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A Mirage in the Desert

Sayaka Tsugai working at Egypt
Sayaka Tsugai (right) in Egypt. Tsugai
worked at the Egyptian Foundation
for Advancement of Childhood
Conditions for two months in a
lifechanging internship.

— Sayaka Tsugai, POLS ‘17

The small elevator to the apartment fit just one person and lacked a door. The stairs were covered with spoiled food and garbage; stray cats lingered underfoot.

Walking down the corridor, I discovered my housing for the next two months would be a flat with a single kitchen and a bathroom shared with 13 other women. These circumstances were certainly not what I had expected. Pulling out a small mattress, I made my spot for the next two months. Then looking out the bedroom window, I observed countless homeless families lying on the street as they tried to find food for their children. I was struck by how lucky I was to even have a roof over my head. Tired of hearing myself and the other interns complain, I realized my experience in Egypt would depend on what I made of it.

During my two months in Egypt, I interned with the Egyptian Foundation for Advancement of Childhood Conditions (EFACC). Despite the everyday heat topping 100 degrees and no air conditioning, the work atmosphere was often relaxed and friendly. My favorite time was during lunch, as work would end early to prepare for a meal shared by everyone. Pita bread in hand, discussions would inevitably turn to which Egyptian soccer player was the best.

At EFACC, I was assigned to create a project proposal to offset child marriage and promote reproductive health in Egypt. The proposal was to be submitted to the Canadian Foundation for the Local Initiatives for further consideration and evaluation. Though I was nervous about working on such a large project, I found the policy briefs I’d written in my political science classes were of great assistance. Applying my previous research and using my papers as guides enabled me to experience the realistic and practical challenges of policy making.

Returning to the U.S., however, I was troubled about my work with the non-governmental organization (NGO) and questioned my own perceptions of Egypt. A two-month internship in any country, I realized, is too short to properly understand the hardships the locals face. Interestingly, an ethnic studies class I took the following quarter focused on the role of volunteering. As the course progressed, new perspectives on NGOs and volunteer work led me to reflect and build upon my knowledge of Egypt. Likewise, many classes I’ve taken at Cal Poly have enriched my overall ideas of the world. In retrospect, I now acknowledge how closely class material is tied to real-life work and experiences. Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing philosophy has truly made my career goals integral to my education.

Egypt is special. Even when considering the corruption and underdevelopment, each country has its own unique beauty. On my return to the U.S., I most missed Egypt’s third-world aspects and Muslim and Arabic cultures. I recalled those characteristics as most beautiful. Those attributes, without comparison in the U.S., had me thinking my time in Egypt was a fantasy, a shimmering mirage in the desert. Though Egypt’s chaos was initially disturbing, I gradually found beauty in its imperfections. In such frailties, I found human warmth, authenticity and reality. 

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