Opportunities abound in Egyptian exchange
Friday, February 3, 2006
STILLWATER, Okla. – Camels, the pyramids and ancient history lure visitors to Egypt
every year. Thousands of tourists from around the globe trek to the capital, 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 the familiarity of 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 total enrollment of 200,000. MIU, which was 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.”
In each university, Schafer said he found a group of eager students with a surprisingly high familiarity 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,” he said.
Most of the cultural differences were easy to handle, Schafer said. Getting used to the Muslim holy day of Friday and the Friday-Saturday weekend wasn’t a problem, he said. Day-to-day life proved more problematic.
“The traffic is insane. People sometimes stop on green lights, 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.”
Classes seemed very similar to home, Schafer said. While the students appeared eager, teaching differed from the American experience, Schafer said.
“Most classes are hour-and-a-half lectures twice a week,” Schafer said. “And most of them start about 20 minutes late, so student kind of saunter in at their leisure. I know my OSU students would have loved that.”
For longer classes, there is also the habit of taking a break in the middle. Students would often use the time for a quick cigarette break in the hallways, Schafer said.
“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, which would allow 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, have talked about continuing the program this year.