Study abroad programs in flux

Local universities keep wary eye on unrest, help US students flee Egypt

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / February 1, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

As tanks rolled in the streets of Cairo on Saturday, business professor Fatima El Wakil grabbed one suitcase and left the dirty dishes in the sink. She dashed to the airport, determined to get on the first flight home to Massachusetts.

El Wakil, a Dartmouth resident who teaches a two-month business course every year in Egypt, arrived safely in Boston on Sunday night. But more Americans like her lined up at the airport yesterday, fleeing a week of violent protests against the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

“I was very, very happy to be in Boston,’’ said El Wakil, who was born in Egypt but is a US citizen who has lived here since 1981.

US officials evacuated 1,200 Americans yesterday aboard nine flights, including seven charter flights, one military flight, and one Canadian-sponsored flight, said State Department spokesman John E. Echard Jr. More than 3,100 US citizens have contacted the American Consulate, but it remained unclear whether they would leave.

Middlebury College in Vermont paid thousands of dollars late yesterday to charter a private plane to fly 22 students in its Alexandria program to Prague, said Michael Geisler, a vice president at the college.

Five students in the program are from Middlebury, he said, while the others hail from different US universities, including Brown, Tulane, and Yale. After a short rest, they planned to return to the United States to complete their academic semester.

“At this point we want to bring them home,’’ said Geisler, who had slept little of the past 48 hours as he tried to coordinate the students’ departure through a private Boston firm, Global Rescue.

“They’re tired and a little anxious to get out of there, but as far as we know they’re all healthy.’’

The demonstrations that erupted last week stunned business owners, college administrators, and others who had long prepared for the possibility of political unrest in Egypt but were uncertain when it might occur. Many said they considered Egypt a safer bet than other countries in the region for students who wish to learn Arabic and immerse themselves in the culture of the Middle East.

About 52,000 Americans are registered with the US Embassy in Egypt, officials said.

For students, the demonstrations halted their long-awaited study abroad programs just as they were starting. Yesterday, some students still hoped to salvage their international studies, while others were scrapping plans and heading home.

Two Boston College students, about to start their studies at the American University in Cairo, were at the airport hoping to find a place to study in Europe, said BC spokesman Jack Dunn.

Three Northeastern University students are also expected to leave Egypt this week, and will be offered a choice of studying in Australia or Argentina instead, said university spokeswoman Renata Nyul.

Gordon College, a small Christian school in Wenham, said five students in Egypt were heading to Turkey as planned, as part of their studies in the region. But it remained unclear whether they will return to Egypt.

“They’re not going to rush back to Egypt until they know the situation is more stable,’’ said the college provost, Mark Sargent.

Harvard had two students in Egypt; one stayed and another, a postgraduate student, left for safety in another country, said spokesman Kevin Galvin.

Geisler said college officials prepare for emergencies, such as the earthquake in Chile last year, as well as political unrest. For instance, he said Middlebury placed its Middle East program in Alexandria, instead of Cairo, four years ago because unrest tends to concentrate in the capitals.

El Wakil, a 60-year-old business professor who was teaching through the University of New Brunswick, Canada, said she felt torn as she fled Egypt. She and her husband, Sherif El Wakil, chairman of the UMass Dartmouth mechanical engineering department, were relieved that she was home, but worried about friends and relatives who remain.

“The people are very peaceful, very loving,’’ said El Wakil, whose story was first reported by the New Bedford Standard-Times. “They have waited so long for this change to come. If they had stood up to that regime a while back, it probably would have been much easier and much smoother than what happens now.’’

Correspondent Jenna Duncan contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.