Paris Center Stories: 'Little Did I Know'

Florian Grosset, PhD student in Sustainable Development with SIPA, shares his experience of the UIIS program in Paris during the pandemic.

Editor's note:

This article appears in the Reid Hall Annual Report 2019-2021

July 05, 2021

Little did I know that upon arriving in Paris in early 2020,  I would stay there for nearly a year and a half, and get to discover a vibrant and essential part of Columbia’s community.

I was originally scheduled to spend a term as an Alliance visiting PhD student at Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne and the Paris School of Economics with Professor Katheline Schubert. A few weeks in, Covid-19 erupted and disrupted that research stay. After the first French lockdown, and given the dire situation in New York, it appeared that I would be staying in Paris for a little while longer than expected. To remain productive and keep making progress on my research projects – some of which involved activities in Côte d’Ivoire that could not be paused and required a substantial amount of regular work on my part – I worked from the tiny studio shared with my partner, which was clearly not a viable option.

I am deeply grateful to have been lucky enough to benefit from Reid Hall in these unsettling times.

I knew about the gorgeous center of Columbia in Paris, and its welcoming team, from previously having organized an interdisciplinary summer school on the science and policy of sustainable development two years in a row, with support from the Alliance program. I therefore naturally reached out to Emmanuel Kattan and Aïda Sarr, from Alliance, to see if there could be any possibilities for Reid Hall to support the research of graduate students from Columbia stranded in Paris during those uncertain times.

With the efficiency and desire to help that I have come to recognize as their signature, Brune and Krista, along with their entire team, welcomed me to Reid Hall. A few weeks later, when Columbia officially launched its support program for students abroad through its Global Centers and WeWork partnerships, I was delighted to be joined by fellow PhD students: Louise, Soraya, Gustav; and more recently Clara, Julian, and Vincent.

Student coffee break

Performing research is both a solitary and a social enterprise. One can remain hours, if not days, immersed in their thoughts in front of an article; before a black sheet of paper awaiting puzzles, equations, and solutions; or facing a screen awaiting lines of code. Those thoughts can only emerge and develop, however, from confrontations and discussions with others. Others from the same discipline, who understand the stakes, the issues, the methods, and the disciplinary subtleties – and others from different disciplines who open new avenues and bring to light new facts, policies, and ideas. Those interactions can be formal, through seminars, conferences, and advising relationships – but the fruitful ones are most often informal: unexpected, sometimes unprompted, conversations around lunch, coffee, or a glass of wine.

Being a PhD student at Columbia means growing as a young researcher in such a fertile environment – surrounded by peers, friends, faculty, and advisors to look up to, to emulate, to challenge, and to interact with. Those interactions, especially the informal ones, came to an abrupt end with the pandemic. It could have been a disaster for PhD students and has unfortunately been one for many. Thankfully, being surrounded by peers and friends at Reid Hall has kept those discussions alive and has sparked new ones. I have been lucky enough to spend this past year with friends and peers from the same discipline whose intellect, motivation, and creativity never cease to impress and inspire me – and to get to know new ones, who let me peek into their disciplines and discover the wealth they have to offer, including on the topics of my own research.

To foster this new local community and allow us to perform our work in the best conditions, Reid Hall has provided us with offices: individual offices for the luckiest of us, with windows, so in truth much nicer than what we were accustomed to on Morningside Heights. Given that the social distancing guidelines and travel restrictions led to a drastic increase in remote teaching and research activities, meaning long working hours spent on Zoom, Skype, Teams, WhatsApp, and the phone, the availability of individual offices has been instrumental in allowing us to conduct this work in the best possible conditions. 

Beyond space, our sense of community – among the graduate students at Reid Hall in particular, and with Columbia University more broadly – and our comfort at work delivering high productivity was bolstered by our various interactions with the Reid Hall staff: the daily chats with Anne, Jean-Jacques, and Karim; the weekly coffee and cookies organized by Séverine and her team; and more recently the graduate workshops at the Institute for Ideas and Imagination organized by Mark and James. All those elements have combined to make this experience an integral part of my PhD journey – I am deeply grateful to have been lucky enough to benefit from Reid Hall in these unsettling times.