If you could spend five minutes with anyone from the international education sector, who would it be and what would you ask them? Introducing The PIE’s latest series, Five Minutes With… where we speak to leaders from across the sector and ask them all the big questions.
If there’s ever an example of how a study abroad experience can change the trajectory of a life, it’s the story of US born Christopher Cripps, who embarked on an exchange to France, and never left. Now in his role of senior advisor for global engagement and and diplomatic affairs in the capital’s prestigious Sorbonne University, he’s a true champion of the country’s sector and the wider impact of international education.
How did you find yourself working in international education?
I came to France from my native Illinois, US, as an exchange student at Sciences Po Grenoble.
I was offered a part-time job as a language assistant at Grenoble Ecole de Management that year. At the end of my exchange, the director offered me a position on the international affairs team. How could I refuse?
Over nearly 18 years at GEM, I worked my way up through the ranks and became director of International Affairs in 2001. International education is not a job but a passion that I have been honoured to pursue with some of France’s finest institutions.
Tell me about a defining moment in your career
That’s an easy one. It was leading the project to establish a campus for CentraleSupélec in Hyderabad, India. We were amongst the pioneers in India for such a venture, and we started from scratch and took six years from idea to opening the engineering school.
We went through market studies, meetings with consultants, interviews with potential partners, visits to potential campus sites (sometimes in boots in the mud!), intercultural challenges, and countless encounters with Indian government officials.
Two year after meeting the right partner in Tech Mahindra, we had the immense joy of welcoming 220 brilliant Indian students to our new campus in August 2014.
Everything I had learned and experienced over the first 20-25 years of my professional life was put to an extreme test, and the result was successful.
Seeing 220 students walking through the door of an overseas campus you helped create for the first time, you think, “Mission accomplished! These young ones are here thanks to our initiative and efforts.”
Biggest challenge to your profession?
I started my career around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the ‘end’ of the Cold War.
Since then, we have witnessed the exponential growth of study abroad, the strengthening and intensification of European cooperation in higher ed, and the rise of China as a major player. Now those of us in international education are doing our best to keep up with the more recent shifts in world order ranging from the Trump-era politics in the US, Brexit for the UK, the political changes in China, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Let us not forget the numerous challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under the new presidency of Sorbonne University, we have created support programs for Ukrainian students and scholars, and stepped up our efforts in open science and science diplomacy. It is challenging, but universities must endeavour to be prepared, equipped and agile enough to adapt to an ever-changing, often unpredictable reality of the world.
What makes you get up in the morning?
Students! It is a privilege and a pleasure to practice a profession that allows me to help create life-changing opportunities for talented young people and to help them to discover the world.
I helped lead Sorbonne University’s successful grant project, sponsored by the French government, to create a Franco-Indian Campus for Health with partner IIT Delhi. The first six French and Indian students are set for exchange starting in October.
My experience as an exchange student changed my life completely. I feel a sense of responsibility to ‘give back’ and am thrilled when I see students take a leap forward and study abroad.
Most inspiring international student you’ve met/ helped/ taught?
One of my most inspiring international student stories harks back to my days at Grenoble Ecole de Management. Gaurav Varshney, a native of India, was just finishing GEM’s Master in International Business program. He was steps away from my office one day when he received a call and learned that his father had suddenly passed away. In a very emotional moment in my office, he explained that he had to rush home for the funeral and to take over the family’s small milk processing business. There was no deputy director to replace his father; it was all now on his young shoulders. We had to get him home. At 23, Gaurav went back to India to become the head of household for his mother and younger brother and run the family business.
He and I have met up several times over the 19 years since Grenoble.
I’ve witnessed his drive to succeed as an entrepreneur, developing the family milk processing plant and exploring new ventures. I was able to catch up with him for lunch in Delhi during a recent trip for the first time since Covid and was delighted to see him thriving.
He is now at the helm of his own highly successful ‘farm to cup’ chicory and coffee company with a full team around him and business in 17 countries! You asked earlier, ‘what gets you up in the morning’? It’s for students like Gaurav.
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