CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When I saw a photo of Andrew Pochter, the smiling, shaggy-haired college student who was stabbed to death in the historic Egyptian city of Alexandria on Friday, the image looked painfully familiar.
So much in it reminded me of myself as an undergraduate in Egypt six years ago, from the thick backpack straps to the Nikon camera diagonally hugging his body to the pack of Marlboros stashed in his front pocket — evidence of a habit he undoubtedly picked up in North Africa, one of the last places where smoking is still ubiquitous.
Pochter’s death, while certainly a personal tragedy for all those who knew him, also reflects a broader loss for the United States and the troubled Middle East. As ongoing violence in the region threatens to dissuade interested, energetic students from traveling to countries like Egypt, both places stand to lose some of their most valuable ambassadors in bridging the two cultures and promoting genuine understanding.
Especially today, as Cairo and Washington struggle to work through complicated foreign policy positions and diplomatic misunderstandings, this more informal version of public diplomacy is irreplaceable.
Although the State Department has worked to expand public outreach in recent years, particularly through increased use of social media, face-to-face interactions are still an important piece of the puzzle. Of course, this is the idea behind the Fulbright Program, Peace Corps, and AMIDEAST, the organization Pochter was interning for in Egypt.
As the daughter of a retired Foreign Service Officer, I grew up learning what Pochter clearly inherently understood: in order to truly comprehend and appreciate a country, there is no substitute for being there and exploring as much as you can.
As a child, I remember discovering corners of New Delhi’s bazaars with my mother and her Indian friends or trying to behave at late dinners at the homes of her colleagues in Tunis. She always made sure our houses overseas were more heavily stocked with fruit and spices from a local market rather than packaged comforts shipped from back home.
Following my mother’s example, when I moved to Egypt as a student in 2007, I worked hard to engage with the people I met, learning as much as I could about their interests and fears, as well as answering questions they had about the United States.
It is clear from his travels to Morocco and Egypt that Pochter wanted to accomplish the same thing; rather than speculating about the Arab Spring from afar, he wished to improve his regional understanding with on-the-ground exploration, while simultaneously imparting his own language skills to young Egyptian children. One of Pochter’s former Arabic teachers described this adventurous spirit to Al Arabiya, as well as his "openness to people and love [of] socializ[ing] with them."
Although the number of US students who choose to spend time abroad has increased over the past two decades, the Middle East continues to attract comparatively few. According to the Institute of International Education, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country to be included in the top 20 study abroad destinations for American students in recent years.
And in spite of the prestigious offerings at the American University of Cairo, including its highly competitive Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) program, the number of American students studying abroad in Egypt declined by 43 percent between the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years. Tragedies like Pochter’s death surely will not help improve those numbers.
As one of his friends told The New York Times, “my own family already called and told me not to go back to Egypt.” Georgetown University cancelled its summer program in Alexandria back in April due to security concerns even before Pochter was killed.
Public diplomacy does not succeed or fail based purely on initiatives undertaken by State Department officials in a formal capacity; it is carried out both by them and all kinds of Americans who live and work overseas.
Committed, enthusiastic students like Andrew Pochter are some of the United States’ most effective representatives. And simultaneously, students who are drawn to places like Egypt because of its challenges, rather than in spite of them, are exactly the kinds of people the country benefits from hosting.
As ongoing protests unfold across Egyptian cities, I can only hope that they lead to an end result that allows for students like Pochter to safely return in his footsteps.
Alexandra Raphel is a graduate student in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, she worked for a Department of Defense organization that promotes foreign direct investment and business development in Afghanistan, as well as for the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.