Student Stories

Three Days in Cairo

Colonial homes of stone and hastily built concrete highrises. Signage in an amusing mix of Arabic, English, and transliteration between the two. This is Cairo, a city of dualities; profound wealth and deep poverty, crowded streets and the serene Nile. The University of Chicago undergrads added another anomaly to the city - a group dressed in decidedly Western business clothes, coming not for tourism or study but to learn about career opportunities in Egypt.

The newly founded Cairo Trek program is an excursion run by Career Advancement with the generous funding of a donor to build partnerships between the university and the people of Cairo. It consisted of three full days, nine employer visits, and twelve undergraduate participants.

As we were meeting with a range of companies across the city, employers welcomed us into their boardrooms to explain both their business and, to our delight, gave us candid commentary about the political and social situation of Egypt today. For example, the co-founder of Citadel Capital described to us the way in which oil subsidies, a holdover from the nationalization efforts by Gamal Abdel Nasser, are pushing the current economy towards a crisis. This was a prescient conversation; this issue was on the front page of the New York Times a few days later. As an avid NYT reader who is always struggling to catch up with the news, it was exciting to know about this headline-worthy story before it hit the press.

We learned about Egyptian history and politics through other visits as well. Americana, which operates the Middle Eastern branches of Pizza Hut and KFC, exerts a tremendous amount of effort working to remedy Egypt’s failing school system by preparing students with the skills and educational opportunities they need for the job market.

While many businesses contribute to charitable causes, I was struck by the genuine passion for this project held by the Executive Vice President of the corporationʼs HR department. The most incredible story we gained from the Americana visit, however, was sparked by a question about the impact of the Arab Spring on the business. When the Egyptian revolution occurred, the system running Cairo’s ATMs shut down. Americana drove around the entire city to hand-deliver the otherwise inaccessible paychecks to their employees.

This is no easy task, as we learned trekking across the city by bus. Cairo is huge. There are no lanes on the streets; five cars squeeze in what would be a four-lane highway in the United States. Constant weaving, honking, and racing for speed are compounded by the occasional horse or donkey-drawn cart and vendors selling steering wheel covers.

This traffic sometimes felt like a blessing. It provided us a time to rest, but more importantly, it was on the bus that we got to know each other. From a third-year who founded and runs an agricultural business in Uganda, to one of the former vice-presidents of Student Government, we all came from distinct backgrounds, majors, and career interests. Only one had been to Cairo before, and it was exciting to revel in and share this brief introduction to a new city with such a remarkable group of peers.