Study Abroad, At Home

For New York archaeology students, a planned semester studying ruins in Egypt turned into a round trip back to Manhattan

Altman-Lupu, who had been planning to spend the final two weeks of the dig working with a topographer to help map the site using AutoCAD software, remains disappointed that she was pulled out. “Everyone was really frustrated. We hadn’t been in any real danger,” she says. Like most in the group, she plans to take NYU up on the offer to return at no cost in a future semester—in her case, the year after she graduates from Barnard.

Being forced to evacuate in the midst of a study abroad semester is “not common,” says Julie Friend, Michigan State University’s international analyst for travel health, safety, and security. But this has been an uncommon semester, starting with the uprising in Egypt, which was followed by major earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, and most recently Japan, where, this semester, more than 126 students from Columbia alone were studying abroad.

In Egypt, cut off from their programs’ administrators by the shutdown of the Internet and the difficulty of travel, many students were left to fend for themselves. When the protests began, says Luke Bolton, who had left Brooklyn for Cairo on a Fulbright scholarship, he “didn’t expect much to happen.” By Saturday, there was shooting outside the apartment he shared with his wife, Caity Bolton, a 2010 alumnus of NYU’s program in Near Eastern Studies. They took shelter in a friend’s apartment down the street. “At that point, we were scared enough for our lives that we put sofas up as barricades on our door,” recalls Caity.

ARTIST: Lalo, the artist behind La Cucaracha, is also working on several TV animation projects and lighting dozens of Virgin of Gaudalupe candles to ensure their success. (
ARTIST: Lalo, the artist behind La Cucaracha, is also working on several TV animation projects and lighting dozens of Virgin of Gaudalupe candles to ensure their success. (

The Boltons found Internet access through an obscure service provider, which put them “in a better situation than the Fulbright office,” says Luke, who learned the next Tuesday, February 1, that he would lose his grant if he didn’t evacuate temporarily. Two days later, the Boltons boarded a flight bound for Kenya, where they waited almost two months to return to Egypt.

Bolton’s Fulbright colleague, Lauren E. Bohn, a budding journalist, decided to stay in Egypt in spite of the possibility that she would lose her grant and has since reported on events there for CNN. NYU Near Eastern Studies M.A. candidate Liam Stack also stayed and filed dozens of articles for the New York Times, including one on the exodus of American students from Cairo.

In Alexandria, meanwhile, Columbia University junior Dexter Thompson-Pomeroy, who studies political science, watched as police stations burned and Egyptian students at his University of Alexandria dormitory fled to their homes. One chef at the cafeteria, he recalls, handed out bags of food and fresh-baked pitas to him and his fellow students in a language-immersion program run by Middlebury College, then ran to beat an early curfew.

Later in the day, the program director told the 11 students there to move immediately into a two-bedroom apartment in another part of town that was being leased by two other program students. As the sun set, the building’s residents fashioned makeshift weapons, including planks with nails hammered into them, and gathered in a meeting. “It was basically to decide how we were going to protect ourselves if we were attacked,” says Thompson-Pomeroy. “You’ve woken up that morning thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll have class today,’ and then in the afternoon you’re taking stock of what large, blunt objects you could throw at a possible intruder.”

That night, he slept about two hours. “Every time we heard gunshots and shouting, we were conflicted,” he says. “Half of you wants to run toward the balcony and see what’s going on, and half of you wants to run into the apartment and take cover.”

When Thompson-Pomeroy finally evacuated, on the same day as the Amheida students, on a plane he never learned who had chartered, he and his fellow students stood in the aisles, sharing a bottle of duty-free whiskey as they mused about what they’d do next. Thompson-Pomeroy knew that he didn’t want to enroll late in classes at Columbia—an option both he and the Amheida students were offered—because, he says, “the last thing I felt like doing after that ordeal was catching up on three weeks of work.”

It’s a sentiment Moadel-Attie shared. “I couldn’t start at Barnard,” she says. “Midterms would have been the next week.” All but two of the Amheida students ultimately decided to continue the program at ISAW.

The Amheida group readjusted slowly to New York, according to Altman-Lupu. “My theory is that we were all vitamin D–deficient for a little while because everyone was really tired the first few weeks back,” she says. But she praises Morris, who set up courses on Egyptological methods and ancient Egyptian communities, for the individual attention she has lavished on group members. She gushes about Philadelphia’s Penn Museum, where a curator led them on a tour of its stores of ancient Egyptian mummies and artifacts. And she also found an internship at the Tenement Museum, where she is assisting in a new study of the Hebrew Technical Institute, a 19th-century Lower East Side school founded by Jewish philanthropists, a project she sees as linked to archaeology, though she’s using paper archives rather than potsherds.

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