Tired of hearing about this ominous 'AIESEC' entity, Monica Gerges goes on a hunt to figure out what the fuss is all about, and discovers an incredibly welcoming community bent on practically changing the world – one student at a time.
Explore any university campus and you’ll find that most students tend to fall under one archetype or another - the academic over-achiever who only shows up for lectures and to set up camp at the library; the lecture-skipping slacker who lounges around and then regretfully crams profusely, every term; the partygoers who don’t seem to be aware that an education is even involved; the club fanatics you awkwardly avoid eye contact with as you spot them seated behind their recruitment booth, pamphlet in hand and ready to capture any unsuspecting victim who might show a hint of curiosity; and then there’s the AIESECer.
If you’ve attended university in Egypt - or even if you haven’t, frankly - you’ve probably heard of this strange entity everyone talks about, which seems to be infiltrating campuses at an unfathomably rapid rate, probably even faster than ‘love’ and 7asheesh. “I met her through AIESEC;” “I travelled there with AIESEC;” “It’s an AIESEC event.” Okay, great, but what the heck does that mean? Sure, the organisation's intricacies – and all their crazy abbreviations – can be found all over the Internet, but what does it mean to actually be a part of this globally-connected student group that so deeply consumes people and becomes the epitome of their student life? They’re almost like vegans – if someone’s part of AIESEC, they’ll make sure to at least mention it, if not tell you all about it in excessive detail.
AIESEC members at MENA XLDS 2012 in Morocco.
Having avoided AIESEC’s recruitment booth across campus for quite some time, Andrew Emad assumed it to be like any other club and just wasn’t interested. Dragged (quite possibly kicking and screaming) by a friend to do an interview, and then into AIESEC AAST’s sales department, he quickly found himself responsible for contacting companies’ HR Managers and even CEOs to pitch the idea of a student internship - hello, real world. Emad recalls learning “how to speak corporate lingo, which helped [him] even more after [he] graduated because [he] also felt like [he] could read people better during interviews” – something he still actively applies as he takes on the field of engineering and business development across French-speaking West Africa.
“People join AIESEC with a lot of different expectations but then find the reality to be completely different,” says former AIESEC Egypt President Yehya Al Mandarawy, also a former team member of Emad’s. Like most people first joining AIESEC, his decision was based solely on wanting to try something new. Although it wasn’t what he expected, he stuck to AIESEC for three years, going from Team Leader to AIESEC Egypt President. “It broadens your perspective and makes you more externally aware – I don’t only mean with what’s happening in the government, in NGOs, or in the country, I mean all across the world; AIESEC gives you this kind of scope,” Al Mandarawy shares. “It makes you interact – whether by virtue of physical touchpoints, going on internships and exchanges, or hosting people from other countries – and you get to understand a lot of different cultures, religions, value systems, political systems, and so on.”
Elected as Vice President of Corporate Incoming Exchange, Emad shares that “AIESEC exposed me to a really wide world; aside from the people inside of Egypt, I also got to know members from locations across the globe – like Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia – and connect them with exchange opportunities in Egypt. Now, everywhere I go, I know people I’ve connected with through AIESEC. At an AIESEC conference in Morocco a few years ago, I was interacting with people of 30 - 40 different nationalities from across the globe.”
Now THIS is how you introduce your team.
Full of wanderlust and determined to volunteer abroad, Samia Eldeeb found the perfect fit when AIESEC AAST sent her off to the internship she wanted in Austria. “Travelling alone as a girl and adjusting to living alone in a foreign country requires learning to depend on yourself, which really made me a braver and more courageous person,” Eldeeb says of her exchange experience. “Aside from having to speak English for a full two months, which helped improve my language skills, I’ve also met people from over 20 different countries. It really teaches you to accept people who are unlike you, regardless of differences in religion or culture.”
Intrigued by Eldeeb's experience, and always on the hunt for a little misadventure, I went out in search of some crazy exchange stories in the AIESEC world. From using hand gestures to communicate with a Chinese exchange student who spoke no Arabic, English, or French, to an American exchange student arriving just before the January 25th revolution and having her quaint dinner interrupted with news of fires and attacks, I thought I’d had my share of laughs – that is, until I met Mohamed Abu Gabal, who had originally joined AIESEC so he could travel.
A confident 21-year-old, convinced that his English skills made him invincible abroad, Abu Gabal ended up at the Kiev (Ukraine) airport in search of a train to get to his destination, only to realise that no one spoke English. “After discovering that the two languages I knew were useless, I stood outside the airport, leaned on the luggage trolley, and started singing Umm Kalthoum and Abdel Halim songs, hoping that someone passing by would understand and help me out,” Abu Gabal recalls. “I only got weird looks. Then I finally found a taxi driver who spoke some English and who agreed to take me to a hotel to spend the night.” Commenting that this exchange was the most profound experience he’s had in his life, Abu Gabal continues his story: “The next day I got in touch with a Ukrainian girl I had met on the flight, and she and her family helped me get tickets to Mariupol and even showed me around Kiev; honestly, their generosity was endless, and it was one of those marks in life that one would never forget!”
AIESEC seems to personify the words of one great C.S. Lewis – “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” Lectures teach you theories and concepts; experience throws you under the bus and forces you, quite practically, to figure things out. “AIESEC gives you a lot of chances that you wouldn’t find elsewhere at this point in your life; I was 23 years old and leading an organisation of 1,600 people,” Al-Mandarawy recalls. “What’s unique is that you don’t learn through trainings; you learn through opportunities, like getting put in a situation where you have to give a speech in front of your team, or in front of all of AIESEC Egypt. Everything you learn in AIESEC is practical.”
Remember when Monica gives a wedding-gown-clad Rachel a reality check in the pilot episode of Friends? “Welcome to the real world. It sucks.” AIESEC is intent on fixing the whole ‘it sucks’ part, easing students into the real world by gently tossing them halfway into the deep end through real life situations, shattering people’s often sheltering bubbles. “I’ve been involved in things like AIESEC before, but never have I gotten to do what I’m doing now, or learn the things I’m learning now,” shares Iten Attallah of AIESEC Cairo University. Echoing Attallah's sentiments – which seem to be shared by all AIESECers, irrespective of their experiences – Rana Bayoumi of AIESEC AAST and GUC emphatically admits that “AIESEC challenged me to be open to accepting different personalities and working with people who are completely opposite from me towards one common goal,” adding that “accepting differences is a big thing that defines who [she is] now.” Or, in the words of Fawzia Elsaadi on her AIESEC AAST experience: "I stayed because I started to see immediate change in my personality and skills."It’s not just about learning practical business skills and sending people abroad from time to time; at the core of AIESEC is developing a generation of leaders, thriving within a cultural community they’ve established for themselves, built on core values of acceptance, innovation, and passion. Imagine what happens when this community of people deploys into the real world and aspires to create change and spread this contagious culture across the country, and well beyond its borders.
A representative of 2om El Donya while in Cyprus with three friends (having arrived via an AIESEC exchange and not a romantically hijacked plane), Mirette Gad was shocked to find that the Cypriots had a completely skewed perception of what Egyptians were like – quite possibly as shocked as the Cypriots who couldn’t understand why the three girls in front of them weren’t veiled or ugly, spoke languages other than Arabic, and were open-minded enough to speak to strangers to begin with. “They seriously thought we lived in pyramids and rode camels,” Gad recalls between laughs. “It was difficult trying to change their perceptions of what our world really looks like, but it eventually happened as we got closer and built relationships with them; they got to see that we’re normal – just like them."
MENA XLDS 2016 craziness.
Changing the world's media-based perception of Egyptians isn't easy, especially when we're still trying to convince people that everything that happens in Aladdin isn't actually real life. It seems that people have to experience things in order to truly believe them. With Egypt hosting this year's Middle East and North Africa Exchange and Leadership Development Seminar (MENA XLDS), 200 future thinkers, leaders, and innovators from across the Middle East (and beyond) gathered last weekend in the recently barren ghost town of Sharm el Sheikh for the biggest and most highly-anticipated annual AIESEC event in the region.
“The discussions we got into throughout the conference were great in that you begin to change your perspectives on some countries and break down your own pre-conceived stereotypes about people,” says Mohamed Abouelmakarem, a former TEDxCairo organiser and AIESEC alumni who was also one of the speakers at this year's MENA XLDS. For the first time in Egypt since 2011 – when the revolution and uproar resulted in a significantly small turnout –MENA XLDS “showed all these people Egypt; it showed us all, as a people from one region, the differences yet the overall similarities between us,” Abouelmakarem continues. “Yes, we all belong to the same region, but each with their own flavour added to the culture.”Internalising the motto ‘once an AIESECer, always an AIESECer’, it seems that members and alumni of this organisation – nay, this movement – have a far better chance of taking over the world than Pinky and The Brain ever did; that’s because they’re doing it right. "AIESEC really opened my eyes and made me realise what I want out of life and what my goals are," says Manuel Hany of AIESEC GUC. "I got a taste of things I never would've otherwise tasted – to travel, to live alone, to experience other countries and cultures; I learned that there are a lot of valuable things in the world that I wasn't even aware of before, and I got to experience them. Overall, it made me more confident in myself and made me love myself more; it made me more open."
Embedding values, enriching student lives, and bringing the real world to students so they can then go forth and change the real world – AIESEC is definitely on to something. "AIESEC instilled in me the value of believing," says Iten Attallah. "It's believing in oneself, in others, in strangers; believing in the smallest changes, in chances, in opportunities and coincidences."