The university system in France is unique compared with those of other countries. Students first take a qualification exam called the baccalaureat to gain admittance into the university system. However, students who aim for upper-level universities, the grandes ecoles, must also attend a preparatory school offering a two-year course of study for another entrance exam.
My prep school, the lycee Saint-Louis, was located in an exclusive residential area of Paris. I had my sights set on attending France's leading business school, the Hautes Etudes Commerciales, or the HEC Graduate School of Management. My cousin Ralph, who is eight years older than me, had graduated from HEC. He worked at a bank, had his own apartment in Paris and was the symbol of success in my eyes. So I sent my resume and transcript to Ralph, and asked him to recommend me for the prep program for HEC.
But when the principal of the prep school looked at my records and grade report, he saw I had an outstanding strength in mathematics. He told Ralph that my talent would be buried at HEC and recommended the Ecole Polytechnique, a school focused on engineering. My principal at the lycee Saint-Louis had said a similar thing: mathematics was my strongest suit, and he thought I should pursue it.
I was disappointed at first, but Ralph consoled me by saying that I could change to business if I discovered I disliked science studies. That was enough to convince me to give it a chance.
Before I could get there, however, my first trimester at Saint-Louis was a disaster: I scored just four points out of 20 in mathematics. But my terrible performance opened my eyes to what needed to be done. Students at the school were nicknamed "moles" because they stayed locked inside doing coursework all day, never seeing the sun. I decided that I, too, needed to become a mole.
This lifestyle change paid off: My grades sharply improved after the second trimester, and by the third, I was at the head of my class. One more year of mathematics and I could go on to the Ecole Polytechnique.
I entered the Ecole Polytechnique in 1974. The school, part of the grandes ecoles university system, was established in 1794 amid the French Revolution. It is under the control of the Direction generale de l'armement, part of the French Defense Ministry.
I was able to earn a stipend from the university, which educates high-achieving young students throughout the country. The goal was to provide promising young leaders with the necessary education and sophistication to secure French development and stability. This is why so many senior officials and politicians are graduates of grandes ecoles. Students enrolled not only from France, but also from countries and regions that were once French territories. There are opportunities for anyone to move up the social hierarchy in France, even if he or she was born elsewhere.
Expectations were high. There were demanding lectures, discussions and assignments every day. Of course, there were boring lectures as well.
One of my fondest memories was a trip to the U.S. with 40 fellow students. The program allowed us to visit the University of Colorado and interact with American students. I was struck by their power of self-expression and advanced communications skills. I also felt that the U.S. opened gateways on a much larger scale than France. There were so many students from Europe, South America and Asia, it was easy to imagine that America was attracting the most talented and elite people from all over the world.
I kept my grades up, and I graduated in 1976. After that, I went to another of the grandes ecoles, the Ecole des Mines in Paris, which focuses on applied sciences. While many graduates entered the national civil service, I had no interest in taking that path.
At the time, I was seriously thinking about proceeding to the Ph.D. program in economic science. There were still many things I wanted to study. I also wanted to enjoy student life -- and the beautiful city of Paris, which I had come to know by heart. However, a different path was waiting for me.
Carlos Ghosn is chairman and CEO of Nissan Motor Co., Ltd.
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