By Brian Barker - Western State Colorado University senior Amy Nilius had traveled a long way from Gunnison to stand inside the historic Al-Hussein Mosque in Egypt. She was experiencing what she would later call some of the most profound moments of her life. Nilius was standing among a group of Egyptian women, feeling self-conscious and out of place, when a young girl came up and asked where she was from.
“We told her 'America,' and her mother and a few other women came up to us telling us that they were so excited to see Americans because they had never met any before,” Nilius says. Moments later, she and her fellow Western students were embraced by the Egyptians and building cultural bridges.
Nilius, an anthropology major, and 12 other Western students were on a trip arranged by Western State Colorado University’s Extended Studies Program. Guided by Sociology professor Dr. Dan Cress, the group met with representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood and student protestors, and many others, as they studied democracy in the making.
“If you care about democracy, the best place to be in the world right now is Egypt,” says Dr. Cress, who led the class trip to Egypt this summer. The class, called “Protest, Emergent Democracy and the Role of Islam and Egypt” was open to Western students and community members.
The students spent nearly a year preparing for the trip. They met several times a month at Dr. Cress’s house or at a local restaurant to talk about reading assignments, plan trip logistics, and gain a better understanding of political developments before they arrived in Egypt.
“Although we did prepare and covered some of the cultural differences that we would encounter,” Western student Amy Nilius says, “there was no true understanding of it until we were actually submerged into the Egyptian culture.”
“We hit the ground running,” says Western senior Kevin Noreen. “We were fighting jet lag, learning to work with translators, and working to understand a different culture. It was absolutely fascinating and one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.”
The trip was made possible in part by the Arab American Foundation for Multicultural Education and Students' Understanding, an organization that works to build bridges between Egypt and the United States.
During their time in Egypt, Western students met with a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian journalists, an Egyptian military general, university students, Egypt’s vice minister of higher education, and U.S. Embassy staff. Dr. Cress and the students who traveled to Egypt say that, despite the evolving political situation there, the group never felt unsafe or unwelcome.
“The most profound experience for me was interacting with the Egyptian university students,” Western student Kevin Noreen says. “We met Egyptians who were our age and built connections with them. Many of these students were intimately involved with the political upheaval that continues to change the political climate there.” Noreen was so interested in Egypt that he stayed in the country for another two weeks after the rest of the Western delegation returned to the U.S.
“We want our students to have the opportunity to explore the world, but not everyone can make it to Egypt,” says Dr. Cress. “Now we want to bring our experience back to Gunnison so we can share what we learned and bring international flavor and understanding to our student body.” Cress and his students plan a series of lectures and slideshows in the Gunnison Valley this fall.
Western student Amy Nilius says the experience has forever changed her perception of Middle Eastern culture. “It illustrated that cultural differences do not separate us, but are a platform for a deeper understanding for each culture,” she says. “The beginning of the experience was an example of cultural bias that we held, which was based around inexperience. Once interaction took place though, we saw through the bias and were able to immerse ourselves and experience the culture and the traditions that were taking place.”