By Nancy J. Brandwein
“I have always been brave and lucky,” remarks Ana Maria Szilagyi, describing her circuitous path to the Dual BA Program Between Columbia University and Sciences Po. With the opportunity to study in both France and New York, this unique program helps its students to cultivate an international perspective. But Szilagyi, an immigrant in multiple countries with an intrepid sense of discovery and deep intellectual curiosity, developed an international perspective long before her first class.
Born in Romania three years after the fall of Communism, Szilagyi grew up in a society in flux. Her early schooling was rigid and authoritarian, which, along with her training as a top-seeded tennis player, instilled habits of discipline and hard work. When Szilagyi was 10, she and her mother immigrated to Calabria, Italy, a drastically different social and cultural milieu.
“My perspective about the world changed completely,” she says. “In Romania I was the daughter of engineers, and, in Italy, the daughter of a cleaning lady. In Italy, personal life was hard as an immigrant in a society that looked down on Romanians … [but] it was the country that opened my mind intellectually.” For the first time in her life, Szilagyi marvels, “I was allowed to think and express my personal opinion.”
Despite Calabria’s educational freedom and natural beauty, Szilagyi eventually saw no future there for an outsider with few connections and principles opposed to the organized crime that dominates the region. At age 18, she bravely set out for England, knowing no one and speaking little English. Like her mother, she buried her pride and took the only job she could find—that of a cleaning lady. Then an opportunity presented itself when a Frenchman told Szilagyi about Sciences Po: “I was reading and asking myself many questions about identity, nationality, what it meant to be European … and I learned that I would have the chance to ask and answer these questions at Sciences Po.”
After two years at the Sciences Po campus in Dijon, France, Szilagyi was drawn to the Dual BA Program. Not only was she excited about the chance to live in the United States and New York City, but she also wanted “the chance to see and experience two different worlds, different methods of approaching classes and everything around.” That opportunity came with enormous challenges. Unlike Dijon, where Szilagyi could focus exclusively on her studies, in New York City living is expensive, and she is tasked with combining work with her studies in economics and philosophy. “Partly because of its cost,” she says, “New York pushes you to do more and take more responsibilities. My worldview has become more complex in the sense that it takes into account more situations, variables, and cultures.”
Having spent more than half of her life as “the Other,” this past summer Szilagyi was motivated to volunteer for a European NGO in Ankara, Turkey, where she helped Syrian refugee children gain the language skills they need to attend school. Working during a turbulent summer that included a bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and an attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Szilagyi developed a deep understanding of the children’s plight. She returned to New York convinced that “one has to keep fighting for one’s ideals even after terrorist attacks and coups.”
The worldview Szilagyi developed as an immigrant has been broadened and deepened by the “exceptional education” she has received at Sciences Po and Columbia, she says. Moreover, her experience seeing children facing immense difficulties for the right to go to school has helped her to recognize her international perspective for what it is: an advantage, born out of challenges, which can make a difference in the world.