By Abigail Flynn

When DJ Johnston first arrived in Cairo last August, he felt a bit lost. The Center for Arabic Study Abroad @ AUC scholar initially struggled, lacking a connection to local places and being far from family and friends. Thanks to the program, that quickly changed.

“Today, I have restaurants and stores I visit on a daily basis with people who know me and know I can speak Arabic,” Johnston says. “It’s a great feeling when the person I’m talking to realizes I can communicate well with them in Arabic so they don’t have to switch to English.”

Johnston came to Cairo to study Arabic with CASA@AUC, a yearlong intensive and immersive language program that aims to bring students to near-native Arabic fluency. “I chose to come to Egypt because it’s the mother of all civilizations, and I wanted to experience its richness of culture, history and language,” he explains.

Now living and studying in the City of a Thousand Minarets, Johnston’s language skills have blossomed alongside his love of Cairo. “Because of the program, I’ve been able to improve my Arabic, lay down new roots and create incredible relationships with Egyptians and internationals.”

Johnston in his CASA@AUC class. Photo by Omar Mohsen

International indeed. With classmates from England, Mexico and Ireland and softball teammates from Japan, the Philippines and Europe, Egypt offers Johnston a uniquely global social network. Outside of class, he can be found having tea and playing backgammon with friends at local ahwas (coffeeshops) or practicing sports in Maadi.

“My favorite part about Cairo so far is that it’s a 24-hour city; it never sleeps. If you’re thirsty, there’s a cafe that’s open. If you’re hungry, there’s a grocery store that never closes. There are always new exhibits and concerts to enjoy as well,” Johnston says.

Johnston’s journey did not begin in Cairo, however. Born and raised in the United States, he studied politics, economics and Middle Eastern and South Asian studies at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, in addition to obtaining an associate degree from Central Virginia Community College.

Johnston at AUC Tahrir Square. Photo by Omar Mohsen

A first-generation college student, Johnston received help from a College Promise Careers Institute program called Lynchburg Beacon of Hope, which helps connect high school students to postsecondary education opportunities.

The program’s counselors helped him find scholarships and navigate applications, allowing him to study for his associate and bachelor’s degrees. His path gave him the opportunity to introduce First Lady of the United States Jill Biden at the institute last fall. During his speech, he emphasized the importance of making postsecondary education accessible to all.

“It was an honor and a privilege to introduce Dr. Biden, especially since she is a community college professor,” Johnston recalls. “Community college has been a critical part of my journey, and the College Promise Careers Institute supports students like me.”

Johnston is passionate about information sharing in opening doors for talented students. “Opportunities are out there. As young students, we just need someone to invest in us, show us that we are valuable and encourage us to tell our story,” he says. “I hope that my experience will inspire students and change-makers across the globe to transform their lives, their communities and, ultimately, the world.”

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