Saturday, October 25, 2008

American University in Cairo: In Progress

With any trip there are bound to be unmet expectations. Maybe the continental breakfast that a hotel boasted about in brochures consists of nothing but bagels and bananas. Or perhaps the whale watching trip you were so excited to go on in Mexico only yields one unexciting photo of a tail splash some 200 yards away. Yes, there are minor disappointments in every trip. I coming to Egypt I expected a slower lifestyle. I expected it to be smoggy and hot. I expected to face a certain amount of sexual harassment. What I did not expect was for the new AUC campus to be left unfinished.

The Fall 2008 semester is AUC's first semester on its new campus. Aside from the fact that this new campus lies 20 minutes from the nearest--anything, it was heralded as an amazing feat of modern architecture, technologies, and amenities. When we went to the International Student Orientation on the new campus, we spent our time at the campus' Greek theater, where we enjoyed live music, dancing, and some pretty good Egyptian food. We hadn't set foot on the main campus. On the first day of classes, it became clear that there was something amiss; namely, the campus wasn't finished. The buildings themselves looked impressive, but for the first week of school I had 3 out of 5 professors not show up for class, there were piles of rubble lying around, a lot of fenced off areas, no cafeteria/food commons, no air conditioning in most classrooms (more than a small problem in 110F degree weather), no offices set up yet, uninhabitable dorms, and desks that randomly (and I'll admit: sometimes comically) collapse in the middle of class.

I think everyone was shocked. There are scores of students who were supposed to live in university housing, but since the dormitories were not and still are not completed the university sent them to live in military hotels around Cairo. That was one disaster that I was able to avoid. But the food issue made things more tricky. For the first month of school, it wasn't as big of a deal since it was Ramadan and many students were fasting every day. But once Ramadan was over it quickly became evident that the student body needed food on campus. The only food choices on campus for a while were 1) a bagel shop, 2) Cinnabon, 3) a coffee shop. And with the new location of the university, the nearest food source off campus is at least a 15 minute drive away. Since facing mobs of angry letters and phone calls, the university has now added an impromptu food stand that sells pizza and sandwiches, and a little snack bar that sells hamburgers and chips and cookies, etc. These places are run by an AUC contracted company called Delicious, Inc. I think people would have been more excited about these places if the prices weren't outlandishly high (a hamburger from a fast food joint would cost 4 EGP while these stands are charging 14 EGP).

Interestingly, the Student Union (student government) recently set up a competing food stand to meet the demand of hungry students. And the Foreign Student Assembly set up a food stand, too. Capitalism went to work, and as Delicious, Inc. faced competition from student groups selling products at far better prices they freaked out. They went to the administration and demanded that the student stands be shut down. Admin said that they would not. The next day, the pizza stand was giving out free pizza slices in an attempt to lure people over. It was funny.

There is an Egyptian learning curve. In the first week of class my roommates and I got to the bus stop 5 minutes before our bus was supposed to arrive. Evidently, however, the bus had already come and gone 10 minutes before. Usually everything is late in Egypt, but as our host mom Dorothy continues to remind us, "Don't ever think." We thought the bus would be late, we thought we'd be safe getting there a few minutes early, and thinking got us nowhere. We had to sit on the curb for a hour waiting for the next bus.

A secondary issue arose when the university informed us at the last minute that we would have to pay $300 for a semester bus pass. I went online by the payment deadline and purchased my bus pass, thinking that certainly I would need it. Don't ever think. Three hundred dollars later, no one has ever been asked to show a bus pass. They only issued the physical passes to us two weeks ago. The angel on my right shoulder has informed me that it is good that I was honest and bought the pass, per the instruction of the university. The more convincing little devil on the left shoulder keeps making fun of me for buying a buss pass.

Going to AUC is like living in a comedy of errors. For the last weeks of summer in the scorching heat we had no air conditioning. Now that it is cooling down in Cairo, someone somewhere somehow figured out how to make the air conditioning function, but managed to configure a system in which the on/off switch in the corner of the room does nothing. We sit shivering in some classes or open the windows and waste mass amounts of energy while the A/C blasts like it's run by a converted jet engine.

Someone else decided to have a laugh and order a couple thousand of the most ill-thought-out desks you'd ever be likely to see. They are trapezoidal. They are on wheels. They are easily collapsible. On the one hand, it's highly amusing to watch people try to decide how to set up the room, as the desks are a nightmare of a shape to fit next to one another. Also it can be a good wake up call during class when you lean on your desk only to have the whole thing flip over, sending your books, pens, and whatever else sliding across the room. On the other hand it has proved less funny when some people's laptops have crashed to the tile floor.

Then there's the fact that for the first few weeks of school there was no A/C, lots of classrooms with no glass in the windows, no food, many times no electricity, and the consistent occurrence of the fire alarm going off a couple of times each day, BUT God bless them, there were guys all around campus polishing the floors.

And the campus was constructed such that the main source of shade on campus is in this one relatively narrow corridor. This attracted the attention of a group that AUCians sarcastically refer to as "Gucci Corner," since they used to all hang out together in a certain corner of the old campus. Well the Gucci Corner kids choose to pull the large wicker chairs that dot the campus into this walkway where they sit and smoke and talk while hundreds of other students and faculty are forced to move in cattle-like formation through a now even smaller gap between the buildings. Despite the constant back up of traffic in this walkway, the Gucci Corner kids will NOT move. I can't imagine that they don't see how insanely crowed it gets as a result of their settlement in this bottleneck. One student suggested to me that those kids want to escape the heat, but more importantly to be seen by everyone else.

And lastly, a phenomenon I was not expecting: many Egyptian students bring nothing with them to school. No backpack, no notebook, no pen, no anything. In my political science courses there are students who literally just sit there and listen to the professor, send the occasional text message under the desk, and then leave once class is over. So either they have minds like steel traps, or their approach to learning is far different from anything that I understand.

I am gaining most of my education here outside of the classroom. At this point I've sort of shrugged my shoulders in resignation at the complete lack of infrastructure at AUC and have most of my fun outside of class.

Again, feel free to drop me a line any time:

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