By Juliana Fidler
Jackie Serchuk stands quietly next to her poster in the back of a room buzzing with students excited to talk about their experiences abroad without annoying their stateside friends. Among the students’ posters, Serchuk’s stands out; it is covered with not just photos of a particular city, but photos of two cities, as well as Facebook status updates in large text assuring her friends and family that she was safe. At the New Jersey Regional Study Abroad Re-Entry Conference at The College of New Jersey, she is among students who speak about what they participated in, researched or learned while away for a semester or full year.
About two years ago, the Montclair State University student arrived in Cairo, Egypt prepared to spend four months at the American University of Cairo. But Serchuk’s was no typical semester abroad. The 2011 Egyptian Revolution, part of the Arab Spring, forced her and her classmates to evacuate the country just days after they arrived and began a journey that took her from Egypt to England and eventually to Italy.
Serchuk had a strong interest in Egyptian culture, especially the rights and lives of women. Just four days into her program, an adviser gathered the students and explained that the now infamous riots had started. Program directors cancelled the planned trip to the pyramids and instead took students to the campus in the outskirts of Cairo.
While the students in the program didn’t know what to make of the riots, program advisers had them call their parents, warning them that the telephone lines and Internet would go down. Serchuk didn’t heed the advice. “That’s idiotic. No one can shut down a whole country’s communication,” she’d thought at the time. “But they did.”
Once the phone lines were back up, the American students were all trying to buy minutes for their “cheap travel phones” at once. A day and a half later, their international cell phones started working again, and they were finally able to call their parents.
Fortunately, Serchuk wasn’t in it alone. She met Claire Rayton, originally from Massachusetts, on the plane ride to Egypt. The two became fast friends and experienced the entire ordeal together. The sights and sounds of a city in turmoil, Serchuk said, were “crazy.” Store windows were boarded up, people guarded their stores with sticks, and army men and tanks were everywhere. “After our curfew every day, we’d all sit in the residence hall and watch news all night. Or we’d sit on the terrace, and you could see tear gas smoke and hear them chanting.”
She was conscious of the significance of the extreme situation. “There’s nothing like that here,” she said, referring to the United States. “Our riots aren’t like that.”
Rayton agreed. “It was crazy because you could hear the mob … You could hear the roar, and you knew that there were people dying a mile and a half away.”
Observing the curfew was a crucial safety matter. “After curfew, you could get arrested. At night, it was a different world,” explained Serchuk.
The young art major felt a variety of things while she was in Egypt during the riots, but fear was not one of them. The students were protected, and Americans were not being targeted—the Egyptian government was. She was more worried about what her family was thinking when she couldn’t contact them to tell them that she wasn’t in danger.
“We were just eating rice in the residence hall and watching the news like they were,” she said. But since they had no way of knowing that, it would be easy to assume the worst.
Serchuk said that the “eye-opening” experience also made her sad. “They were fighting so hard for these rights that we’re given [in the U.S.],” she said of the rioters, who were protesting the long-time regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
“We should have been scared,” admitted Rayton upon reflection.
A week and a half after their arrival, Serchuk and Rayton, along with another friend, evacuated Cairo, as all of the students in their program were required to do. Their first option to leave the country was offered by the U.S. Embassy, but had they gotten in the line for an evacuation flight, they wouldn’t have known where they were going and would have had to pay an “extraordinary amount of money,” Rayton said. Rayton’s parents worked from the U.S. on an alternative plan: to book the three friends seats on a non-evacuation flight to London where they remained for another week and a half.
In London, Serchuk contacted her study abroad officer, who she said laughed at her request to return to Egypt for the semester. Montclair’s program had been suspended, and she wouldn’t get any academic credit even if she could return to the University. “That was the worst night,” Serchuk said of the disappointment.
Though their other friend decided to return to the States, Serchuk and Rayton, with the assistance of helpful study abroad advisers shifted their plans and spent their four months in Florence, Italy at Florence University of the Arts. “If I don’t study abroad now,” Serchuk said she remembers thinking, “I’m not going to study abroad again.”
They had packed modest, desert-appropriate clothing only to find themselves in a fashion-obsessed European city with much lower temperatures, and though they couldn’t afford a new wardrobe right away, Serchuk described Florence as “amazing and beautiful.” It wasn’t Egypt, but it was “different from what we expected,” she says. Even in Florence, Rayton said, it was hard to relate to people who hadn’t experienced the whirlwind they had in Egypt.
“Most people there didn’t care,” Serchuk added.
Both friends agreed that though they hadn’t met before their journey began, having a friend along for the ride changed the situation dramatically. “We went through something together that no one else could understand,” Serchuk said of the “emotional” experience. “There’s nobody else I can talk to about it.”
“Going through something like that with another person—we had a lot that we shared,” Rayton said of Serchuk. “I’m so glad we did go together. If I hadn’t had somebody to continue on with, I probably would have gone home,” she said.
Among the myriad things the pair learned through their semester abroad are perspective and flexibility. “We have it really good compared to a lot of the world,” Serchuk said, which affects how both women now see their lives in the States.
While both said that the choice to study abroad was one of the best they could have made, Serchuk has rethought her immediate career plans to include helping other students study abroad. Currently pursuing a master’s degree in counseling at Montclair State University, the 23-year-old hopes to become a study abroad officer. She can certainly say that she has practice taking on the unexpected in a foreign country.
The trip proved to be a test of flexibility for both women, and they took a lesson away from it. “The world does not always work with your plans,” Rayton said.