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Sunday, December 03, 2023

Mixed opinions about Egypt study abroad


Armed with kitchen knives and guns, a local militia formed to protect their city from protestors after police were forced out of Alexandria. The mob caught up with one man and beat him mercilessly, with the attack ending only after a man with a machete dragged him around the corner.

This is the scene UW-Madison senior Michael Jurgens witnessed from the balcony of his seventh-floor apartment while studying abroad in Egypt last spring.

At 6 a.m. the next morning, Jurgens and his roommates received a call from UW’s program partner, International Foreign Study Abroad, telling them they were being evacuated.

Since the uprising against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last February, UW-Madison has suspended all International Academic Programs to the country, according to Interim Managing Director Julie Lindsey.

Now, UW-Madison students have expressed mixed opinions about the program’s future.

Laura Bechard, a junior at UW-Madison, always imagined herself studying colloquial Arabic in the home of the Nile River and the historic Giza pyramids.

While she felt the university’s initial response was reasonable given the uncertainties of the situation, she thinks it is a good time to re-open the program.

Instead, Bechard will travel to Morocco next semester, where she will study their regional variation of Arabic. Although her academic requirements will be met, she said the Moroccan language is less widely known and the cultural experience will undoubtedly be different than the Egypt program.

“I was a little disappointed but at the same time I understood what was going on in the country and understood why it wasn’t the greatest time to be there,” Bechard said. “Although at the same time, it does make [Egypt] a little more appealing to witness [political shifts] firsthand.”

Jurgens said he felt safe in his three weeks abroad, but he understands why the university had to cancel the program.

“For once in my life I got to experience history firsthand,” Jurgens said.

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“But I can’t imagine trying to do that with school and in a whole different country at the same time.”

Jurgens said he chose to return to Madison, though many in the program relocated to other countries.

“I had my heart set on Egypt, and I didn’t really want to go to any of the options,” he said.

Although political unrest in Egypt remains, UW-Madison and Michigan State are the only two schools within the Big Ten to suspend their programs.

While Michigan State canceled its program for the 2011 fall semester, the Wisconsin program has been suspended indefinitely.

Conversely, Indiana University did not suspend its program to Egypt, despite the fact that Egyptian authorities detained one of their abroad students last spring.

According to IAP Peer Advisor Lauren Banaszak, UW-Madison will accept applications for the Egypt program next fall.

University of Michigan Study Abroad Peer Advisor Terrance Scott said its program, similar to UW, sent students home last June when the political situation was at its height. However, the university has since allowed students to return for the fall semester.

While the other universities’ programs continue, they have not gone unaffected.  Throughout the Big Ten, studying abroad in Egypt has become less popular.

Brian Harley, director of study abroad for Purdue University, said although its program has not been canceled, Purdue does not currently have any students in Egypt.

Harley speculated that a decline in enrollment could be due to Egypt’s political climate.  He said, however, the university would reevaluate risks if students express interest in upcoming semesters.

“The institution is going to reserve the right to cancel the program before it starts or as you’re over there if there is some perceived risk to your personal health and safety,” Harley said.

Scott speculated violence may be a contributing factor in this decline but added, “No student has actually indicated that was the reason.”

In his opinion, the atmosphere in Egypt has cooled down since the summer, providing better conditions for those abroad.  He added students report feeling safe as long as they remain within the vicinity of the university.

Speaking from his experiences, Jurgens said he never felt in danger, especially when in big groups. Even when he and his friends snuck away from the group to watch the protests, Egyptians were caring and considerate of them.

“Egyptians would come up to us and say ‘You guys should go home. We don’t want you guys getting hurt,’” he said.

UW’s IAP has been regularly monitoring the situation in Egypt and consulting with program partners, IFSA-Butler and Middlebury University, on the status of the program, according to Lindsey.

“Study abroad opportunities are educational experiences, which are part of a student’s degree progress at UW-Madison, so it is important that our programs have the basic infrastructure to enable students to have a successful experience abroad,” Lindsey said in an e-mail.

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