Northern Exposure to Haifa

Lois LaGarce was determined to participate in the one-year program of the Overseas Studies Department.

“After high-school in Seattle, I moved to Anchorage,” she recently told Focus. “After working for five years, I decided I needed a change of direction. I became a volunteer on a two-month program with the Israeli army. My interest in history and ancient civilizations began on that first visit. I returned to Anchorage and applied to the University of Alaska to major in History and Anthropology.”

Lois felt that a year studying abroad would benefit her. “As the University of Alaska is isolated, even from other American universities, it encourages students to take a junior exchange year,” she said. Her decision to attend the University of Haifa, however, proved to be quite a challenge.

During a vacation in Israel in the spring of 1996, Lois visited the University’s Overseas Studies Department. She returned to her university, only to discovered that the University of Haifa was not approved by the State of Alaska. Armed with written literature from Haifa, a strong determination, and the backing of the Federal Government in Washington (which does list the University as an accredited institution), Lois managed to overcome all the hurdles and to convince the State of Alaska that the University of Haifa was indeed legitimate. Lois arrived here for the start of the summer uplan in July of that year.

February 1997 saw the arrival of two more Alaskan students. One was Solomon Loosli. “I became friendly with an Israeli in the States and when he returned to Israel I came on vacation to visit him. I already knew Haifa from that visit and had liked the north of the country,” Solomon related.

“Thanks to Lois, my professors had been made aware of the University and the programs offered to overseas students. Even so,” he continued, “in spite of the groundwork she had already done, there was still a lot of paper work. I believe that if there had been reciprocal agreements between the two universities it would have made my life much easier.”

Solomon intends to return to Anchorage in the summer to complete a degree in History at the University of Alaska. After obtaining his B.A., Solomon hopes to study for a Master’s degree. “The program here is helping me make up my mind as to whether I remain with History or change my field,” he said.

Sarah Bumpus a psychology major, graduated from the University of Alaska in 1995 and is taking the Overseas Program’s International Honors Program in Psychology. “This gave me the chance to visit a new country and to benefit from a transitory program while applying to medical school in the States and Europe,” she said. “I am finding all my courses very interesting and really look forward to them, especially the seminar on issues relating to Israeli society.”

“Because of its geographical position, Alaska is focused on the Far East,” Lois informed her listener. “There is no one at my university specializing in the Middle East, so I shall now be the most qualified person to teach Middle Eastern studies in Alaska,” she joked.

In a more serious vein, she added, “I think it would be very valuable opening a relationship between Alaska and Haifa, and an exchange program for both faculty and students would be good.”

The three students expressed enthusiasm about the Overseas Studies Department and all aspects of the program: academic, social, and cultural events. “I find it strange that many Israeli students [on campus] don’t know about the Overseas programs,” Solomon remarked. “They are shocked to find there are Americans who actually want to come here.”

The Alaskan students spoke of similarities and differences between the two cities and the two universities. The populations of Anchorage and of Haifa with its suburbs is similar as is the student population of the two universities, 14,000 in Alaska as compared to nearly 13,000 in Haifa. The campuses, however, differ greatly in layout, with the Alaskan campus being spread around the city. Both are port cities, but there the similarity ends.

Being an hour and a half by jet from the Arctic Circle and being the center of the Middle East means totally different climates, albeit both experience extremes - one of cold and one of heat. Lois and Solomon have already experienced summers here, but for Sarah it will be her first Israeli heat wave. All agree that so far as the weather is concerned, winter here has certainly been enjoyable.
The American students, though, were disturbed by certain cultural differences. “For me, the lack of pleasantries is difficult to accept,” Solomon said. “ Israeli students have told me that manners are a pretense and fake, but not to take it personally. I have found, however, that Israelis who have been abroad are also shocked when they return to Israel.”

Because Solomon and Sarah had met Lois in Anchorage before they arrived here, it had helped with their adjustment. “I met Lois at the beginning of the year,” Sarah explained. “When the Department heard Lois was visiting Anchorage, she was sent on a mission to tell me about the University and overseas program personally.”

“At the beginning I felt isolated,” Lois admitted, “but now everything is fine. Because of the way I first felt, I asked the Department if I could change some of the written information about procedures that they give to the overseas students in order to make it easier for them to adapt.” One example was that all maps given students were in Hebrew. Though an aim of the program is to have students learn a basic Hebrew, she felt that the non-English maps just added to their disorientation.”

Sarah was glad for the dormitory set-up. If it had not been for living in the dormitories, she said she might never have come into real contact with Israeli students on the Campus.
“The good, though, far surpasses the bad,” Solomon interjected. “Traveling abroad doesn’t just make me aware of other cultures; it also makes me aware of my own. I was getting too cynical, and now I feel I have a better perspective.”

In Lois’s opinion, the students here are more motivated and serious about their studies. She feels there is not the same interest in education in the United States, as one as one is able to obtain a well-paid job without higher education.

Sarah thinks that Americans are too self-centered. “We are into ourselves too much. It is important to see things for yourself,” she advised. “Before coming here I only knew about Israel from the CNN.”
“I have been so fortunate here that it will be very difficult to return and adjust to life in Alaska,” Lois remarked. “It is usually very difficult for overseas students to get work, but I am lucky to have a part-time typing job at the Department of Maritime Studies. I have also received a scholarship from the University and have been helping Dr. Hassan Khaleih, a maritime historian in the Department of Maritime Civilizations, with research on a study of slave transport in Islamic Maritime Law.”

“I feel privileged to be here,” Lois concluded. “I have looking into graduate programs here, but I face two problems: money and language,” she said sadly, “so it looks at though I shall have to remain Stateside.”

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