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Office of International Studies cancels Cairo study abroad program

Sara Felsenstein | Monday, November 28, 2011

In light of the increased violence and unrest in Egypt, the Office of International Studies (OIS) canceled the Cairo study abroad program for the spring semester last week.

Ten Notre Dame students planned to attend the American University in Cairo (AUC) in the spring.

Kathleen Opel, director of OIS, said the University made the decision after the ongoing unrest in Cairo surrounding Egyptian elections caused the U.S. Department of State to issue a series of emergency messages.

“Just being there is not safe right now, and they’re not anticipating that it’s going to get better soon,” Opel said. “We’re going to have flashes of this until there’s a government in place. Right now, there’s an emergency message for U.S. citizens … There have been five [emergency messages] just in the last week.”

Notre Dame’s program in Cairo does not have its own center or director overseas, Opel said, so the University could not be positive that it could provide for students in the case of an emergency.

Opel said communication was a primary concern when the University evaluated the current circumstances in Cairo.

“Last year during the disruption, the ATMs ran out of money, they shut down cell phones and Internet access … If you’re not sure of the communication possibilities, it s a riskier situation,” she said. “We just don’t feel confident enough to think that we can protect students.”

Opel said while OIS wants to give students the chance to study in their location of choice, safety must be the priority.

“This is a [hard] case,” she said. “The tipping point often comes from the State Department, but primarily our review of the overall situation and that it may not be a safe place for students to be.”

But she said students were prepared for the letdown.

“All through the summer, the question was, ‘Will we be able to go to Cairo?’ We kept saying, ‘We’re monitoring the situation,'” she said.

Junior Matt Keenan planned to study in Cairo in the spring. When he heard the news of the program’s cancellation, he said he was not surprised by the announcement but was “extremely disappointed.”

“I had a feeling it was coming, even though I was hoping it wasn’t,” Keenan said. “You know the whole time it kind of felt like it could be canceled. We knew since January things have been going on, and it can come up at any time.”

Keenan said considering the past week’s violence in Cairo — specifically the arrest and detainment of three American students — he knew there was a good chance the program would be canceled.

“With the recent things in the last week I was really hoping it wasn’t going to happen but I kind of understand that it would,” he said.

Junior Ian Montijo said he understands why the University would cancel the program, but still wishes he could go ahead with his studies at AUC.

“It comes down to the University having to be responsible for us,” Montijo said. “I don’t think the University wants to put itself in a spot where they’re at risk.”

The Cairo group met with OIS at the beginning of the semester, Opel said, and the office gave them three options for the spring. The first was to stay in the Cairo program, knowing it may be canceled in the future. The second was to enroll at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the third was to enroll at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

Opel said most students were set on going to Cairo and decided to remain in the program.

Judy Hutchinson, assistant director of OIS, met with students Monday to discuss their options now that the Cairo program is canceled.

“Given the lateness of the semester and the fact that most other program deadlines are well past, the options are quite limited,” Hutchinson said. “Some may be able to participate in a study abroad program at London SOAS, but I am as yet unclear if this will suit the academic needs of everyone in our program.”

Keenan said he appreciates the measures OIS is taking to still offer students a study abroad experience in London. However, he said studying at a university in London is completely different from the cultural experience he hoped to have in Cairo.

“They tried to accommodate us with school in London, but that’s not Cairo,” Keenan said. “It’s a school where we can take Arabic studies classes but it’s not the same atmosphere or experience.”

Twelve Notre Dame students were evacuated from Cairo last January when unrest erupted in the city, and OIS canceled the fall 2011 program last March. Opel said OIS has considered supporting alternate programs for Arabic Studies in the future.

“We’re always open to new ideas, and I can’t guarantee that we would open something quickly,” Opel said. “The beauty of the AUC is that it has a whole array of courses in business, engineering, arts and letters, sciences, whereas if they go on one of the other programs, they’ll be pretty much limited to Arabic Studies.”

She said she thinks most students who were scheduled to go to Cairo in the spring will choose to attend SOAS.

“Those details are still being worked out but we believe anyone who [needs] Arabic Studies [classes] to complete their majors can go, and we’re in touch with SOAS right now,” she said.

But Montijo said SOAS isn’t a fit for his academic goals, so he has decided to stay in South Bend.

“At the end of the day it would have been more expensive and the classes I can take here would fit better with the requirements and everything I need,” Montijo said.”[In the future] I was planning to go to Jordan or Morocco or somewhere else in the region and hopefully take classes there and travel around. Hopefully [I’ll] be able to see Cairo that way.”