of the sports are organised at ENS: for the sports that could not be offered on campus, ENS arranges agreements with local clubs. This also means that international students can continue to practice sports that aren't that common in France. For instance, there was an Erasmus student from the UK who continued rowing at a local rowing club. Moreover, because there are plenty of other universities and students in Lyon, there are tournaments throughout the year where you can represent your host university!
Though Lyon is not that big (it has about 500 000 inhabitants), there are a lot of students. The old town, called Vieux Lyon, is beautiful and you will find many small local restaurants there. ENS Lyon is not in this part of the town, but it is not far with public transport, which is cheap. There are also cultural events and festivals throughout the year.
There are many more things that could be said about ENS Lyon, and I have to say that I really enjoyed my stay. Should you read this and be interested in doing a year abroad at ENS Lyon, then don't hesitate to write me an email at fritz dot hiesmayr at ens-lyon dot fr.