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Akher Kalam: Cairo as the Classroom

Heather Hunt describes her early experiences in Cairo and how it made her who she is today.

By Heather Hunt| This story appeared in the July 2017 edition of AUC Today.

Heather Hunt (SAB ’08, ’09; ALU ’11) is currently pursuing her master’s in Middle East studies at AUC, where she previously studied Arabic and spent two semesters abroad. She is also a researcher for AUC’s Neighborhood Initiative. Hunt graduated with honors from Southern Methodist University, where she also received a Master of Liberal Studies. Dedicated to fostering mutual exchange and cross-cultural understanding, Hunt has spent the last decade studying the Middle East and North Africa at institutions in the United States and Egypt. A Fulbright Fellow and Gilman Scholar, Hunt is a member of the Middle East Studies Association, World Affairs Council and American Research Center in Egypt.

I have been curious about the world since I was a young child. Raised as the daughter of an East German immigrant in a small town in Texas, I can honestly say that I have no idea where my passion for Egypt and the Middle East came from. All I know is that some of my earliest memories are of Cleopatra, the pyramids and hieroglyphics. My childhood fascination with ancient Egypt grew into a desire to pursue a degree in history with the dream to someday visit Egypt. By the time I went to college at Southern Methodist University, I was determined to realize those dreams, and I began the first of two undergraduate semesters studying abroad in Egypt.

In many ways, living in Cairo has been my own kind of “borderless” classroom. When I first came to the city in 2008, I had no technological devices like a smartphone to help me navigate the complex megacity or distract me from the physical world. I fell in love with Egypt and returned in 2009, and then again in 2016 to pursue my master’s degree at AUC. Life in Cairo is easier now than it was nearly a decade ago. WhatsApp, in particular, has made it easier to connect with people across the globe. However, I would never trade the experience I had exploring Cairo on my own terms, without the aid of my phone. It forced me outside of my comfort zone and required me to rely on my own capabilities. I took the time to look up and around at the physical world. People today tend to rely on technology or lose themselves in virtual “entertainment” online instead of navigating life and appreciating the beauty of their surroundings.

My early adventures in Cairo left me feeling empowered, unafraid to conquer anything I set my mind to. I also left with an appreciation for the beauty of life and nature, something that is only understood by taking the time to get outside and look around. Life is created by the small choices we make. If I hadn’t chosen to study abroad at AUC, I wouldn’t be the strong, independent woman I am today. Getting outside of your comfort zone is one of the most important factors contributing to personal growth.

Recently, I have been researching the relationship between technology, learning and the human experience. We live in an age of rapid change and globalization. Many of us today have access to information at our fingertips, giving us the ability to learn whatever our hearts desire. But with knowledge comes responsibility. While technology can augment our learning experience, it is important to continue engaging directly with the environment around us, especially in a place like Cairo. By being “plugged in,” it is possible to unknowingly create virtual walls.

When discussing the possibility of a classroom made borderless by technology, it is also crucial to continue emphasizing the importance of having meaningful experiences in the real world. If you do not regularly interact with others in person, you not only forget how to do this, but start to believe that you don’t really need to, thus building up walls around yourself. For centuries, the world has been a borderless classroom — a free space to roam and explore.

Borders, boundaries and divides create manufactured walls of fear. The only way to tear them down is through education, preferably in a borderless classroom that utilizes the beautiful world surrounding us. I encourage everyone to constantly reflect on the way they are using technology. Einstein came up with his theory of relativity by spending time in the natural environment, not by being plugged in scrolling through Facebook. The world is our greatest classroom — borderless, without boundaries and divides. There is so much to learn if you just get out and travel.

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