A vacation education

It’s not every day that riding a camel is part of an educational field trip for a student at the University of Prince Edward Island.

UPEI students Julie Dickson of Cardigan

UPEI students Julie Dickson of Cardigan

CHARLOTTETOWN — It’s not every day that riding a camel is part of an educational field trip for a student at the University of Prince Edward Island.

But this was just one wild and wacky experience had by Catherine Fournier of Charlottetown as part of the second annual Middle East Studies Program in Egypt.

“I was freaking out a little bit when my camel got up. His hind legs went up first and his front legs didn’t, so I was angled (forward) and falling off,” she laughs.

“But it was definitely one of my favourite days. It was so cool.”

Fournier was one of six UPEI students who went way out of their familiar Canadian comfort zone to be part of this unique educational experience.

The program, which is a partnership between the university and Misr International University (MIU) in Cairo, provides students with an opportunity to attend a four week-study period at MIU to learn about the history and culture of Egypt while earning two academic credits towards their UPEI degree.

“There is no better way to gain knowledge than through a combination of experiential and traditional learning opportunities,” says Sherilyn Acorn, co-ordinator of International Business Programs and Student Exchange at UPEI, who accompanied students during the 2009 program.

Up to 20 eligible students at the university receive a $5,000 scholarship of sorts which includes tuition, field trips and transportation to and from their accommodations and airports.

“All those costs are absorbed through MIU. So our students are only responsible for the travel (expenses) of getting to and from (Egypt) and their accommodations,” Acorn says.

“It’s a benefit for any student on this campus to take this program . . . . You’re travelling, working on your degree, you have the opportunity to see all the ancient sites, not to mention your personal experience. So you’re working on all the aspects of your life. It’s just life-changing.”

This year, Fournier, Julie Dickson, Bethany Devoe, Rebecca Stevenson, Danielle Haldemann and Noah MacDougall embarked upon this educational journey of a lifetime.

Their class at MIU also included five other European students.

“I wanted to take contemporary issues because while I was there I wanted to know what was going on in Egypt and learn more about their culture and society. And in that class we definitely learned a lot – more than I thought I was actually going to learn… ,” Dickson says.

“For example, we learned a lot about the burkas and women’s rights and how we (as westerners) are perceived and the list goes on.”

Burkas weren’t on the mandatory must-wear list for the females of the group, but they did have to take into account the cultural differences of that country and dress far more conservatively than they might have in Canada.

“We had to dress appropriately,” Stevenson says.

One of the unexpected challenges the group faced was the very stand-out-in-an-Egyptian-crowd nature of their presence.

“I think curiosity played a large role because after we’d been there for a couple of weeks we figured it would have died down by that point … but that wasn’t really the case,” says Stevenson.

“So we asked our tour guide and a couple of people at the university and they said for some people they don’t see lighter coloured people unless it’s on television. So it’s kind of like the first (time). But I think that for myself that was one of the hard things to get used to.”

The students were based in a small, gated community in a suburb of Cairo called El Rehab where western influences, such as a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, were present.

“But then once we left there and went to downtown Cairo that’s when you felt like you were in Egypt. It was more real,” Dickson says.

Language was definitely a barrier for the students, but Stevenson discovered an entirely new form of verbal interaction: the age-old bantering skill of bartering at the local markets.

“I am number 1 barterer, I’m telling you. If you need something, I can get it,” she grins.

“Never pay what they say, always (cut that) at least in half and sometimes you can get it for less than that.”

It took about a week for the group to settle into a comfort zone where things began to feel familiar.

“Because then we were adjusted with our apartment, the heat and somewhat the food situation, going to school, using cabs by ourselves. We kind of had more of a schedule after that,” Dickson says.

“We got to do more of our own thing after the first week. It was awesome.”

One of those on-their-own adventures was a nighttime ride to remember.

“We went horseback riding at two in the morning by the pyramids.

“And the horses were wild,” laughs Haldemann.

The pinnacle was when, after riding through back alleys congested with cars, horses and camels, they reached the crest of a hill.

“Then if you looked over one way you could see the city and the pyramids the other way. It was really cool,” Stevenson says.

MIU classes ran from Sunday through Tuesday and Wednesdays were pretty much excursion days to places such as Dahshur, Alexandria and Giza, the latter of which is the site of the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Great Sphinx.

“That was our first field trip. We were all waiting for this feeling that we were in Egypt and that was that day,” Devoe says.

Another excursion included the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

“That was actually my favourite thing in the whole world. I would go back again. I totally saw the mummy of King Ramses II. I was in awe,” Stevenson says of this ancient pharaoh and the items that were buried with him.

“It was cool because you learned about it in class and you got to see it in person. And when you went to the museum you got to see what they found (there).

“It was neat to see everything come together.”

For Devoe, the four weeks in Egypt made for an unforgettable eye-opening opportunity.

“We learned a lot about contemporary issues, like why there’s (little) change there and why they are the way that they are – just grasping the way that they actually are as a culture.”

Fournier was surprised to see how very few women were visible in the work force.

“And if there were women working they’d be all working together. Like you’d go to the grocery store one day and it would all be women as cashiers and the next day it was just men,” she says.

Stevenson says she returned to P.E.I. with “an insane appreciation for home.”

“I went to do something cool. It matters that I got two university credits, but that was kind of beside the point. I wanted to do something completely different.”