An unexpected thing happened in Cairo

When students walk into Leigh Martin's office in the Schindler Education Center at the University of Northern Iowa, they go in thinking one thing and come out with a totally different perspective. A common phrase Martin hears is "I want to go overseas." Martin reminds them that simply wanting to go overseas is picking a destination; what they're really looking for is an experience.

UNI student in Cairo
UNI graduate Anne Sarafin student taught in
Cairo, Egypt during the spring 2011 semester.

Martin is the international and out-of-state student-teaching coordinator in the Office of Student Field Experiences. She helps teacher-education students find student-teaching placements.

During the spring 2011 semester, Martin helped five UNI students find student-teaching positions at the American International School of Egypt (AIS) in Cairo, Egypt. Shortly after arriving in January, their experience turned into something they'll never forget. On Jan. 25, Egypt erupted in mass protests sparking a revolution.

"We knew something was going on in the city after the revolution in Tunisia, but many people had doubts regarding the scale of demonstrations in Egypt," said Anne Sarafin, one of the UNI students at AIS.

Martin stays current with news reports from countries where students are teaching. After seeing that protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt had begun, she immediately tried to contact each of the five students, but received no response.

"Our concerns grew once we didn't have a way to communicate with each other," said Sarafin. "I went out for dinner one night, and when I returned some websites didn't work; I couldn't access Facebook and Twitter. When I woke up the next morning, all Internet and mobile phone lines had been cut."

"All of this happened very quickly," said Martin. "When I didn't get a response from the students, I alerted the president's office and we quickly came up with an action plan."

Eventually, sporadic connections through landlines made it possible to communicate that all students were doing well, questions were answered and a plan was laid out by UNI and AIS to evacuate the students from Cairo.

"The communication level between AIS, UNI and parents is what made this happen successfully," said Martin.

"We were all quite disappointed to leave Egypt, but we returned to Iowa and continued our student-teaching in quality schools in the Cedar Valley instead," said Sarafin.

While this experience made a major impression on the student teachers, it also had an impact on students in the U.S. schools where they finished up.

"Cedar Valley students started to get interested in Cairo," said Martin. "These UNI students impacted the classrooms and made people look at Egypt a little differently by dismissing some of the stereotypes."

Of the five students that originally went to Cairo to student teach, four went back to take fulltime positions with AIS, including Sarafin.

"I think people often overlook great opportunities outside of their comfort zone," said Sarafin. "I have to be honest, I debated coming back as situations changed in Cairo. In the end, it was the best option for me. I'm so glad that I did come back because I've made great friends and love teaching at AIS."

Cairo, Egypt
 A view of Cairo, Egypt at sunset.