Students, French Cohort, Political Science

Undergraduate Profile: Alejandra Vargas, French Cohort Program

October 14, 2016

As a Political Science major, Jhorly Alejandra Vargas studies Public Administration and Community Services; as a member of the French Cohort Program, Vargas studies primarily in French. Originally from Colombia, Vargas went through the Francophone school system in BC; thus, she speaks from experience when she says that “studying in both languages has, undoubtedly, both personal and professional benefits. I am fully aware that in a globalized world, language knowledge is an incredibly valuable asset.” Likewise, “the study of Political Science – with strong theoretical knowledge to reflect on it – allows us to adopt a multidimensional and comprehensive reading of political reality.”

Indeed, strong political involvement is what brought Vargas’ family to Canada from Colombia and it what has continued to drive her dual educational pursuits in political science and bilingualism. Vargas describes her family as “highly politicized,” who “always enjoy talking about current issues or global problems.” She credits her mother, who was active in politics in Colombia, as “a great inspiration and influence” in her life. In 2002, her mother was a City Councilor in the province of Caqueta during FARC’s (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People's Army) insurgency, a time of political and social turmoil and violence that resulted in death threats being issued against the councilors and their families. This prompted their move away from Caqueta to Bogota, the nation’s capital, and then to seek asylum in Canada, where they lived in Quebec, and eventually BC. (Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the civil war).

 “We experienced a very insecure and fearful time. In May 2004, six months after our arrival in Canada, my parents heard that five colleagues of my mother were killed. According to the news between 2004 and 2005, the FARC staged the biggest attack that has been perpetrated against the councilors in Colombia. I can truly say that some of these aspects significantly influenced my ideology, my social and political point of view. But at the same time, that experience aroused even more my curiosity to be updated and aware of the current problems in our society.” At SFU, Vargas has achieved high academic standing (Dean’s Honour Roll Spring 2014, Fall 2015, and Spring 2016), served as the President of the French Student Union, represented the cohort program on national media, and has been the recipient of awards administered both by the University and the community. She counts her 2012 meeting with Governor General David Johnston, where they discussed the challenges of the Francophonie in British Columbia and of bilingualism in Canada, as one of her proudest moments.

Students in the French Cohort Program are eligible to participate in an exchange program during their third year of studies, and Vargas is enthusiastic about the year she spent in Paris studying at Sciences Po: “[It] has been one of the greatest opportunities I ever had! My goal was essentially to learn more about European politics and the political history of France [….] It was fascinating because most of the course material was very new to me, so it was very challenging. Another important thing is that I took advantage of all the conferences and forums organized during the Fall 2014 and Spring 2015 [semesters]; I even had the opportunity to assist [in] many important discussions such as the ‘Climate Leadership Discussion’ during COP 21 with [former California Governor] Arnold Schwarzenegger at Sciences Po Paris, on December 7, 2015.”

These international experiences expanded her global, political, and linguistic understanding: “I found that studying and working in group projects with other French students helped me a lot to truly familiarize myself with the current issues in Europe and particularly in France [….] Indeed, I have to admit that it wasn’t easy at all, I was always overloaded with work and I had very little free time. Also, getting used to the French academic system was difficult and in particular, the high expectancies from students were a true challenge for me.” As Vargas notes in her blog entry in L’Antichambre, an online journal for students of Sciences Po, this was a year of being “in ‘another world’— socially, culturally and academically speaking,” but, importantly, it was also a year of challenges that she grew to “love”:  “I end[ed] up talking to everyone, discovering such an amazing variety of cultures, meeting wonderful people [… ] Even if I was ‘swamped’ with work, there were always something else to do at and outside Sciences Po as the variety of student clubs/associations were very active.”

In January 2017, Vargas will continue her multidisciplinary pursuit of her “passion[s] of politics, philosophy and literature” when she begins her Master of Arts in Public Ethics through a program jointly offered by Saint Paul University and the University of Ottawa: “This means that for the next three years I am going to be completely dedicated to my career. With this program I aim primarily to study more deeply the major ethical issues raised by our society.”

As for her time at SFU, Vargas describes the French Cohort program as a “fascinating” and says “the most interesting thing is that it offers the opportunity to study about Canadian politics in Canada’s two official languages. My advice for those who are interested is that a perfect French level is not required in order to succeed. In fact, this program is [designed] to help students improve their French while enriching their knowledge base.” She encourages other undergraduates to study hard, and with purpose, but not to neglect other aspects of campus life: “It is not always easy to be completely involved in other activities while being a full-time student. However, I think that keeping our life in balance is fundamental. Being part of the Student Union allowed me to meet people, to help other students and to know more about their amazing culture.”

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