CAIRO: Most Egyptian students and faculty at the American University in Cairo (AUC) eagerly anticipate the move from Downtown to a new $400 million campus in New Cairo. But for foreigners, who make up 5 percent of the student population, the move is not as eagerly anticipated.
Interviews with 20 current and former American students at AUC suggest that a decrease in foreign student interest in studying at the University could occur because of the move to New Cairo.
Already many American students were concerned with AUC’s isolation from Egyptian society. All classes are taught in English and the Egyptian students and teachers generally come from the society’s social and economic elite. That’s why the downtown location was always seen as a major factor in these foreign students’ decision to study at AUC.
“It’s really hard to learn about a place when you are mostly exposed to the richest percent of its citizens, explains Ben, who studied abroad at AUC in 2004/2005.
“The campus is not ideal for practicing Arabic because the local Egyptian student population either doesn’t want to speak to you at all – in any language – or they don’t want to speak to you in Arabic, said Northeastern University student Eric Holo, also an AUC study abroad.
So that’s why the location was critical, because I could take what I learned in the classroom and immediately apply it in the Downtown area which provided a plethora of people and places to explore and utilize my Arabic, he adds.
A few of the students interviewed cautioned that some American students, who already make no attempt to integrate into Egyptian society, will not necessarily view the new campus’s isolation in a negative light. Still, the majority of those interviewed said the move would cause them to think twice about choosing AUC if they were to return to Egypt as students.
“I would not consider AUC, at its new location, as a choice [of study] if I were to return to Cairo, said Scott Chanonovic, a senior at Georgetown University who recently completed a year of advanced Arabic classes at AUC’s Arabic Language Institute (ALI).
AUC officials dispute that the Downtown location was a critical aspect of the foreign student’s study experience.
“Old Cairo is congested and barely able to breathe. No one is enjoying Tahrir Square anymore, explains Dr Zienab Taha, director of ALI, adding that the new campus is part of a planned city, whose population is eventually expected to reach 2.5 million. Therefore, it would recreate the urban flavor of the old campus.
Another major concern is the commute.
AUC will in the short-term continue to house some students at its dormitory in Zamalek. These students, as well as any who choose to live in off-campus Downtown housing, will face commutes of one hour each way to class.
Those assigned to on-campus dorms will not have to commute to reach class, but will be far from the social and cultural activities of the city’s central districts.
Most of the students interviewed felt that this was a serious issue but Taha disagrees. “Students commute everywhere around the world. Why can’t they do that in Egypt?
Indeed, long commutes are a feature of study abroad programs in other parts of the world. For example, students at the University of Notre Dame London program “walk (to save money) and it’s a 45-minute walk from the dorms to the class buildings. So this is something to be taken in stride, says Judy Hutchinson, who manages the Egypt and London programs at Notre Dame.
Other factors are expected to continue to work in AUC’s favor.
Demand for Arabic continues to grow in the US and AUC has a reputation as one of a handful of qualified programs.
“We have the best programs and students know this, said Taha.
In addition, AUC benefits from its formal relationships with American Universities that view Egypt as a “safe location in a region often perceived as dangerous, at least in the eyes of many American parents. For universities such as Notre Dame, Michigan and University of California Los Angeles, AUC is the only school in the Middle East where undergraduates can study as part of their formal curriculum.
“So the demand could be such that the move will have very little effect, says Devin Stewart, who studied Arabic at AUC and is now a professor at Emory University.
AUC officials report no drop in the number of foreign students scheduled to enroll in the fall. However, most of the students interviewed thought that the decrease would take place gradually over the following years.
“I do think that the campus relocation will affect demand, particularly for those students coming to study Arabic only. I wish AUC had found a way to keep the Arabic part of its program at the downtown campus, said Chris Stone, an Arabic professor at City University of New York.
Taha is more confident. “Judging from the number of applicants for our program in the fall, there is nothing to worry about.