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Opportunities abound in Egyptian exchange

Friday, February 3, 2006

Camels, the pyramids and ancient history lure visitors to Egypt every year. Thousands of tourists from around the globe trek to Cairo and then move up and down the Nile River in search of the past. For an Oklahoma State University journalism professor, these items provided just a backdrop for a teaching experience that personally rivaled the ancient wonders of the region.

Shaun Schafer, a visiting assistant professor, recently returned from a month of teaching business reporting at two universities in Cairo.

“It was both overwhelmingly different and surprisingly familiar,” Schafer said. “For all the daily challenges in culture, language, and even traffic, there was familiarity among students.

“The energy level of the campuses in Egypt made it seem like home, just with a very different accent.”

Schafer, who teaches reporting and business reporting at OSU in Stillwater, taught classes at Cairo University, the nation’s largest public university, and at Misr International University, a small, private institution. Cairo University, founded in 1908 and the oldest university in Egypt, boasts a total enrollment of 200,000. MIU, founded seven years ago, claims an enrollment of 3,000.

“You knew from the first moment you saw the campus that these were two very different kinds of schools,” Schafer said. “Classes at Cairo U were measured in the hundreds. At MIU, they were measured in the dozens. The schools give you a very different sense of scale.”

Schafer said he found a group of eager students at each university who were surprisingly familiar with the United States.

“Most of what my students knew about living in the U.S. came from American movies, which are everywhere,” he said. “I saw more American-made films in a month of watching television there than I would in six months at home.”

The trip carried with it some language and cultural challenges. Schafer confessed that he spoke little Arabic beyond a few phrases of greetings. Fortunately, his students at both universities were working in English-language systems.

“If I had taught in Arabic, it would have been a very brief class."

Schafer said most of the cultural differences were easy to handle. He said that getting used to the Muslim holy day of Friday and the Friday-Saturday weekend wasn’t a problem. Day-to-day life proved more problematic.

“The traffic is insane. People sometimes stop on green lights and go on reds, and every left turn seems to involve a U-turn,” Schafer said. “I could live there a decade and still not feel confident driving.”

Even hired veteran drivers face the same challenge, he said.

“It’s easier to find a cold beer on Friday than it is to find a car without a scratch, ding, or dent from a past trip,” Schafer said. “A bus nicked one of the cars I was riding in. The road system works, but it takes a lot out of you.”

Eating in Egypt presented few problems. Getting “fuul” for the first time, a fava bean-based dish, or a “Fayrouz,” an Egyptian soda, made dining more entertaining, Schafer said. Other than some questionable beef kofta, a grilled meat, one afternoon in
Cairo, gastronomical nightmares were rare, he said.

“I became addicted to their fresh-squeezed orange juice,” he said. “Breakfast will never be the same.”

Schafer said classes seemed very similar to home. While the students appeared eager, Schafer said teaching differed from the American experience.

“Most classes are hour-and-a-half lectures twice a week,” Schafer said. “And most of them start about 20 minutes late, so students kind of saunter in at their leisure. I know my OSU students would have loved that.”

There is also the habit of taking a break in the middle for longer classes. Schafer said that students would often use the time for a quick cigarette break in the hallways.

“Classrooms are among the few places where smoking is forbidden,” he said. “I knew if a student didn’t come back after break, I could probably find him — and it usually would be a guy — out smoking in the stairwell.”

Overall, the experience made a positive impression on Schafer. One of the schools, MIU, expressed an interest in developing a formal exchange with OSU, allowing students to transfer between the two institutions for classes. Both MIU and the Center for International Private Enterprise, the group that brought Schafer to Egypt, discussed continuing the program this year.

“I hope to go back and teach some more,” Schafer said. “More than anything else, I hope MIU develops a formal relationship with OSU. We have ties to three dozen universities around the globe but none in Egypt. MIU would be a great place to start.”

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