December 15, 2011
|Kate Osterloh (Class of 2009) in Tahrir Sqaure the day after President Mubarak stepped down.|
When Kate Osterloh (Class of 2009) received a 2009-10 Fulbright Award to pursue a master’s degree at The American University in Cairo, Egypt, she knew the experience was going to memorable. But after revolution broke out in January 2011, her time there took on an entirely new level of significance.
Living just a few blocks from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the uprising, the international relations major watched from her window as Egyptians banded together to fight for freedom. “It was an incredible privilege to be there, to watch these events unfold and to witness the bravery of the Egyptian people,” shared Osterloh, who is now back in the U.S. pursuing a career with the Foreign Service in the field of public diplomacy. “They were risking everything for their cause.”
Why does international work appeal to you?
The world is a fascinating place. During my time at Rollins, I had the opportunity to do an internship in England and volunteer in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The more I travel and experience, the more I see that I have so much to learn. I don't want to grow static and lose touch with what is happening around the world because I am intrigued by what human beings can accomplish when they come together in positive ways. Sometimes I look around and see endless problems that need to be solved, but flipped another way those problems become adventures to be had.
What made you want to live and study in Egypt?
My childhood love of Indiana Jones, camels, and khaki desert attire. Joking aside, I spent three months in Cairo in 2005, volunteering in a suburb called Shubra al Kheima. It was a fantastic experience and I knew I wanted to continue to learn Arabic and get a better understanding of the region.
After graduating from Rollins, I received a Fulbright to pursue a master's in international human rights law and a graduate diploma in migration and refugee studies at The American University in Cairo. The past decade in world politics has seen deepening rifts between the West and the Arab world. Religious extremism at both ends of the spectrum has increased misunderstanding and tension.
Moving to Egypt was, for me, an effort to experience the world for what it is, and not what the media makes it out to be. The world is filled with people who have hopes and dreams, who struggle to put their kids through school, who long for a political and social system that will improve their lives. Despite the fact that Cairo is as different from Winter Park as two places can be, the basic facts of life are the same.
Where were you living during the revolution?
I was living in downtown Cairo about three blocks from Tahrir Square, right across from the Ministry of the Interior. I had been in the U.S. for my sister's wedding and I returned to Cairo on February 9, a few days before President Mubarak stepped down. The taxi wouldn't enter the square, so I ended up dragging my suitcase down the torn-up pavement while listening to chants and tear gas canisters firing in the background.
My neighborhood was ringed by tanks and army officers. I was overwhelmed by how much had changed in a few weeks and inspired by how organized and determined the crowds were. The people had set up checkpoints around the square, along with emergency medical stations, tents, supply centers and a kindergarten. For the next few days, I listened to people express their desire for change via loudspeakers and microphones, through art and graffiti, on the internet and in one-on-one conversations.
What was it like living there amidst some much violence and uncertainty?
From a purely academic standpoint, conducting thesis research in the midst of a revolution is not ideal! The experience taught me a lot about being flexible and creative with the resources available and I did have a good support network to depend on. My bowab, or doorman, looked after me and the other foreigners living in my building, especially when the whole neighborhood was on lock-down and surrounded by the army. I came home a few times thinking my building was on fire, when it was actually the Ministry building across the street. One night, a friend was walking over to my apartment for dinner and got caught in a demonstration and roughed up a bit. But overall, a little common sense went a long way toward keeping us safe. I felt much more concerned for my Egyptian friends, especially those who were involved in the protests.
If you could go back in time, would you still choose to go to Egypt?
Definitely. My time in Egypt was formative in ways I can't begin to articulate. I had been studying politics and international human rights law, and then suddenly I saw it all played out right in front of me. I won't pretend everything was perfect, though. Like every country, Egypt has its problems. I experienced constant harassment in Cairo, and there were times during the two years I thought I had hit my limit. But for every bad experience, there were two or three great experiences that made it worthwhile. Every night I would sit out on my roof overlooking the city and feel a rush that I was there, getting to see the world from that perspective.
Were you able to contribute to Egypt in a meaningful way while you were there?
I volunteered about 25 hours per week at a refugee legal aid office providing legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. Cairo has a large population of refugees from all over Africa and the Middle East. Most of my clients were from Iraq or Sudan, but I also worked with refugees from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. I would listen to their stories and then help them pursue resettlement through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Sometimes I would help clients seek medical or psychological treatment for PTSD or medical problems related to past persecution.
What did you do when you got back to the U.S. and what are you doing now?
I came back to the U.S. after I finished my M.A. to reconnect with friends and family and to explore job opportunities. In addition to some other opportunities, I am pursuing a career in public diplomacy with the Foreign Service. I passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment in November and am now waiting for clearance to be put on a hiring register. I would like to return to the Middle East and develop a regional focus there during my career.
Is there any particular person or experience at Rollins that prepared you for such a globetrotting life?
One of the unique things about Rollins is that professors really care about the students. Assistant Professor of International Business Tonia Warnecke and Associate Professor of Political Science Dexter Boniface both went out of their way to help me develop a more nuanced understanding of the world through tailored research projects. Professor of Religion Yudit Greenberg allowed me to explore the Middle East through religious and language study.
Additionally, Rollins does a wonderful job of fostering students' learning by catering to their interests. They brought Arabic language classes to Rollins in response to student activism, and my Arabic professor Noelle Rumman taught me so much about Arab culture and what life would be like in the Middle East.
Jayashree Shivamoggi, director of external and competitive scholarships, encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright award to pursue my M.A. in Egypt, and spent hours helping me work on my research proposal. She became a mentor and good friend, and we still stay in close contact. I would never have made it to Egypt without her and other professors' assistance. My time at Rollins was essential to my personal and academic development.
It must be scary at times to be so far away from home and in tumultuous circumstances? Is it worth it?
Anyone who travels or lives abroad knows that there are times when you feel homesick, but you also have the opportunity to develop a close-knit community that functions as your family wherever you are. It always surprises me how kindred spirits can be found in every corner of the world. I think every student should consider spending some time abroad, because nothing broadens your thinking quite like travel does. If you have the opportunity to go off the beaten track and immerse yourself in a culture that is intimidating or uncomfortable, you will probably find that you are a more capable person than you thought.