In the final part of Senior Staffer Joe Milholland’s interview with Luca Springer, they discuss the application process to Rhodes, the value of a Columbia education, and how Columbia differs from Sciences Po.
Bwog: In GS and Sciences Po, you’ve studied a lot of things, like philosophy, business, law. Do you see those things as connected, and how so?
Luca: Absolutely. I think the MPP [Masters of Public Policy] is a testament to how important such a broad range of studies is. That’s a big reason why I went abroad to study. In Europe, you don’t have the structure of the bachelor[‘s degree] you have here: you have to decide whether you want to study law, or economics, or politics, and then you’re stuck with it, or you drop it and start something new.
I was very much inspired by the program Columbia has, this liberal arts education. The MPP has economics and public policy, it has law and public policy, and it has political philosophy. I spend time learning all these different subjects, and then try to apply [what I’ve learned] to the practical sphere. I think that’s very much what I was aiming for. I want to have a diversified education, but these fields all have a commonality.
Especially for politics at a certain level, it’s difficult if you’re just a specialist in one field. I think it’s important when you make educational policy that you also understand the economic implications that come with it. If you make social policy, it’s important to look at all the variables. My hope is that my education will enable me to do all these things later later on.
B: You kind of seem like you have it figured out. Do you have any big questions about the political ideas you’re studying that you want to answer in your time here or any goal towards your studies?
L: I’ve been studying a lot, particularly the rise and success of the radical right in Europe. That’s something I worked on a lot in Sciences Po, and right now I’m looking at it from a philosophical perspective. That’s definitely something that is important, because if you want to counteract a movement, you have to understand it. I have done a lot of work in that area, and I’m trying also to work on a thesis in that area at Columbia. It’s an ongoing project of mine, and it’s fascinating me as much as it’s scaring me.
B: Going back to actually applying for the scholarship, Columbia’s administrative functions for applying for scholarships and fellowships have been criticized a lot. Did you go through the Office of Global Programs?
L: I did not originally. First, I was only working with Dean Novarr, and he’s in charge [for GS students]. I think the process is a bit different for GS students than it is for Columbia College students. He is absolutely amazing. We’ve spent so much time together in these last semesters, and a friendship has really developed. He was immensely helpful. The whole administration of GS was immensely helpful, [such as] Dean Awn and Dean Rosner.
They’re excited and they want to help, but not from the perspective like, “Oh, you can apply for the Rhodes – Win it for Columbia!” It’s more like, “We really see you in this program and we want you to do what you’re excited about, and we want you to make the most out of your opportunity.” So it’s very supportive along the way, but not limiting in one specific direction. It’s very ideal.
And then when I got the interview, Dean Novarr linked me with Dean Carpenter of the Global Programs Office, and we started working together, and, in my opinion, I can’t find a criticism of [OGP’s] work, because they’ve been immensely helpful. They get some faculty member together and organize a mock interview. They’re just very kind and willing to help, in the same way as GS: supporting me when I want support, but not taking over.
B: What’s required for the Rhodes Scholarship application. Do you have to submit a writing sample?
L: Yes. It’s a personal statement, two writing samples, recommendations, a CV, and a transcript. It’s pretty much like the American Rhodes, I would say.
B: Germany has only two spots? Does Austria have any?
L: No. It’s historically based, because Cecil Rhodes had exchanges with Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany, and [Kaiser Wilhelm] told [Rhodes] that he had introduced English as a requirement for public school, and [Rhodes] was so impressed by that he amended his testament and included Germany in the Rhodes.
B: You mentioned that you learn just as much from your peers as your professors. Do you have any advice to Columbia students about how they can learn from their peers?
L: I think Columbia’s such a vibrant community. You’re forced to learn from your peers in a very positive sense. I sit in my philosophy class, and I hear some of my good friends talk, and I’m just in awe. And everybody has different concentrations, so you hear such a different take on the issues.
I think it’s something that comes naturally at Columbia, because you also have a focus on oral participation in seminars. I came here as a junior–it’s very different from starting as a freshman–but everyone at Columbia really embraced GS students and dual BA students, and it was never difficult to meet people and become friends with them. The conversations don’t stay in the classroom. I sit together with my friends, and we just exchange ideas, and it’s truly rewarding. If you embrace the Columbia community, you can take so much away from it.
And the same happened at Sciences Po. You study something in the classroom, and then you go outside the classroom, and people form little groups in the courtyard and debate for another half an hour about [discussion]. It’s a different setting than a classroom if you debate in little groups. It also becomes a bit more emotional. That’s really where I take motivation from. If you see people that are so highly skilled and who have such a deep understanding of some issues, it motivates you to build a greater understanding of the topic, and inspires how you act.
B: By going to college in both France and the United States, and now the UK, you’re fostering three different academic cultures. Do you think there’s anything US academic culture can learn from the French?
L: Yes. Sciences Po is very orally focused. In every class, each student has to present at least once a semester. That is something I have not seen a lot at Columbia. I don’t know, maybe it’s also because of the course of studies I’ve taken. I’ve had two presentations in my three semesters so far. In Sciences Po, I would have had ten classes per semester, and in each of them I had a presentation, so I had ten presentations per semester in Sciences Po, plus or minus.That’s something that’s extremely helpful rhetorically and for overcoming fears of talking in front of a large crowd.
In Sciences Po, you have so much in-class work that you have less essay writing. Here, I have much more essay writing. [The two schools] can definitely learn from each other.
B: At Columbia, and in the US in general, there are a lot of students who are activists about climate change, or race, or prisons, or a lot of other topics. Do you have any advice for them?
L: Coming from Austria, there’s very little activism, but France has a lot of activism, actually. In Sciences Po, you see a lot of activism there. If you grow up in an environment where the political system is seen as fixed and unchangeable, people don’t even consider going into politics. And then you come to France and the United States, where you see groups getting together and trying to impact policy, and even if they don’t succeed completely, it makes a little difference in where the policy is heading. That has been immensely impactful on the way I see political activism.
I think it’s also great that Columbia is able to be a forum for activism. I walk around Low Library and every other day, there are people fighting for a cause.
B: Do you have anything else you want to say either about the state of the world globally or your time at Columbia?
L: For my time at Columbia, I just have to say that, on the one hand, the dual BA is an incredible program. Both my time at Sciences Po and Columbia have been extremely transformative. Columbia offers so many opportunities that it’s important you take advantage of them.
In terms of global politics, I’m a bit pre-occupied with where things are heading right now. I hope the people in charge now will try to make a positive impact, but it’s crucial that young people consider public office and try to have an impact. I think it’s important, even if it’s difficult, that more and more people believe it’s possible to have an impact.
Overall, I’m really thankful for my time at both universities, particularly the people I met. There’s so much talent here, it’s just incredible.
B: One final thing: is there anyone you’ve encountered in your time studying the refugee crisis – either a writer, or a political thinker, or a politician even – who you think is particularly prescient or who has a lot of knowledge about the crisis?
L: I read Umberto Eco’s Five Moral Pieces, and I really recommend it for everyone, especially the last two essays. I would recommend everybody read it, because it’s so applicable to the situation right now. One essay is called, “Ur-Fascism.” It’s applicable to a lot of European parties nowadays, especially the radical right. The second one [“Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable”] is about migration and immigration, particularly in Europe. Those pieces were written fifteen, twenty years ago, and they’re still so important right now. [Eco] has been really formative in the ways I see the current political states of Europe and the United States.
Parts of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.