Ciro considers him entering at Polytechnique a small miracle. First, on his second year of University in Brazil, he first had to fail to join the also good but not as good École centrales, which really annoyed him as he saw the "other good students" who wanted to go out get their wish. This also explains why there are so few students from his university going to Polytechnique in the late 2010's: most already went to other locations! Then, on his third year, he tried Polytechnique and got in despite feeling that the others who got in knew much more mathematics and physics than him. Rather, Ciro believes that he got in chiefly due to his intense passion for the sciences which he showed during the interview.
The miracle would have been even greater if it had happened in 2020. At this time, out of 10 Brazilians, 9 are from ITA, the "hardest to get into" university in Brazil, and also military like Polytechnique. Make no mistake, those students are amazing and deserve it without any doubt. But there is more to the story. It could be argued that many of them only go because they don't have any other choice of exchange program. Remember: Ciro had to fail applications on previous universities before getting into Polytech. Also, they don't get any Brazilian degree because ITA has no agreements with Polytechnique, and are therefore are extremely likely to never come back. Not that Ciro thinks this is particularly bad for Brazil though. They also happen to have closer ties across cohorts of different years, and have managed to maintain a Google Doc with scanned past examinations (as of 2020 however, some/all of those examinations have been uploaded publicly, big thanks to them). Also almost all of them are software engineers. This lack of diversity might not be ideal: if I were France, I would rather fish around all top Brazilian schools for "the best".
Besides the amazing funding/opportunities/alumni/staff loop which you can read about elsewhere, Polytechnique is amazing because you can choose what you will study every year to a very large extent.
This is in huge contrast to the crappy systems Ciro had seen e.g. in Brazil's Polytechnic School of the University of Sao Paulo, where students have to decide basically all their courses in huge packages, either at university entry (thus when they are completely clueless), or at a single point inside the university studies, changes being much harder.
Life quality was also amazing. Good free accommodation on campus and at the time a no-obligations scholarship for every foreign student great sport facilities. It seems that after Ciro left however more restrictions are added to the scholarships, what a shame! Sport was mandatory due to the military nature of the school. This did have the upside of getting students together more, although Ciro is against all forms of forced intellectual of physical activities for students. If you liked your sport it would be really cool though. But due to Section "Ciro Santilli's knee", he was forced to give up his first beloved choice which was soccer... life can be cruel. If only Ciro had known cycling at at the time, and if only that had been one of the sports you could choose.
The situation is changing however, and now not everyone gets scholarships anymore it seems, and rather those who are not poor have to pay Polytechnique scholarship fees on top of their living costs. And thus French austerity measures are undermining the greatest long term investment a country can possibly make: that of importing the very best students from other countries into yours. This after their host country has already spent 20 years raising and selecting them. And you won't even pay them 2 years of frugal existence to steal them. Even if those students move away from your country later on, the contacts they made in your country mean they are much more likely to bring businesses over.
This also makes it much more difficult for those students to do a PhD afterwards, where they would get paid very little, and are unable to pay their student debts. A PhD would be where they would possibly bring more of the next big thing to your country. Instead, they are much more likely to just go work for some big American company data wrangling and bring nothing to your country but their student debt dividends instead, which they will be pay to pay for in one year with those amazing salaries. And unsurprisingly many go to into banks. What a big time fail, France.
During the time Ciro was at Polytechnique in early 2010's, the school was really isolated in the Palaiseau plateau, there were no shops in 10 minute walking distance! You either had to climb 300 steps to go down to the RER and the nearest town, or take a bus. The fact that Times Higher Education ranked it as the second best university in the world in 2019 (archive) makes it good justice, given the small 500 student body. Things started to change a bit after Ciro left however, with the creation of the Polytechnic Institute of Paris, which is bringing other schools to the Lozere area. This is for the best, as it might improve the global rankings of Polytechnique. Also it is a waste to have so few students at a technopole. But it will reduce the mystique of the place. You can't have everything in life.
Before 1976, Polytechnique was actually in the center of Paris at the Latin Quarter, so the Lozère mystique is not a traditional thing. But even when in Paris, students were in theory restricted to school grounds a most of the time. Although there are famous stories of a certain tree that could be used to climb the fence to go to Parisian parties when they couldn't stand it anymore. The tree was somewhat intentionally overlooked by school administrators.
This made for some good memories though. The isolation favored concentration, and gave the place a mystical feeling. And then when you went to eat amazing Chinese food in Paris it just felt even more special and magic since you were so limited during the week. It was also under those magical circumstances in which Ciro met his wife, another student of the school, see also: Section "The main function of university is sexual selection".
Ciro also agonized about passing courses to get useless grades though! Polytechnique is hard for most Brazilians, specially if you select the more mathematics oriented courses, because the French students were math brainwashed for two years before joining.
Ciro's favorite spots/activities:
- hide in top corner desk of the library to learn some science. Ciro loves libraries.
- weekend days in his awesome room learning Chinese
- sit next to the lake in a warm day to relax
- randomly go study at night in one of the small 20 person classrooms that were used in the day and left open at night
The following promotional videos give an idea of how the school looks like, although they fundamentally miss the little corners that Ciro really loved in that the place and which made it magic:
- Ciro Santilli's formal education
- Polytechnique USB flash drives
- Ciro Santilli's knee
- Ciro Santilli's Open Source Enlightenment
- Ciro Santilli's Stack Overflow contributions
- Don't be a pussy
- École Polytechnique
- Fabrice Bellard
- III-V semiconductor
- Molecular Sciences Course of the University of São Paulo
- Recitation class
- Students must have a flexible choice of what to learn
- University entry quotas
- Don't force international exchange students to come back early
- When the École Polytechnique mathematics department didn't let Ciro Santilli do his internship of choice due to grades