Walking on the Wild Side

Yann Kerninon, Head of the Field Experience at ESSEC Business School Career Services, shares the story of an innovative student learning experience working at grass-roots level and for the common good.  

You cannot fail to miss Yann Kerninon in a crowd. Atypical, provocative, an intellectual, a rebel and yet a gentleman dandy who combines a certain sense of dress elegance that rings of Victorian England with a sharp modern mind and plenty of respectful charm. In fact, Yann Kerninon is the perfect fit for the innovative and singular initiative he indeed heads up – the ESSEC Field Experience initiative that has recently celebrated its 11th anniversary.

Part of the bouquet of ESSEC Careers Services initiatives offered to students at the school, the Field Experience project began as a daring, groundbreaking idea back in 2007, thought up by one of the institution’s leading academics, Prof. Laurent Bibard. The idea? To immerse students from one of Europe’s leading business schools – the large majority of whom had spent their teenage years studying hard to sit extremely selective entrance exams – in the harsh realities of the production line and volunteer work at the margins of society. A world some of them had never experienced, nor hardly ever seen. A world in which they would one day find themselves working as managers and entrepreneurs, captains of industry – and perhaps even leaders of NGOs.

Innovation that overcame resistance

As with any rule-changing ideas, the Field Experience initiative met with some initial resistance. However, persistence and patience won through.

After two years of convincing, persuading and showing the value of the initiative, it gained legitimacy under the initial responsibility of Hugues Derycke – who succeeded in setting up the first network of partners – to reach cruising speed with the onboarding of Prof. Junko Takagi, Director of the Leadership & Diversity Chair at ESSEC. The initiative was also opened to two large student populations at the school – the Global BBA, with students fresh from A-Levels, and the Grande Ecole where students generally come from the tough classes préparatoires system in France (students spend two years after their A-Levels working toward entrance exams to specialized higher education establishments).

Today, the ESSEC Field Experience now gathers 800 students in all: 400 GBBA and 400 pre-Masters of the Grande Ecole in a mandatory 4-week internship with a social or common good dimension to it.

‘It’s a true physical, intellectual and emotional commitment,’ states Yann Kerninon, Head of the initiative. ‘No student is obliged to do anything he or she doesn’t feel they can’t do – but everyone must carry out an internship to the level of what they think they can do.’ As such, internships either take place in factories and supermarkets – on the shopfloor – or in the social sector – in-the-field, or, as it often turns out, in the streets.

This means students having to roll up their sleeves and work as pure subordinates at the base of the hierarchical pyramid. Partner organisations, numbering 50 to date, include Emmaüs, an international solidarity movement working with the poor and with a goal of social transformation; MacDonald’s who, behind the glitzy marketing, have a solid CSR policy; Renault; the Secours Populaire, a French NGO dedicated to fighting poverty and discrimination and various associations catering for the mentally handicapped, those victim of drug addiction, and refugees.

A new generation is out there

‘The idea behind all this,’ asserts Kerninon, ‘is to push students to take up a challenge. Here at ESSEC, and more specifically Career Services, we want them to work on their feelings and awareness. This means change, an eye-opening experience, and emotions. We want them to work on all the skills that aren’t covered in traditional, theory-based studies.’ Indeed, Yann Kerninon himself observes a change – in student profiles and expectations over the few last years. A new generation is out there – aware of today’s social and environmental issues and challenges and who thirst for work with a meaning. ‘This,’ states Yann Kerninon, ‘fits well with ESSEC’s historical values of openness and innovation – and enables an initiative such as the Field Experience to find a valuable and legitimate place on the curriculum. The Field Experience invites students to push to the limit – but not to explore over the horizon!’

A very personal experience linked to those of many others

The two different student populations have a slightly different internship framework. Global BBA students only have internships in the social field, with some 400 of them leaving campus between May and August. Some of them leave for the Rabat campus in Morocco, headed by Thierry Sibieude, Deputy Dean of ESSEC Africa and chair holder, Chair of Social Entrepreneurship. Others leave for the ESSEC Asia-Pacific campus in Singapore meaning that internships can sometimes be not only a challenging work experience but also a bi-lingual French/English one.

Learning input and feedback is provided by the initiative’s pedagogical director, Prof. Junko Takagi, and each student is linked up with a facilitator before, during, and after the experience. Moreover, every student has to keep a diary/log book that they fill in each day of their internship. This they discuss with their facilitator in the strictest confidence.

A dovetail initiative

For Yann Kerninon the Field Experience is a true professional experience that promotes diversity in all its senses – professionally, economically, culturally, and academically. ‘A high point,’ he asserts, ‘was when students worked at the immigrant hostel in the so-called Jungle de Calais in northern France, where thousands of refugees and migrants, with a dream of reaching the UK for employment and a better life, lived under pitiless conditions in shanty towns in the coastal dunes.’

The Field Experience also won the Pedagogical Innovation Prize at ESSEC in 2017 which marked the initiative’s 10th anniversary. And warmingly, students grant a 95% satisfaction rate with their experience, students learning a whole new set of skills that are complementary to their studies.

Every year, Kerninon brings together the various partners for a thank you lunch and after-experience discussion. A surprising and positive spin off from this has seen the Field Experience become a forum for encounter and dialogue between the partners, all of whom have a stake in the common good, but who otherwise would not have had the possibility to rub shoulders. This, in turn, leads to further partnerships such as the MacDonald’s/EPIDE agreement which sees the fast food chain committing itself to integrating youngsters from EPIDE – an organisation that caters for early school leavers that have lost their way and puts them back on the track with basic discipline, respect for themselves and others, a CV, and a career project.

2018 will see the regional Préfet (high state representative) Alain Régnier and the Head of the DiAIR (French inter-ministry refugee welcome and integration service) attend.

Adventure is the key

When questioned on the future of the Field Experience, Yann Kerninon is upbeat. ‘The ambition is to become a European-wide experience by building up a network in Europe, including the UK, and link it to the new socio-economic issues that are present or forthcoming.’ These include eco-distribution chains right down to bicycle delivery, migrant flow or even uberisation. ‘We’ll continue to develop the Field Experience and improve it,’ says Kerninon, ‘hopefully spreading its impact to all student programmes at ESSEC and why not even the staff – perhaps technically difficult seeing that both are spread throughout the world: but feasible. We’re also working hand-in-hand with the ESSEC Global BBA so that the Field Experience initiative gains world reach – helping the programme’s students discover diversity and social reality via the School’s campuses in Rabat, Morocco, and Singapore Asia-Pacific.’

‘The Field Experience is above all an adventure’, states Yann Kerninon, going on to paraphrase Goethe. ‘There are two ways to lose yourself – speaking only of yourself or only of the world. And adventure is a way of bringing the two together. With adventure there’s a notion of experience, an encounter with risk and difference. And experience – which, etymologically, means stepping outside of the usual way and doing by trial and error – perfectly fits the initiative.’ Becoming tomorrow’s responsible leader is not a boring set of rules and obligations to abide by. It is a quest for awareness, the understanding of oneself and others, and the respect that comes from a field experience that sees you rolling up your sleeves and getting on with the slog – for a higher purpose and a common good.

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