100 Years on: Paving the Path for the Middle East's Future

In a few months, the American University in Cairo, otherwise known as AUC, will celebrate its 100th birthday, a momentous occasion for any university, but one especially important to those located in the Middle East. Started by a few American missionaries in 1919, the same year the Egyptian revolution against the British took place, AUC was founded with the philosophy that educating Egyptian, and more broadly, Arab peoples with the intersection of critical thinking and liberal education is crucial in developing political, social and economic reform. Thus, AUC was established as a means of connecting Egypt with the US, paving the way for diplomacy and overlap in research between the two. While today the American University in Cairo is solely a university, it began as both a university and a preparatory school. As AUC’s own website puts it, “For its first 27 years, the University was shaped by its founding president, Charles A. Watson, who wished to create an English-language University based on high standards of conduct and scholarship, and to contribute to the intellectual growth, discipline and character of the future leaders of Egypt and the region.”

AUC’s current President, former career diplomat, Francis J. Ricciardone, is hoping to continue paving that legacy for AUC’s students in the years to come. I got the pleasure to meet him a few weeks ago over dinner and was fascinated and inspired by his philosophy and, of course, his service on behalf of the United States. As he spoke of the importance of this milestone, he told me; "As AUC approaches its 100th anniversary, raising capital for AUC's future is critical. It's an exciting and challenging endeavor because we have to identify visionary organizations and philanthropists that are passionate about Egypt and the Middle East." Now President Ricciardone was the the United States ambassador to Turkey between 2011 and 2014, the Deputy Ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and a guest scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. As well, he has served as U.S. Ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt (2005–2008), the Republic of the Philippines and the Republic of Palau (2002–2005).

Since its founding, AUC has remained a liberal arts college which provides students with the opportunity to challenge themselves in their area of interest while developing a more comprehensive understanding of society. Although AUC first began as a males-only institution, the university enrolled its first female student in 1928 at a time when many ivy schools in the US informally rejected their female applicants. Today, the University has 25 departments and institutes offering bachelor's, master's and graduate diploma programs, in addition to 13 cross-discipline research centers. In addition, AUC offers two PHD programs, a myriad of undergraduate and masters programs, all which encourage students to reflect upon the world around them and pursue an education which will help them contribute to global, and more specifically Middle Eastern society.

Interestingly, AUC started the same year Egypt’s first revolution took place and since then, AUC has lived through many other revolutions, such as the 1952 revolution and the 2011 and 2013 demonstrations as well. In fact, AUC’s original campus was located in Tahrir Square, next to a number of prominent Egyptian museums and the Nile river, also the epicenter of the 2011 and 2013 revolutions which overthrew President Hosni Mubarak and offset the Arab Spring. Today, AUC is located in New Cairo. Throughout its history and change in locations, AUC has continued to graduate alumni that hold very prominent positions in Egypt, the Middle East and around the world.

One of the key programs to graduate such leaders is the CASA or Center for Arabic Studies Abroad program. Founded in the 1960’s, the CASA program offers American students with prior Arabic experience the chance to live and engage in the Egyptian community by spending two years in Cairo studying Arabic and culture at AUC. Of its alumni, the CASA program boasts scholars and academics like Co-director of the Middle East Center at Northeastern University Denis J. Sullivan, who spent two years with the CASA program, and prominent journalists like Nick Kristof of the New York Times and even the first female governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike. Writing of his favorite CASA experience, Professor Sullivan describes his first night: “the sounds and smells invaded our senses: the teeming masses of people and cars fighting for spaces on streets and sidewalks; the sight of all of this overwhelmed us and excited us. I felt totally out of my element (think: “Dorothy and Oz”). I drank it all in. If this was culture shock, then I wanted more! Suddenly, on the edge of AUC campus, where Hill House meets Tahrir, up come three Egyptian shabaab (‘cool dudes’). “Welcome to Cairo!” were the three words, in English, one of them shouted to us as he also (literally) opened his arms to welcome us. In that split second, I felt at home in Cairo, felt welcomed as if by all the Egyptian people.” Through CASA, the AUC truly showcases the importance of relations between the US and Egypt, highlighting how such associations can inspire the thought leaders and thinkers of our world.