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Studying Abroad: Dublin High School’s Leesa Ko Pursues a Dual BA at Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies

July 16, 2018

DUBLIN, CA–Dublin High School Class of 2017 graduate Leesa Ko is a second-year student pursuing a Dual BA between Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, also known as Sciences Po. She’s also the latest profile in our popular Life in College Series.

Leesa first learned about the Dual BA program in her sophomore year of high school, when her father received a flyer in the mail for an informational session and encouraged her to attend. Leesa will be spending two years studying social sciences at the Le Havre campus of Sciences Po, which has a focus on European and Asian studies. She will then attend Columbia University in the City of New York for her final two years of undergraduate studies.

During her time at Dublin High School, Leesa served as the Student Representative to the Board of Trustees for two years. She also participated in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program, a language immersion program sponsored by the U.S. State Department, through which she spent a summer studying Arabic in Morocco and immersing herself in the country’s culture.

I recently connected with Leesa to learn more about her unique college experience. Here, she shares some of the challenges she has faced while studying abroad, as well as important advice for Dublin High students looking toward college.

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Neha Harpanhalli: Sciences Po has seven undergraduate regional campuses in France: Dijon, Le Havre, Menton, Nancy, Paris, Poitiers, and Reims. Why did you choose to study at the Le Havre campus?

Leesa Ko: “In the Dual BA, we’re only able to choose from Sciences Po’s anglophone [English-speaking] campuses: Reims, Menton and Le Havre. I ultimately chose Le Havre because I preferred its smaller campus size of under 300 students compared to Reims’ over 1000, and I didn’t want to be so geographically isolated as Menton is in the Côte d’Azur.”

Neha Harpanhalli: Describe your typical day as a student at Sciences Po. Have you observed any similarities and/or differences between the American and French styles of teaching?

Leesa Ko: “I take about 7 or 8 courses each semester so my days are usually filled with lectures, seminars, or extracurriculars. Sciences Po is focused on social sciences, so I take classes on European-Asian 19th century history, sociology, economics, political institutions, political sciences, and more.

“When I finish classes, I usually have extracurriculars as I’m quite involved on campus. I often have dinner with my friends. Since I lived in my own apartment last year, I spent time cooking and cleaning, or running administrative errands.

“Most of my professors are international. One difference here is that the grading system is from 1-20. Also, the dissertation is prevalent; it is essentially a very specifically-structured and argumented essay that is typical of French schooling. Most of my exams are formatted this way and I’m still adjusting to it.”

Neha Harpanhalli: So far, have your experiences at Sciences Po matched your expectations? How does it feel to be living in such a diverse community on campus

Leesa Ko: “Going into this, I tried not to form any expectations as I wanted to go in with an open mind. I didn’t try to look up anything about Le Havre, nor did I try to speak with my classmates beforehand. But overall, although I wish that some of my classes were a bit more well-structured, I’m quite satisfied. I’ve never been intellectually challenged in this way before, and this is also my first time being able to really pursue my studies in social sciences. Next year, I’m specializing in Politics & Government, so I get to take classes like Diplomacy in Practice, Comparative Politics, Constitutional Design, and Terrorism, War, and Rights.

“The diversity is incredible – really the best aspect of my experience so far. Although my campus has about 270 students across 2 years, we represent over 40 nationalities and 65% of us are from outside France. At times it can be difficult, occasionally having different worldviews or someone not being able to understand my American colloquialisms, but it’s definitely enriching. I love that when I’m with a group of friends, we’re usually each from a different country and collectively speak 10 or so languages.”

Neha Harpanhalli: Were there any challenges you encountered while trying to adjust to your new life in France? What have been some of your favorite experiences so far?

Leesa Ko: “I think most of us in this period of our lives are struggling to develop our respective identities and life paths. I had to deal with adjusting to university, and at the same time, adjusting to a new country where I didn’t speak the language. On top on that, I was living alone in my own apartment. But in the end, I got through it, and in retrospect, it’s incredibly satisfying to feel so much more independent, confident, and assured.

“I’ve had a lot of precious moments this year. About a month into the year, I convinced six of my friends to spend the weekend in Paris so we could go to see a band that none of them had heard of. Also, last month, I was able to visit my friend Philippe in Norway. This experience was incredible. I not only got to see such a beautiful country, but also was in Philippe’s childhood home in Oslo, despite having only met him just a few months earlier because he lived in the same building as me.”

Neha Harpanhalli: During your time at Dublin High School, you served as the Student Representative to the Dublin Unified School District Board of Trustees for two years. Can you elaborate on that experience?

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Leesa Ko: “Being student representative was a really great experience. While it was at times difficult to follow the bimonthly meetings when they discussed more technical and specific matters, I learned first-hand how elected bodies function. It also gave me a strong platform to advocate for the revision of our dress code policy during my first year as student rep. I only wish I could’ve been more involved as student rep, or had a deeper knowledge of some of the issues at the time. But, that experience was my “extracurricular” that probably most resembles what I might do in the future (if I decide to pursue something with policy making and community engagement).”

Neha Harpanhalli: As a participant in the NSLI-Y program, a State Department-sponsored language immersion program, you spent the summer before your senior year of high school in Rabat, Morocco. What did you learn from this experience, and how did it influence your decision to study abroad?

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Leesa Ko: “Besides gaining a rudimentary understanding of Arabic, my two months in Morocco allowed me to widen my scope in how I perceived the world and other people. Without that experience, I would’ve felt completely unprepared to go study in a foreign university.

“Having been in a predominantly Muslim country and hearing their perspectives on the rise of Islamophobia, my time in Morocco motivated me to to combat such discrimination in some way in the future.”

Neha Harpanhalli: You have expressed that many Dublin High students have a rigid view of what college should be. What do you think are some of their misconceptions?

Leesa Ko: “This view is not exclusive to DHS students nor is it usually a calculated choice. It is a set of values and a perspective conditioned by our parents, peers, teachers, and educational system.

“For example, people often fixated more on the fact that I was going to graduate from Columbia, a prestigious Ivy League university, rather than the fact that I was going to pursue two degrees or more significantly, leave everything familiar to me to study in France. We have this misconception that success is linked to prestige, when it’s really not the case. In somewhat of a bubble like Dublin, it’s hard to detach from these widely-disseminated conceptions.

“But it’s so much more important to do what’s right for you, not what’s deemed “right” or “successful” by others. If that means pursuing your career immediately after high school, do it. If that means going to community college instead of a 4 year college, do it. If that means leaving everything and everyone you know for something you think will bring you new opportunities and lessons as it did for me, do it.”

Neha Harpanhalli: Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently during your time at Dublin High? Who were some of the teachers who strongly influenced you?

Leesa Ko: “A new perspective I’ve adopted in the past year is one of no regrets. I believe that we are the accumulation of our experiences, whether those be successes or failures. Without my experiences in high school, I wouldn’t be who I am now. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, but generally I’m quite happy with myself. But, I admit, I could’ve been more kind, patient, and honest with myself and others while I was in high school.

“At Dublin High, Ms. Hollison taught me the importance of education and empathy. Mr. Dance taught me not to simply conform to what is popularly accepted, and Ms. Ball taught me the relevance of history and to view it from different perspectives. These three exceptional people were more than just teachers for me – they were friends, mentors, and role models.”

Neha Harpanhalli: What are some of your favorite activities outside of the classroom? Have you picked up any hobbies in France? Any experiences with French cuisine?

Leesa Ko: “When Normandy’s weather isn’t living up to its grim reputation, I’m usually at the beach, parks, cafés, or other chill places around Le Havre. To be honest, I don’t have much free time, which I think most university students can relate to.

“I’m quite involved in campus clubs and associations; through some of these, I’ve picked up new hobbies. Last year, I was one of the hosts of a podcast about students’ music which has allowed me to become one of the new editors-in-chief for our campus’ newspaper/radio Le Dragon Déchaîné. I was involved in our campus’ environmental association, which I’ll be captain of next year. I played on the girls’ soccer team, which I’ll also be captaining. And I’ll be continuing in our campus’ spirit association, Propa, through which I started a drumming group with my good friend Louis.

“Being vegetarian, I’m somewhat limited to how much French cuisine I’m able to try. But visits to boulangeries have become habitual, I’ve become at least a bit more familiar with wine, and French cheese (especially comté and raclette) will always have a place in my heart.”

Neha Harpanhalli: Any final thoughts?

Leesa Ko: “A piece of life advice I wish I’d taken during high school was to view everything as an opportunity to learn and grow. I think when we are going through difficult times, we are more capable of transformation. Had I been in my comfort zone attending an American university for four years, I don’t think I would’ve experienced the growth and realizations I’ve had. Yes, it’s hard – but at the end of it, what leaves the strongest impression is usually the positive, not the negative.”

At the Dublin High School 2017 Senior Awards Night, Leesa Ko was named the Dublin Rotary Student of the Year and recognized with a National Merit Letter of Commendation. She also received the Presidential Gold award, was named a Gael Scholar, a California Scholarship Federation Life Member, and a member of the National Honor Society.

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