By Abigail Flynn

While planting trees at a public school in New Cairo last spring, mechanical engineering sophomore Hassan El Hassan met a seventh-grade girl from the school who blew his mind.

“She already knew coding languages that university sophomores and juniors haven’t touched,” he said. “My mindset about public school students immediately changed — I was inspired to help them succeed.”

El Hassan met this student and other “hidden gems,” as he calls them, as part of a new, multidisciplinary outreach initiative from AUC’s Middle East Institute for Higher Education (MEIHE) aimed at creating school-university partnerships that promote community engagement, empower public school students and foster sustainable development.

After intensive preparation which included workshops, meetings and coaching, AUC students began volunteering at the schools in a variety of ways, starting with eco-friendly projects like making crafts from recycled materials, conducting theater workshops under the theme “sustainability” and planting gardens.

“Instead of just explaining the importance of sustainability, we wanted to practice it in real time,” said Malak Zaalouk ’71, ’76, professor of practice and MEIHE director. “Having the students plant fruit trees and vegetables on their school campuses gives them a sense of belonging and  lasting impact on their community.”

Filling the Gaps

Public schools in Egypt face a number of challenges, from overcrowding in classrooms to a lack of amenities and deficit of teachers. These partnerships seek to address these issues. By organizing school-based enrichment activities in subjects like digital literacy and English, for example, MEIHE supports informal, student-led learning activities — freeing up valuable time for teachers to focus on lesson planning and delivery. 

“We want to use our resources at AUC to empower these students, helping them see that they have a role to play in the success of their schools and communities,” Zaalouk said. “This is how public schools become more effective.”

Despite issues with staffing and amenities, students at Egyptian schools continue to strive for excellence. Haggar El Khatib, a biology senior, recalled her experience volunteering. “Engaging with public school students has opened my eyes to the daily challenges they face,” she said. “They have ideas and talent, but lack a proper channel for them. This program is that channel.”

“Instead of just explaining the importance of sustainability, we wanted to practice it in real time.”

El Khatib believes that as the initiative grows and strengthens, the students benefiting from it today will return to their schools as university students in the future to conduct similar activities — creating a chain of giving.

Shifting Culture

While spring planting and summer workshops served as short and intermediary phases of the program, MEIHE also introduced formal fully fledged community-based learning courses this fall for AUC students as part of the school-university partnerships. 

These courses cover citizenship education, sustainable development and digital literacy through neighborhood engagement programs. “By actively participating in their communities, AUC students develop a heightened sense of social responsibility and contribute to the betterment of education in Egypt as a whole,” Zaalouk said.

In this, MEIHE hopes to establish a lasting and supportive relationship between AUC and the New Cairo Educational Directorate through a renewed agreement with the Ministry of Education. The practice of school-university partnerships was established through past agreements with the ministry, largely supporting teacher agency. This time around, the focus is on student agency.

As the initiative paves more avenues of support for students, teachers and education in Egypt, El Hassan is sure that the hidden gems at these schools will begin to shine as bright as the gifted young coder he met last spring. “The future of Egypt is in good hands — if we support people like her,” he said.

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