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Encountering the President Amid the Pyramids

Fellowship Focus – January 2010

Sandra Scham

PhD, Anthropology, Catholic University of America
2008-10 AAAS Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Asia and Middle East Bureau, Asia Strategy and Planning Office

A throng gathers under canopies at the base of the pyramids, waiting for the appearance of the President of the United States. The coverings are wholly inadequate for shielding us from the Egyptian sun, which, in the first week of June, is as strong as it is likely to get. We have been here since 2:00 p.m. and it is now close to six o’clock. No food has been available and no water could be brought beyond the security checkpoints, although zealous embassy volunteers are on hand to pass out cold water bottles and encourage us to drink. Despite the heat and the lack of refreshments, there is a party atmosphere. All of us work for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). As a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in the Diplomacy program, I am considered part of the USAID family.

Travel and training have been major perks of the AAAS Fellowship, and my office has been extremely flexible about both. Nevertheless, I did not come all the way to Cairo because I wanted to meet the President of the United States—who lives scarcely one mile away from me in Washington, D.C. It was a happy coincidence that put me in a seat on one of a long line of buses commissioned to ferry us from USAID offices in Maadi to Giza. I had been slated to attend a training in Cairo, months before the announcement of President Obama’s momentous speech. We didn’t know until the day before that we would be attending a “meet and greet” at the antiquities site.

Now, standing in full view of the millennia-old Sphinx, I reflect that for me, as an archaeologist, my presence here could not be more serendipitous. I decided to become a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow because the program combines my interest in the politics of the past and the international cultures of the present. Working in the Asia and Middle East Bureaus of USAID, my assignments have been among the most interesting of my career. I have learned how to research development programs, draft strategic plans for foreign assistance, and represent USAID in inter-agency discussions of aid delivery in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza. I have also had the opportunity to become experienced in the evaluation of development programs, a rapidly growing international field.

As I wait, I wonder what the President thinks of the pyramids. He finally appears, descending the hill with his characteristically athletic gait. Despite an enervating day, the President has encouraging words for us and expresses appreciation for the work that we do, and the importance of development aid as a key to positive international relations and a foundation for global security. His speech is brief, but I am savoring the first in-person view of President Obama that I have had.

January 2010: Sandra Scham, PhD, is a second-year AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in the Diplomacy Program, serving at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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