The view of central Cairo with the pyramids in the background makes for an intriguing dinner setting. © Phillipp Sorgenfrei
Adam Hedengren
Last updated: April 7, 2014

The American University in Cairo through the eyes of an exhange student

Phillipp Sorgenfrei came to The American University in Cairo (AUC) as an exchange student from the University of St Andrews in the UK. Unfortunately, he was forced to leave as demonstrations against the Mubarak regime intensified in early 2011. Your Middle East met up with him for a quick chat about his experiences.

YME: What did you study at AUC?

PS: I took two courses in Arabic (MSA and Media Arabic) as well as two courses in Economics (Econometrics and Advanced Mathematics for Economics).

YME: Did you find that the courses were much different from the setup in the UK?

PS: Lectures in general tended to be smaller and had more the ”flair” of tutorials (also in the sense that they were compulsory under threat of a reduced grade for every missed lecture). Homework had to be handed in for each class and was marked. On the other hand, there was much more contact between professors and students to the point where you could always walk into a lecturer’s office in case something had remained unclear or wasn’t understood.  

YME: Did you live on or off campus?

PS: I was living off campus but in university dorms in the area of ”Zamalek”. From my experience, I would certainly recommend living off-campus and, if possible, in private accommodation. Since the new AUC campus lies on the outskirts of Cairo in an area where most houses are still under construction or vacant, ”Egypt” couldn’t be further away. In combination with a one hour bus ride into downtown, there aren’t too many opportunities for spending time in the actual city.

When living in downtown Cairo, private accommodation is easy to find and in general cheaper than the dorms offered by the university. However, coming from The University of St. Andrews, the dorm fees are already included in the ”package”, hence living in private accommodation unfortunately increases the bill (but could still be worthwhile). 

YME: Being at an elite institution, did you really get a dose of real Egyptian life?

PS: Egyptian students at AUC are in general very wealthy as well as fluent in English (and often a second European language such as French or German). This has obviously little to do with 95% of Cairo’s population. However, people in the street and in cafes are in general very happy to talk to foreigners and especially when living in downtown, it is easy to get into contact with ”true” Egyptian life. 

YME: If you were to come back to the Middle East for a Master's degree, would you choose to study at a ”foreign” university such as AUC or AUB or pick a more indigenous college?

PS: This decision should certainly depend on your language skills. Even though it might be beneficial to live among purely Arabic-speaking people to improve language and cultural skills, it is probably difficult when having to work towards a degree. Besides, AUB and AUC are academically very good and well-known universities which will be helpful when planning for a career in the Middle East.  

PS: Life in Cairo is probably comparable to that of any city with a population exceeding 15 million inhabitants. It turns traffic into hell and simply moving around town for classes or running errands can take much more time. The cost of living is for Westerners generally slightly lower than in Europe, but can be drastically reduced by speaking some Arabic and keeping away from tourist areas. Very noticeable in your daily routine is also the climate. Even though Egyptians insist otherwise, for me it was a year that simply lacked winter and all that comes with it. Going diving to the Red Sea in December is still a perfectly reasonably option.

YME: Did you get the chance to explore the region?

PS: I travelled within Egypt, from Alexandria to Luxor and the Red Sea, which is very easy and affordable. It is also possible and easy to apply for a multiple entry visa to go to neighbouring countries.  

YME: Anything negative about being in Cairo and AUC?

PS: Returning back home too early because of the revolution.

YME: What was your major obstacle, either prior to or during your visit?

PS: Nothing exceptional.

YME: What is the best memory from your stay?

PS: Barbecuing on a rooftop overlooking Cairo and the pyramids (see image).

YME: Has the Arab Spring changed your perceptions of studying in the Middle East?

PS: It is getting more interesting.

YME: Finally, if you were to offer some hands-on advice to fellow exchange students, what would it be?

PS: Try to join a local club, sports or other, to get to know people and life outside the university – I joined Rotaract during my time there. Try to study some Egyptian Arabic before arriving. It will be very helpful. And if you like Christmas decoration, you might want to bring something that works with a cactus.

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