Three overseas students at Tel Aviv University from Canada, South Africa and the US – using the country as its school.Overseas study programs: we read about them while flipping through National Geographic magazines. They feed the dreams of young adults, who for a semester or a year away, can explore the four corners of the world and earn academic credit at the same time.

Some choose to sail away and study at sea; some crave foreign and exotic locations where they can get dirt under their fingernails. Others enjoy learning about unusual cultures, religions and politics normally only read about in textbooks.

But how do the students with wanderlust in their hearts find out about the various overseas programs available to them? From university overseas directors and counselors. That’s a group from various US institutions who recently came to Israel on a nine-day Israel Universities Study Tour to learn about the opportunities available at the universities here and from students who have spent time here.

Former LA resident Beth Ryne, 26, came to study at Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) School for Overseas Students because she wanted to get a first-hand impression of the world’s cultures.

Ryne knew a future career as an anthropologist would need some genuine field research. “My interests are nomadic Bedouin women, and I really needed a general understanding of the Middle East,” Ryne told the visiting directors on the TAU campus, as she and students from Canada, Germany and South Africa, recounted with candor their experiences of studying and living in Tel Aviv and Israel.

Ohio overseas student at TAU Jason Hilman told representatives from schools including Penn, Cornell, the University of Texas, and Arizona State University that Israel is a prime location for learning languages.

“When I lived in Holland, I learned Dutch. Now in Israel, I am learning Hebrew and Arabic and it’s amazing for me to see how closely connected these two languages really are,” he said.

During the visit, the representatives got a taste for the different flavors of Israel’s overseas programs at TAU, Hebrew University, University of Haifa and Ben Gurion University (BGU). The tour was arranged and funded in part by the Israel University Consortium – a group representing those four overseas schools.

With campus tours, talks with academic staff and students; and general touring of the country – the delegation planned to go back home equipped to counsel their curious students who ask questions like: Is it safe in Israel? Where do people find apartments? What is campus food like? Can students study in regular courses among Israelis? Is there wireless Internet on campus? Are there internship opportunities?

“I am interested in learning about the distinctive characters of the universities,” says Cornell’s Richard Gaulton, while touring the TAU campus. During the tour, he learned just this, discovering that each Israeli university has its own drawing points – based on academic focus and location.

Tel Aviv University is Israel’s largest university; it has a unique Middle Eastern History studies program taught by world-renowned professors; it offers a large course variety. The European-style of Tel Aviv, the city’s nightlife, the climate and the Mediterranean Sea are big selling points for this “view to the sea” campus.

Ben Gurion University is worlds away from the buzz of Tel Aviv. In a quiet, desert backdrop, the school offers specialized courses on Environmental Studies in the areas of desert and water reclamation. Its intimate and close-knit program integrates overseas students and Israeli students.

Hebrew University is Israel’s oldest university and has the largest enrolment for overseas study in Israel. The university is known for its programs in Jewish Studies, Humanities and Archaeology. It also offers supervised internships toward credit as well as volunteer work; the opportunity to live in Jerusalem, the Holy City, is attractive to both Christians and Jews.

University of Haifa gets good grades with students hoping to have a true multi-cultural experience in Israel. The city and its student body is of mixed faiths – Jewish, Muslim, Christian; its programs combine well into the culture of this city which includes Druze and people of the Ba’hai faith. Access to courses at the Technion nearby (the womb of Israel’s silicon valley) is a selling point for engineers and high tech entrepreneurs to be.

At TAU, the group heard from Prof. David Menashri, the dean of special programs and director of the Center for Iranian Studies, that spending time overseas is a vital element for the students’ overall education.

“The overseas program is particularly relevant in this important political era – one semester overseas is crucial for young scholars in building themselves and their worldviews,” he said.

That thought was echoed by the overseas program manager at Penn, Shannon Connelly.

“There is such value in the international education experience whether a student goes to Tibet, Israel or the moon,” she said.

Later in the trip, Connelly and the group traveled to the three other schools. At BGU, they met with Shlomo Chertok, director of the Ginsburg-Ingerman Overseas Student Program at BGU.

“We generally attract those students who are looking for a smaller program in which they will have to enrich their active knowledge of Hebrew and those who wish to experience an authentically Israeli academic experience,” said Chertok.

At the University of Haifa, the group heard from Caroline Arends Fuks, marketing director for the university’s International School, that its overseas students generally want to “have many opportunities to use their Hebrew and Arabic language skills when they meet Israelis in the classroom, work with them through internship and volunteer opportunities, and live with them as roommates in the university dormitories.”

Hebrew University’s Shimon Lipsky, vice-provost of the Rothberg International School sees both the local and global significance of Israel’s overseas programs.

“Israel is so often in the headlines,” says Lipsky. “There are so many forces trying to paint Israel in dark colors. Here at Hebrew U., we have students from 50 countries. It’s our mission in terms of educating the world as to what is going on in the Middle East.”

Daniel Hart, the manager of the study abroad program at Arizona State U couldn’t agree more. Hart, in fact, knows what it is like to study abroad in Israel. Ten years ago, he came to study at TAU and the experience shaped his life, he said.

“Israel is a rich destination for students in political science,” says Hart, “And when I go home, I want students to know that they would be safer in a city like Tel Aviv than a city like Phoenix, Arizona where there is more crime.”
And besides, he adds, “The entire world lives in Israel. On the streets you can hear not only Hebrew, but Arabic, Russian, French, German and even Thai. It’s one of the most diverse countries I know.”