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Studying amid a revolution

By James Daly '13
December 5, 2011

St. Olaf juniors (from left) Daniel Sacerio, Wittney Dorn, and Seth Greendale have been studying at the American University in Cairo since August.

On a hot fall night in downtown Cairo, Seth Greendale '13 was teaching English to a group of adults at St. Andrew's Church when shouting began to filter through the open window. It gradually grew louder, until finally Greendale had to close the window so that his students could hear him. Five minutes later his supervisor walked in and told everyone that class was over. A block away in Tahrir Square, Christian Coptics were protesting the burning of two churches in southern Egypt, and she wanted the students to get home in case traffic slowed to a crawl.

For Greendale and fellow St. Olaf students Daniel Sacerio '13 and Wittney Dorn '13, the Egyptian revolution — and the Arab Spring in general — has provided a learning experience both inside and outside of the classroom. The three are enrolled at the American University in Cairo, and Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the country's revolution, is just a 20-minute walk from their residence hall.

Although they know students in their dormitory who have been hurt during the bloody clashes between protesters and the military in Tahrir Square, the Oles have generally avoided venturing near downtown Cairo in recent weeks and are instead using their academic courses as a way to take in the historical moment. "The situation of Egypt is definitely being discussed in all of my classes, and it is especially interesting to hear the views of Egyptian students," says Sacerio, a sociology and anthropology major who says it's striking how many Egyptians seem disillusioned with the revolution. "Many believe that the country has actually gone backward since the fall of [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak."

Daniel Sacerio '13, draped in the Libyan flag, joined Egyptians in celebrating the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Delaying democracy
Egypt's military, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, took over as head of Egypt after Mubarak resigned, but it has since come under criticism for delaying Egypt's transition to democracy. Massive protests in late November have questioned the authority of the military government. Dorn, a political science major recently featured in an Associated Press story about students studying in Egypt, says it's clear the revolution is an ongoing process that will may take years. "Egypt is not a democracy; it is an authoritarian country, meaning those in power were always going to try to stay in power. The system in which this takes place needs to be completely swept away," she says.

All three St. Olaf students became interested in studying in an Arab country after taking Assistant Professor of Sociology Ibtesam Al Atiyat's Arab World, a sociology class taught on the Hill. They all wanted to learn Arabic, and Egyptian Arabic is the most common dialect spoken. That, combined with Egypt's cultural influence, made studying in Cairo their first choice.

So far they're enjoying the experience, and the political unrest hasn't stopped them from taking in some of the highlights of the region. Sacerio, who studied this summer at the Qasid Arabic Institute in Jordan, traveled to southern Sinai. Greendale and Dorn spent a weekend in Alexandria — the ancient city on the Nile River delta — and saw where the Lighthouse of Alexandria once stood. The two also climbed to the top of Mount Sinai at night and watched the sunrise over the Sinai desert.

Sacerio even joined Egyptians in celebrating the fall of Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

"Overall, Cairo has been great," says Greendale.

Check out this recent Associated Press story that quotes Dorn from Cairo.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or