Upon hearing the word “Egypt,” the famous pyramids of Giza and the popular Bangles song “Walk Like an Egyptian” may come to mind. But for junior international relations major Nicole Beckerman, Egypt represents the opportunity of a lifetime, which is why she chose to use a scholarship from an American nonprofit toward her tuition this semester as she studies abroad in Cairo.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been planning my trip for a very long time,” Beckerman said. “The scholarship was just icing on the cake.”
Beckerman has been studying abroad in the capital city of Egypt since last fall. She was recently awarded a $5,000 scholarship from the National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS), an honors society for college freshmen and sophomores with a 3.4 GPA or higher that rank in the top 20 percent of their class. The organization invites eligible students to take advantage of the resources they provide, including scholarships, leadership training and internships.
For NSCS Coordinator of Outreach Communications Janine Deegan, it is common to see enthusiasm like Beckerman’s in student applications. But seeing a passion for Middle Eastern affairs is something special, she said.
“Nicole’s application really stood out because her choice made sense since she has a Middle Eastern relations background,” Deegan said. “Her desire to study Egyptian Arabic makes it especially important to study in Cairo since Cairo’s the only place to formally learn it. Nicole’s application was good because she actually wants [her trip] to help in her profession versus just for the experience.”
At age 15, Beckerman began studying Egyptian belly dancing and what started out as a hobby quickly turned into a passion. In the U.S., Beckerman owns her own belly dancing business that offers everything from lessons to private shows.
“People who do the Egyptian style have the biggest, most real and human personalities on stage,” Beckerman said. “I find them to give the most dynamic and moving performances with every body part engaged and present – from their toes to their hair – without oppressing or threatening the audience and, therefore, excluding them. A good Egyptian dancer knows how to draw people in, how to be vulnerable.”
Beckerman even designs her own Egyptian-style belly dance costumes both abroad and at home.
“I’m currently apprenticed to a major designer here and learning a lot,” Beckerman said. “From couture sewing techniques to business management to Arabic words for costuming terms, it’s an adventure and I’m grateful to be learning so much.”
Nevertheless, Beckerman insists that belly dancing isn’t the only reason she went to Cairo.
“Dancing drew me into the music, then the language, then the culture, then the politics and then the business,” Beckerman said. “Years later, I am now an IR major learning Arabic and eventually wanting to do business here. I barely dance here, as a matter of fact. Funny how things unfold, isn’t it?”
International Relations Professor Fred Lawson said he was not surprised that Beckerman won the scholarship, for she has always been “ambitious and highly motivated.” As a first-year, Beckerman took an upper division course in Middle Eastern Politics, a challenging feat given that the course was intended for advanced students. However, according to Lawson, Beckerman put forth the effort to keep up to speed.
“Nicole’s commitment to study in Cairo was both impressive and reassuring,” Lawson said. “She didn’t take the easy way out. There is nowhere in the world like Cairo. It has been the center of the Arab world for at least 100 years and has a reputation for innovation. There are important and useful books that can help students understand the Arab world, but important parts of the nuances and subtleties usually don’t get transferred into them. The only way for Americans to learn another language is somewhere else because the U.S. is so English-dominant.”
As Lawson anticipated, Beckerman said she has gained scholarly and worldly experiences that she couldn’t have gotten anywhere else since she left for Egypt in June 2009.
“People say immersion makes things easier, which is completely false,” Beckerman said. “It makes things hard and uncomfortable by forcing you to work on the language. It’s invaluable to actually learn a language, but it does not make things easier.”
Still, Beckerman said life in Cairo has gotten less difficult over time.
“Everything has gotten better and better as my Arabic has improved. That’s a major factor in having an easy time here or not,” Beckerman said. “It makes things go much more smoothly.”
Even when her Arabic wasn’t at its best, Beckerman said Egyptians were easier to talk to than the average American.
“People in general are less isolated from each other here and they really help each other out,” Beckerman said. “Strangers can talk to each other on the street and not feel scared and you get to know the people in your neighborhood so you do feel like part of the community.”
For fun, Beckerman said she enjoys “salsa dancing, walking by the Nile, chatting with various friends, translating music with [her] language partner, joking around in cafés [and] shopping.”
Beckerman is also learning to find her own favorite places off the beaten path.
“Azhar Park near the citadel is a lovely garden that looks over Cairo and is great for just strolling and attending concerts,” Beckerman said.
“Behind the major suuq Khan al Khalili, there are some very old mosques and buildings that are lit beautifully and look awesome by night or day,” she said. “Actually, the place where I feel like I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world is sitting in a plastic chair in a cheap street cafe, sipping some tea downtown under palm trees, just hanging out.”
The adventures aside, is studying abroad worth the expense? Deegan believes so.
“Studying abroad is a phenomenal experience,” Deegan said. “Really seriously consider the opportunity. If you meet the requirements to be a member of NCSC but don’t get an e-mail, you can self-nominate yourself so that you are eligible for scholarships like the one Nicole won. It’s great to get out of the bubble and learn.”
According to Deegan, there are 60 Mills women who have earned membership to NSCS since the Mills chapter was founded in 2009. NSCS receives between 150 and 300 applications from its members for each semester — fall, spring and summer — for the study abroad scholarship. Of the scholarship winners, Beckerman is the first to travel to Cairo.
Beckerman said she is grateful she chose Cairo.
“I could have [completed my major] at Mills and had everything in order to meet my requirements; and actually, I had everything done except a few electives,” Beckerman admitted. “But this provides me with a much deeper type of IR major. I’ve gotten to gain a much richer understanding of Middle Eastern politics through language and social immersion than I ever could have back in the U.S.”
According to Assistant Registrar Cara Cernak, the College does not currently have study abroad counselors, but does provide alternative options to learn more about opportunities. The Study Abroad Resource Center offers information on various programs, namely the 20 or so sponsor institutions. Cernak said she encourages interested students to go to the workshops held twice a year, consult one of the international study advisers, or meet with her during her office hours.
Through her own experiences in Cairo, Beckerman illustrates the benefits of studying abroad, for, through her studies, Cairo has gone from feeling like a foreign country to being a home.
“The expats’ constant refrain is, ‘Ana mish khwaga. Ana sakna henna,’ which means, ‘I am not a foreigner. I live here.'”