By Elizabeth Lepro | This story appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of AUCToday.
Between law school, a marriage and a few major relocations, Kai Schneider (SAB ’97) has ostensibly lived a whole life since leaving AUC in the late 1990s.
Yet, on a return visit to Cairo with his brother, Schneider cruised down the street where he lived when he studied abroad at AUC. He found his old bawab [doorman] and friend still sitting right where he remembered him. “He recognized me, ran down the street and hugged me, and just fell apart crying,” Schneider said.
Now in his early 40s, Schneider spent most of his adolescence moving back and forth between Sweden and the United States, and knows what it’s like to leave a place behind. Yet, listening to him talk about Cairo makes it clear he has reserved a special spot in his heart for the ancient city, the connections he made and the memories — many involving public transportation mishaps — he still laughs at today.
“I have friends from AUC who are back in the United States,” Schneider recalled. “We still talk about Tahrir and Cairo.”
Over 13,000 of AUC’s more than 38,000 alumni live internationally in more than 120 countries. Preparing students to become global citizens is built into the design of the University. Like dots on a map all connected back to the same starting point, students over the years have taken what they learned from Egypt, from AUC and from each other into careers where adapting to new cultures and environments is often part of the job description.
“From a management perspective, I still use the lessons I learned being at AUC and in Cairo,” said Schneider, who studied international relations at AUC on a study-abroad program from the American University in Washington, D.C. and went on to law school. Schneider now lives in Singapore, is the managing partner of the Singapore office of Clifford Chance international law firm, and heads the office’s Funds and Investment Management group.
Alumni utilize Cairo-learned lessons — including the ability to adapt, laugh in any situation and empathize with those around them — in their offices thousands of miles away from Egypt. Take Mahmoud Mouaz ’00, who came to AUC to study engineering, but realized his heart was in connecting with people.
Mouaz, sales director for Iskraemeco smart energy company in Slovenia, credits his active involvement in the Student Union’s activities committee with the realization that he was made for leadership positions in sales and marketing. As an undergraduate, Mouaz helped plan trips and concerts, like the carnival on campus, and worked closely with people from a range of backgrounds and experiences. He developed “a broad way of thinking and an ability to understand different people and characters, and create business opportunities. “I am able to adapt,” he said. “I lived in Dubai and Slovenia, and traveled for a period of time between Cairo and New York.”
Reflecting on how AUC helps develop leadership and interpersonal skills, he noted, “AUC builds that self-drive. Its education system and activities help students find what they are good at and give them the motive to fight to succeed.”
Moving to a new country, be it Egypt or Slovenia or Singapore, does come with the risk of drowning. Svanhildur Thorvaldsdottir (SAB ’05), who is Icelandic but educated in the United States, remembers how daunting it was to study abroad in Cairo when she was an undergraduate. “Being completely unable to communicate — although I was able to roughly get by at the end of the semester — was an interesting experience and one that I think everyone should try out sometime, even though it’s super hard and frustrating,” Thorvaldsdottir said. “The first time I successfully directed a cab driver to my house in Arabic was a very proud moment.”
Thorvaldsdottir, a postdoctoral researcher at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Germany, remembers being inundated with safety warnings before making the move to Egypt. “I had heard from various people I knew that ‘you can’t take a cab there. You can’t eat the vegetables. You can’t buy the juice from the juice guys. You can’t do this; you can’t do that’ and to basically eat nothing and do nothing because it isn’t safe,” she said.
Yet, another benefit of having a global network of alumni is that Thorvaldsdottir and others go on to be ambassadors for the realities of Cairo. “My favorite juice is still half pomegranate, half guava from the juice guy. The veggies are lovely, and I had some of my most interesting conversations with cab drivers,” Thorvaldsdottir continued.
“For me, being able to step out of the tourist bubble and just get to know the country a bit more was a really valuable experience.”
Mouaz, too, finds Cairo’s friendly atmosphere and the compassion of Egyptians an easy message to promote in Slovenia. “Egyptians in general care about the welfare of society; they are decent and good-natured. They’re not really big on capitalism or individualistic behaviors,” said Mouaz “This is in harmony here. At one point, Slovenia was the economic capital of Yugoslavia, and Yugoslavia was big on socialism. You can still see traces of socialism here with the behavior of the people. It’s more collective, which means that the society cares for the welfare of all people — like Egyptians do.”
Adapting to the snowfall and chilly climate during Slovenian winters is a different story. Mouaz admits he’s more of a sunny-weather guy. Egypt is, after all, his homeland. “I’ve traveled a lot and lived in different places, but Egypt is where I belong,” he said. Offering words of advice, he added, “Always be proud of who you are and where you come from. Invest in your future.”