Whether They Flee Egypt's Strife or Wait It Out, Students Face Uncertainties

Dana Smillie for The Chronicle

Some 125 international students at the American U. in Cairo have already departed Egypt, but the majority remain. Above, the entrance to one of the university's campuses, in downtown Cairo, shows signs of the protests that have roiled the nation.
January 31, 2011

American colleges began pulling students out of Egypt amid continuing political and social unrest, squeezing them aboard packed commercial carriers or finding spaces on emergency flights arranged by the U.S. Department of State.

Georgetown University evacuated 15 students from Cairo to its campus in Qatar, while all University of California system students were expected to leave the country on Tuesday. Middlebury College and the Institute for Study Abroad, a study-abroad provider affiliated with Butler University, had chartered a flight for Monday night from Alexandria to Prague.

Some 125 international students left the American University in Cairo on Monday, said Kim Jackson, associate vice president for student life at the English-language institution. There are generally 800 to 1,000 foreign students attending classes at the university, about half of whom are American, Ms. Jackson said.

Still, some students chose to stay put, hoping that the violence will subside and classes will resume. The American University in Cairo, whose main campus is in a suburb removed from the violence that has convulsed the city center, has suspended courses until February 13.

Erika Meyer Lewko, a graduate student from New York, said she and her husband, Alexander, also a student, were staying close to their home, in the suburb of Maadi.

"It's frustrating to not be in class—we'd like to get back to it," said Ms. Lewko, who is studying English as a second language. "We've been here six months. We've been very happy here, and we don't want to leave unless we absolutely have to."

Morgan Roth, the institution's communications director for North America, said the university has had staff members on the ground in Cairo advising students, while its New York office has fielded hundreds of calls and e-mail messages from concerned parents. It is also sending out a twice-daily e-mail to update parents and college study-abroad administrators.

But the Egyptian government's cancellation of Internet access and spotty cell-phone service has been a challenge to U.S. college officials and parents, who had become accustomed to communicating with students by e-mail and text message, international-education experts said.

Planning for the Unexpected

"It's easy to get complacent and think e-mail will always work," said Julie Friend, who is chair of the education-abroad health and safety subcommittee of Nafsa: Association of International Educators. "But this is a reminder that you have to collect a variety of contact information for students."

Ms. Friend, who is also an international analyst for travel health, safety, and security at Michigan State University, said the turmoil in Cairo, along with unrest in recent years in Georgia and Lebanon, should serve as reminders to American colleges that they need to have careful, well-thought-out plans for dealing with unexpected crises overseas.

Such strategies cannot just come from the study-abroad office, Ms. Friend said, but should be crafted by assessment teams that cull expertise from across the campus, from risk managers to mental-health counselors.

Ms. Friend also recommended forming a network of peer institutions with whom colleges can share approaches. And she said college administrators should work with partners on the ground, such as American University in Cairo, where many students from the United States are enrolled.

"You shouldn't make assumptions based just on what you see on the news," she said.

The Center for Global Education, an online clearinghouse for information about health and safety in education abroad that is based at the University of California at Los Angeles's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, has just published a guide for college officials dealing with students in Egypt.

Gary Rhodes, the center's director, noted that many institutions distribute cards and handbooks to students with instructions on how to respond to an emergency, but he cautioned that it is not simply enough to have written guidance in place. Rather, college officials and students on the ground have to practice such plans, he said, much as they would a fire drill.

Disrupted Studies

Even as American colleges pull students out of Egypt, many unanswered questions remain. The American University in Cairo and other Egyptian institutions have postponed, not canceled, classes. Will students be able to return to Egypt to study? Mr. Rhodes asks. If not, will they be able to find alternative placements? (Already, an Athens-based program focused on Greece and the eastern Mediterranean has offered to take students from Egypt.)

And what happens if students choose to return to their home campuses? Mr. Rhodes asks. With the spring semester well under way at most colleges, will returning students be able to enroll in courses? Can they find housing? Will they be able to recoup program costs and financial aid spent on their aborted overseas studies?

Colleges need to be thinking about how to advise and accommodate students on those issues, Mr. Rhodes said. They should also be prepared to offer mental-health counseling both to returning students and to students of Egyptian origin who are watching the violence in their home country from afar.

"Just because students have gotten to Europe on a plane doesn't mean this is over," Mr. Rhodes said. "This is just one point in a long process."

Karin Fischer reported from Washington, and Ursula Lindsey reported from Cairo.


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