Winter 2010

Beyond the Quads

Cairo connection

The Sawiris Scholars program builds bridges between Egypt and Chicago.

By Elizabeth Station


If public radio steps up its coverage of the Middle East, Julia Simon, AB’09, is ready to do the reporting.

If Egypt’s future financial reforms draw on Chicago-style economics, Mahmoud Khairy could be the conduit.

Simon, an aspiring journalist from California, graduated last June with a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentration. Khairy, an Egyptian, is finishing his economics and political-science degree at Cairo University. Both can trace their current endeavors and future hopes to a common experience: the University’s Sawiris Scholars program.

Now in its fourth year, the exchange brings Egyptian undergraduates to Chicago for four months of economics training and cultural immersion and sends Chicago students to Cairo for summer research, internships, and Arabic language study. The program is named for Nassef Sawiris, AB’82, an Egyptian businessman who says his experiences at the College were “a major contributor” to his subsequent path. Sawiris is the chairman and CEO of Orascom Construction Industries, one of Egypt’s largest corporations. With his financial support, six young Egyptian scholars and more than 25 Chicago students have participated in the exchange.

Sawiris says the program targets “very talented, hardworking, and ambitious” Egyptian students who may lack the financial resources to study abroad. That description fits Khairy, who took Roger Myerson’s game-theory class and courses in microeconomics and international finance at Chicago; he also audited a graduate-level experimental-economics class and a political-economy workshop. Khairy says his dream is to get a PhD and do research “on the social and behavioral side of economics” and to participate in efforts to reform Egypt’s financial and public sectors.

Khairy and Salma El Shafie, another Sawiris scholar, noticed differences “in everything” at Chicago, especially the way students and faculty interact in and outside the classroom. “There are no big limits, like in Egypt,” says El Shafie. “They are so friendly with each other.” On a weekend outing with senior economics lecturer Allen Sanderson, Khairy got into the spirit of informality as the two rode bikes along the lakefront. He remembers thinking in disbelief, “I’m racing with my professor!”

Cultural differences also abound for Chicago students who venture to Cairo. Researching the history of Egypt’s renewable energy policy for her BA paper, Simon visited wind farms on the Red Sea and a new solar thermal plant south of Cairo. Interviewing local workers, scientists, and government officials in Arabic and English, she says, “I got such a nuanced understanding not only of the Egyptian energy economy but how the Egyptian bureaucracy works. It’s huge, unwieldy, and frustrating at times, but it was a really illuminating experience.”

While in Cairo, Simon told a British reporter about her interests and previous internship experiences with National Public Radio in the United States. The conversation led to an internship this past fall with the BBC’s Cairo news bureau, where Simon pitched a story on renewable energy to her employers. They didn’t bite, but last fall, her profile of Egyptian television actor Akram al-Sharkawy was broadcast on Public Radio International.

A third Sawiris scholar, Rachel Levine, AB’08, focused her senior thesis on the politics of literary translation, doing research in the Egyptian National Archives (Dar Al-Kutub) and in personal libraries. “Libraries in the developing world aren’t exactly like the Regenstein,” she recalls. Getting to know Egyptian scholars, writers, and journalists made the challenge worthwhile. The experience, she says, “shed light on the dedication of academics and intellectuals working under less-than-ideal conditions.”

The exchange provides some of its most valuable lessons through daily living. By volunteering at a Hyde Park clinic and living at International House, El Shafie—who had never been separated from her family before—met Chicagoans from widely different backgrounds. “It doesn’t matter how diverse we are,” she concludes. “We can live together and learn from each other.”

As an Arabic-speaking American working closely with Egyptian scholars, Levine also found barriers dissolved. “There is no doubt that academic exchange can be a very powerful form of cultural diplomacy,” she says. “Every new relationship between Americans and citizens of Muslim countries is another drop in the bucket of increasing mutual respect.”