By Adham Ramadan
The American University in Cairo (AUC), established in 1919, represents the premier English language institution of higher education in Egypt, and the only example of American Liberal Art higher education institution with well-recognized graduate programs and a graduate student body of about 1000. It has had diversity representing not only a strategic priority for decades, but also an essential objective for the university’s establishment as a bi-culture institution. Diversity is one of the objectives of the current strategic plan, and it represents an integral part of each of the five strategic pillars of the plan (Quality of Education; Internationalization; AUC Experience; Institutional Effectiveness; Innovation). Historically, the diversity of nationalities has been the focus, with an emphasis on attracting US students to campus for learning Arabic, as degree seeking students, as well as for study-abroad experiences. The past four decades have witnessed an evolution of the concept of diversity on campus. Though attracting students from the US is still a priority, diversifying the body of international students (as well as faculty and staff members) has become important. Active recruitment, particularly at the graduate studies level, of students from Europe, the MENA Region, and sub-Saharan Africa is now key.
Additionally, the diversity of educational experiences and socioeconomic backgrounds has been enhanced, especially for graduate studies. About 60% of graduate students at AUC have obtained their bachelor degree at a public university, and about 70% of graduate students receive financial support. Targeting the refugee population in Egypt has been a particular focus for the past three years, and a special fellowship was established to this end. The development of support mechanisms for enhancing inclusive educational opportunities has led to a rise in the numbers of students with disabilities on campus. Last but not least, age diversity of the student body positively impacts the status of graduate studies, which represent the typical venue for mature students on campus. Female students represent about 60% of the graduate student body.
Active support to the diverse student groups on campus includes a wide range of initiatives which aim at maintaining a campus culture that enhances transformative learning. In addition to need-based financial support, examples of such initiatives include remedial English language courses supporting students with educational experiences falling short of expectations for English language skills; remedial Arabic language courses for international students seeking degrees requiring Arabic proficiency; academic workshops beyond the curriculum to consolidate needed skills; professional development programs for transferable skills; as well as institutional support grants for international research and study-abroad experiences. Continuous efforts to integrate diversity in the curriculum at AUC aim at consolidating learning experiences.
Within the above context, a primary focus for international graduate student recruitment over the past three years has been recruitment from sub-Saharan Africa. In this respect, a multiple-tool approach has been adopted encompassing attendance of graduate student recruitment fairs in sub-Saharan African countries; visits to major universities in selected countries; coordination with sub-Saharan embassies and diplomatic missions in Cairo; social media campaigns; the reliance on enrolled sub-Saharan African graduate students in sharing their experiences; as well as the availability of financial support opportunities specific to non-Egyptian African students. While some of these tools proved more effective than others, their complementarity has been successful in raising awareness of graduate studies opportunities at AUC in different dimensions. For example, while graduate studies fairs represent venues for reaching large and diverse student segments on the lookout for graduate education opportunities overseas, representing a pool to follow up with through social media campaigns, visits to major universities allow the development and nurturing of inter-institutional relations leading to deeper, more sustained, and also more extensive, cooperation. Coordinating recruitment activities with African embassies and diplomatic missions in Cairo not only raises the profile of the university, together with graduate studies opportunities, within the echelon of public administration in the respective countries, but also enhances the access to African nationals living in Egypt, including undergraduate students completing their studies at Egyptian national universities under different bilateral agreements between Egypt and African governments. The combined effect of these efforts led to an increase in the number of graduate admission applications from 18 applications in 2015 to 110 applications in 2019.
Relying on graduate sub-Saharan African students enrolled at AUC in sharing their experiences as part of the recruitment activities proved very effective. Word of mouth worked surprisingly well in attracting applicants of excellent caliber. It contributed to improving selectivity values from about 28% in 2015 to about 40% in 2019, within overall graduate studies selectivity values of 40% and 44% respectively. Yield values also improved from about 40% in 2015 to about 55% in 2019, within overall graduate studies selectivity values of 46% and 47% respectively, largely due to the enhancement of financial support opportunities. A fellowship program specific to non-Egyptian African graduate students was established at AUC in the 1980s, and over decades provided tuition and stipendiary support. In more recent years, the program was updated. The number of fellowships was increased, and a housing allowance was introduced. Additional emergency support was put in place for students needing to exceptionally extend their study periods, with the aim of supporting them to complete their degrees. While this fellowship program specifically targets non-Egyptian African students, all other institutional graduate fellowships are also available to them.
Sub-Saharan African students at The American University in Cairo now represent about 25% of the international graduate student body. They bring a much welcomed diversity to campus, a diversity that the university plans to support and enhance through a continued commitment to recruitment efforts and financial support opportunities.