Jean Ghislain Billa is a sophomore student at MIT majoring in Computation and Cognition. For his exchange experience, he chose to study at Devinci Innovation Center, as part of the ESILV Master in Engineering program.
Jean took his studies abroad for a deeper immersion in France’s academic and cultural life. Today, he shares with us why studying engineering abroad can lead to personal and professional growth.
An engineering exchange and a new cultural experience in France
I think of myself as an avid learner with a lot of different interests, ranging from Artificial Intelligence to historical fictions and musicals.
My current focus is getting a deeper understanding of machine learning and improving my creativity and expertise as a future software engineer.
I believe that the best way to understand a person is to be in their shoes. To be in someone’s shoes requires one to run the extra mile, to be around this person, and to be willing to listen and be contradicted. Me participating in an exchange program fulfills this goal perfectly.
Being in a different country forces me to communicate with people who have contrasting experiences and opinions.
Listening to them enriches my experience of life, my understanding of humanity, and my empathy. Ultimately, all these interactions will contribute to me being an ethical software engineer, a tech creator who is able to look beyond the code to listen to people from different walks of life, and create technologies that improve their lives in one way or another.
I grew up in a French speaking country, Burkina Faso. Growing up speaking French but not living in France, you get what I think is an incomplete picture of French culture.
You’re able to read French literature, watch French films or listen to French music, but I don’t think this encompasses French people.
There is a specific way to speak, a specific demeanor, specific habits that one would only understand by being in France, and being around people who grew up here.
This is the experience I wanted, to fully immerse myself here and to be able to affirm that I actually know about French culture in its entirety.
Fully immersed in Devinci Innovation Center’s creative community
Learning about French culture started with my first interaction with people from the DeVinci Innovation Center (DVIC).
When I read the description of the intern position with Gregor Jouet, my first thought was: “Really, I can get to do something this complicated and thorough?”.
I didn’t believe I would be taken actually because it sounded more complicated than anything I had already done in Deep Learning.
I had also gone on the DeVinci website and I was just blown away by all the cool projects (the interactive billiard for example), and I was really excited to join this group of creative people.
What a surprise it was when Gregor reached out to me asking if I was available for an interview. This interview was one of the best I ever had.
Gregor and Clement directly welcomed me and showed me around the lab (virtually), telling me about the projects that were being made then. I was already feeling like a part of the team. From there on, there was no way I wasn’t coming.
Deep Learning training is a game-changer for an exchange student
I hit the ground running from my first day here: I was taken on a review of fundamental Deep Learning concepts, and I continued my journey by learning about more specialized architectures such as Auto Encoders, or Transformers.
Getting straight into the work was definitely a challenging experience, as I had lost the habit of reading research papers.
But I believe I rose above this challenge and relearned the valuable skill of reading, annotating and understanding a study, while digesting hard concepts.
I have also learned to manage my time better. Being a student is easier in my opinion: I did not have to worry about food most days as I was on a meal plan, and I could manage my time exactly how I wanted, working when I felt productive, and doing other minor things when I felt tired.
This internship is completely different as I have specific work hours throughout the day, and when going home, I also have to figure out cooking, keeping my room in order, working, and sleeping enough to be fresh the next day. I guess this is what adult life is about, and I am happy to learn those skills as well.
As a bonus, I am practicing my French. Speaking mostly English for a whole year made English my default, and I am more prone to speaking English rather than French. Being here is a good way to balance those two languages.
Enjoying a healthy productivity mindset and feeling eager to learn more
I have learned here that the grind culture is not as prominent as in the United States. From my first year in the US and MIT, I felt like there was this pressure to always be working on something cool, to always be striving to get better and more efficient.
The DVIC has definitely been a rigorous environment, but people here also value rest and being with others.
Having impromptu discussions at times, or meeting to discuss after work are amazing experiences that made my internship not only about work but about creating deeper and long-lasting relationships.
My goal is to keep learning. I will do my best to get a deeper understanding of Deep Learning, and make my experience here successful, for my colleagues, my supervisors and I.
Looking into the future, I am excited to keep working on developing smarter and more performant deep learning models. I also want to keep thinking about the impact technology is having on society, so that my creations really improve the human experience in one way or another.