UCLA senior Layesanna Maria Rivera had been at her school's archaeological dig in central Egypt for only three weeks when regional police told organizers that Rivera and the 10 other students there would have to leave.
Flanked by armed guards, they drove in a caravan 200 miles up the Nile Valley toward the international airport outside Cairo. Military checkpoints and a nationwide curfew turned the six-hour drive into a two-day journey. One of the last things Rivera saw before she left Egypt on Tuesday on a chartered flight was a phalanx of military tanks, ready to roll into the city.
The 32-year-old anthropology major was one of hundreds of American students who traveled to Egypt for a term abroad this year and ended up getting a crash course in Middle Eastern politics, unrest and revolution.
Many of the estimated 1,000 U.S. students enrolled in programs in Egypt have fled the country after anti-government protests broke out last week. The University of California, which along with the UCLA archaeology group had about 20 students from various campuses involved in study-abroad programs in Egypt, was among several American universities that arranged charter planes to evacuate them.
But other American students have chosen to stay.
"They see this as an incredible opportunity to have a front-row seat to history," said Morgan Roth, a spokeswoman for the American University in Cairo, an English-language institution where 400 Americans are enrolled.
Annie Rebek is among them. The 25-year-old graduate student was in Cairo's Tahrir Square last Tuesday when thousands of anti-government protesters first converged to call for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
"I had never seen such a thing," Rebek said. "It was electric."
Several days later, as the demonstrations gave way to looting and as violence escalated between the protesters and Mubarak supporters, Rebek decided to move from her apartment near Tahrir Square to a friend's house in a more secure neighborhood.
But even after the university sent students a letter alerting them of security risks and informing them that classes would be suspended for at least two weeks, she said leaving Egypt wasn't a consideration.
"Right now my life is here. I have cats, I have neighbors, I have an established community, and I'm reluctant to give that up," said Rebek, whose family lives in Boston. "I would really like to see the demands of the demonstrators met, and I'd like to be here to celebrate with them — God willing."
Unlike the U.S. State Department, which earlier this week ordered all nonessential government personnel and dependents to leave Egypt, many colleges and study-abroad programs cannot force students to evacuate in times of crisis.
"Institutions can say, 'We advise you to leave and can help you get a charter flight out of here,' but that's about it," said Gary Rhodes, director of the Center for Global Education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
He said instability in Egypt, a place long considered "one of the safest places to study," shows the importance of emergency preparation and good orientation programs.
Orientations vary in rigor, he said. While some study-abroad programs spend weeks preparing students for possible health risks, natural disasters and political crises, others do much less.
Carolyn Witte, a junior at Cornell University who was enrolled in an intensive Arabic program run by Middlebury College in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, said her program's director called a meeting the night before the first day of protests to warn students of possible turmoil. It proved prescient.
One week later, after days of massive demonstrations in the ancient seaside city, Witte left on a chartered jet, along with a handful of students who had been studying in Alexandria with the Institute for Study Abroad, a program affiliated with Butler University. She arrived in Los Angeles late Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, she found herself lounging in the sand near her parents' home in Laguna Beach, gazing out at the Pacific Ocean. "It's kind of a surreal change of scenery," she said.
For now, Witte is trying to decompress and decide how to spend the rest of her semester. The Middlebury program has been canceled, and she said she doesn't want to attend another study-abroad program in the Middle East, an option some of her classmates are considering.
Political strife, she said, "is spreading throughout the Arab world. And I don't want to live through a second revolution."