Amidst revolution, students witness history

February 3, 2011

Earlier this week, 15 Georgetown students studying at the American University in Cairo were evacuated from Egypt. Three of the students, who were set to begin a semester abroad at AUC in the midst of an uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that began on Jan. 25., will return to campus on Thursday to finish their spring semester.

“We were safe on campus, which despite being located in Cairo, is actually about a 45-minute bus ride away from all of the happenings, but we were warned not to go into the city,” Jennifer Chau (COL ’12), who lived on AUC’s campus, wrote in an email. “If we were to go, we were to stay in groups and watch from rooftops.”

In a teleconference with University officials on Monday, the students expressed gratitude for the University’s role in their evacuation.

“I’m sure glad I got the international Blackberry before I left the States,” Benjamin Johnson (SFS ’12) joked, referring to the Egyptian government’s shutdown of Internet and cell phone access. “It’s been a really crazy 24 hours, especially the airport. That two-hour time period felt like a two-week time period that none of us are ever going to forget.”

After the University’s Emergency Response Team—a group comprised of different parts of the University’s administrative infrastructure, from the Office of Communications to University Information Services—decided to evacuate the students on Sunday, University officials shaped an evacuation plan that involved commercial, charter, and State Department-funded flights.

Julie Green Bataille, a university spokesperson, wrote in an email that Georgetown took advantage of the first flight that became available.

“There were a number of people from different schools who called their schools on Sunday and their study abroad people or whoever they were calling had no idea how to get them out,” Rich Rinaldi (MSB ’12), another student studying abroad at AUC, said. “The whole time [Georgetown] was on top of it.”

The students, who were some of few at AUC to have a confirmed flight, departed Egypt at 2 p.m. on Jan. 31 and arrived in Doha, Qatar the same day. According to Bataille, the University worked closely with State Department and AUC officials to coordinate the evacuation. Department of Public Safety Director Rocco DelMonaco, who was visiting the School of Foreign Service’s Qatar campus with Director of Safety Phil Hagan on unrelated business, met the students in Doha.

“[DelMonaco and Hagan] oversaw some of the emergency planning from [Doha] along with many of the SFS-Q staff and in consultation with the ERT team in Washington,” Bataille explained.

Chau recounted the hectic atmosphere at the airport as the students waited for their flight.

“I was stuck in this mob of people trying to rush out,” she said. “Nobody was moving anywhere because there was so many people. People were throwing luggage over my head because they were trying to get to the other side [of the airport].”

While their children were evacuating a country experiencing rapidly growing demonstrations, the parents of the students monitored their status on a private website created by the University’s Office of International Programs.  According to Bataille, the website is a part of the University’s planning for overseas emergencies.

“[The website] consisted of textual information about the status of the evacuation,” Diane Vine, the mother of Lauren Vine (SFS ’12), wrote in an email. “It also updated us when the students arrived at the airport in Cairo and when they arrived in Doha.  We are continuing to receive information including additional contacts in Doha for the students.”

Vine, who is one of the three students returning to campus Thursday, stayed in touch with her parents while in Cairo via sporadic cell phone and Internet access.

“I would give Georgetown the highest rating for the handling of this situation,” Vine, who spoke with her daughter before she returned to the United States earlier this week, wrote. “I keep telling my friends and family that they were amazing.”

During Tuesday’s teleconference, Provost James O’Donnell explained how the University plans to accommodate the displaced students. A team comprised of University Registrar John Pierce, Director of Student Financial Services Patricia McWade, advising deans from Georgetown College, School of Foreign Service, and McDonough School of Business, as well as Director of the Office of International Programs Kathy Bellows will advise the students about their academic and financial options.

“We want every single one of you to have the very best semester you can possible have from this point forward,” O’Donnell said. “We don’t know what that’s going to be yet, but we want you to have that best semester. It won’t be one size fits all. It won’t be cookie-cutter.”

Chau, who corresponded with the Voice before leaving Cairo, expressed ambiguous feelings about the evacuation.

“After being in Egypt barely a week, I have seen, felt, and heard a great deal. Right now, a lot is uncertain,” she wrote. “What I do know is that I am already more grateful and more appreciative of the life I have in the U.S., including Georgetown. As for the next four months of this semester, who knows what else they will bring for me?”

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