U.S. College Students Return from Egypt

PHOTO: American universities faced several challenges when bringing back students studying abroad.PlayCourtesy Claire Rowell
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Jordan Bellquist had just finished studying with a couple of friends in a small Egyptian cafe when an Egyptian man approached them, speaking to them in English.

"Take care of yourselves tonight. Something like a revolution is coming," he said.

Bellquist, a senior at the University of Texas in Austin, was one of 57 students studying abroad at the University of Alexandria as part of her school's Arabic Flagship Program, a language-intensive immersion program for students studying Arabic language and culture.

The next day, she watched as the country erupted. Protesters poured onto the streets denouncing President Hosni Mubarak.

That was one week ago. At the time, she was living with an Egyptian woman who didn't allow her to leave the house at any point during that day.

"Not only my university, but the head of my scholarship, and American Councils all tried to contact us immediately through e-mail," Bellquist said. At that time, however, Internet and cell phone services had already been shut down across Egypt.

"The only means of communication were through landline phones," Bellquist said.

The American Councils for International Education, a nonprofit that administers several study abroad programs, managed to reach Bellquist because she was living with a woman who had strong ties to the program.

"They wanted to make sure everyone was staying inside and accounted for," Bellquist said.

Once they established contact with all of the students, they moved them to one central location.

"I was under the impression we were going to stay with our resident coordinator a night or two and then be allowed to return to our host families," Bellquist said.

It was not until Saturday night that she realized the severity of the situation.

"All the men stood out below us with clubs, knives, swords … whatever weapons they had in order to protect the street and families," Bellquist said.

Bellquist received a call from American Councils that night, telling her that all of the American students would be evacuated. Even so, she didn't want to go. Bellquist didn't want to receive updates about Egypt from the American media, she wanted to witness it firsthand.

"Our evacuation was arranged for the first available flight the following Monday morning," Bellquist said. "I was shocked by the decision at first and didn't want to leave."

But whether students wanted to leave or not, universities across the United States began arranging to fly their students out of Egypt.

American Universities Scramble to Evacuate Students

Claire Rowell, a junior anthropology major at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. was studying abroad for the semester at American University in Cairo. She went to bed on Sunday night with her bags packed so she could leave at any time.

In the meantime, Rowell and four other students from Wheaton were instructed to stay in their dorms on the island of Zamalek on the Nile River.

In the final days before leaving, Rowell looked outside to see an Egyptian security team with sticks. They were protecting the dorm against looters.

"You could hear the rubber bullets, hear the gunshots," Rowell said. "It was really hard to say what the sounds were. Sounds of the city crumbling."

On Monday morning the president of the university visited, telling the students about an optional evacuation.

"They tell us, if we want to take these optional flights we have to be downstairs in half an hour because there's a bus leaving for the airport," Rowell said. "And the thing about the flights was that you could only have one suitcase and one carry-on and a lot of us brought two suitcases with us, so we kind of had to leave a lot of things there. That made it seem a little more real because when you're trying to leave a country and it's in a very quick time period and it is in an emergency evacuation you can't really be picky."

Although Rowell had never been in such close proximity to violent protests, she says she wasn't worried for her own safety.

"I never felt we were in imminent danger," Rowell said.

Peggy Campbell, Rowell's mother, said Wheaton handled the situation exceptionally well.

"Wheaton was terrific, absolutely terrific. The people at Wheaton who were responsible for this, the global studies office, were accessible to the parents around the clock," Campbell said.

After nine hours at the airport, the students made it to the counter and by 1:00 a.m. the following morning they were flying to Athens, Greece. From Athens, Rowell and her fellow students had a whirlwind experience, spending about eight hours in Athens before flying to Switzerland. They were in Zurich for thirty minutes before flying back to Boston and the heavy snow.

Struggling to Stay in Touch

Difficulties communicating with those in Egypt tested study abroad procedures for many universities.

University of Florida spokesman Steve Orlando said their first step was to establish communication with an undergraduate student who was taking classes in Cairo.

Although university officials still have limited information about the student, Orlando said they received confirmation of his arrival to Istanbul on Wednesday.

A big hurdle was getting in touch with the student, said Orlando, but they eventually had success using landlines.

It was something that many university officials had never dealt with before.

Kathleen Fairfax, Vice Provost for Global Education Services at Arizona State University said the university learned a lot from the situation in Egypt.

"We have experienced no Internet before, and no or limited cell phone service before, but this was the first time we have had both of those communication tools unavailable," Fairfax wrote in an e-mail to ABCNews.com. "For awhile, it was difficult to even reach the U.S. Embassy, and their website was down with the disruption of the Internet. So again, there was a lot of relaying of information going on (involving many people and offices)."

Both ASU students were safely flown out of Egypt -- one arrived in the U.S. last night and the other is scheduled to arrive this afternoon.

The University of Nebraska in Lincoln did not have any students traveling in Egypt, but a group of architecture students in a London-based program for UNL had planned to travel there at the end of January. Not surprisingly, those travel plans were canceled.

Although some students were disappointed when their study abroad programs were canceled or shortened, their universities have adapted to the circumstances.

Bellquist now has a job as an Arabic teaching assistant at the University of Texas where she will remain until she knows whether or not she can return to Egypt, where she had been studying since the summer of last year.

"Overall it's the best experience I've had in my life and I wouldn't trade it for anything," Bellquist said.

ABCNews.com contributor Olivia Stacey is a member of the ABC News on Campus program in Gainesville, Fla.

ABC News on Campus reporters Matt Phifer, Chelsea Smith, Charlie Litton and Tia Castaneda contributed to this report.
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