Exchange Students Compare Austin and Haifa Campuses

Being a representative of the media at the age of 23 was a somewhat daunting experience for Karen Yaziv, a student of Communications and French at the University.
“I had no idea when I was on an exchange program in America that I would be the only Israeli student,” Karen said, “and I found myself receiving special attention both on and off the campus.” Karen is now back after spending a year at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It happened so quickly, it seemed almost spontaneous,” she said, somewhat wistfully. “In June of my freshman year, I just happened to read on the electronic notice board that there was a meeting for all students interested in participating in an exchange program at a university abroad. This was the first I had heard of an exchange program.

At the meeting, which was chaired by the Director of the Department of Overseas Studies, Prof. Barry Berger, Karen learned that more than 40 universities have exchange programs with the University of Haifa. Not being a person to hesitate, Karen filled out an application form, had interviews with the Overseas Department, a final one with the Dean of Students, Prof. Menachem Kellner, and “three months later found myself in the States at the University of Texas at Austin.

The choice of university had been suggested by Prof. Gabi Weimann, Chairman of the Department of Communication. The University of Texas is situated in the center of the city of Austin and has over 50,000 students. It boasts of being the second richest university in the States - which is not surprising, the young student remarked, as it owns an oil well. A free university newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 is published daily. The university also has its own local television station and three radio stations. All these, she was quick to point out, are important for students of communication - not only do they gain invaluable experience, but they get paid, as well.

“As I was the only student from Israel, although there were nine Israeli-American students on campus, I received special attention and became a representative for the media,” Karen recalls. “I joined the Middle East Student organization, which had members either studying, or coming from, the Middle East. The organization tried to be non-political and mainly discuss literature, songs, and music from the Middle East. However, with the tragedies and problems of the region being in the forefront of world news, my views and opinion were often asked for. I also found it extremely interesting being able to sit and talk with Palestinians and Kuwaitis.

Karen was also called on by Congregation Beth Israel in Austin to give talks to the community regarding all aspects of Israel. Looking back, she said, “The hardest time for me was after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, and again after the terrorist bombings. It was easy to talk about Israel, but to give a talk when my personal and private feelings were involved was very difficult.
Karen taught Hebrew to both adults and children at Cong. Beth Israel, and during the summer she helped organize and run a Jewish summer program for children. An added bonus was that her 14-year-old sister visited and was able to join the program. It was Karen’s first experience with an American Reform Jewish community.

Overall, Karen summed up that her year abroad had been “a rewarding and wonderful experience.” She felt it had changed her life, given her new friends, and gained for her an insight into a different way of living.

It was a chance of a lifetime, academically challenging and stimulating, and I am extremely grateful and wish to thank the University of Haifa and all those who made it possible for me to participate in the overseas exchange program,” she said with enthusiasm.
The Israeli student then reflected, “It was weird, at first, when I returned to Israel. But I soon felt that I was back home, and I was particularly aware of the fact that I no longer had a foreign accent. It feels good not to receive special attention all the time and to be part of the crowd again.” Differences Between Campuses.

“Although my father teaches Hebrew at my university, I am ashamed to say I never took advantage of the fact. Orly Zilkha majors in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, but came to the University of Haifa’s Department of Overseas Studies Program, in part, to learn the Hebrew that she missed out on back home. I have no communication problem here on campus,” she quickly points out, “as speaking English just blends in with all the other languages and accents.

Orly, one of two students from the University of Texas on the Overseas Program, continued, “I quickly felt at home here, in fact, we have really been coddled, and I feel as though I am at summer camp.” The main reason for Haifa being her choice of university in Israel was that she could have dormitory accommodation confirmed before leaving the States.

Karen, who became friendly with Orly at Texas, had experienced the opposite: “Accommodation could only be obtained in person. On seeking accommodation on campus, I soon discovered the University of Texas did not help foreign students and that the best dormitories were already occupied.
The first noticeable difference for Orly was the security, but that soon became routine. “Being on a much smaller campus made you feel part of the university immediately and being in dormitories with Israeli students really helped,” Orly said. “I enjoy having Israeli roommates, and I have been to visit their families at weekend. I found it strange at the beginning that many students went home on the weekend. In the States, they remain on campus, but I guess it’s because the country (Israel) is so much smaller.

Both Karen and Orly thought that Israeli students were more mature, because of the fact that the majority begin university after two or three years in the army. Karen felt that her army service had given her the ability and self-confidence to cope with the difficulties she encountered on arrival at the University of Texas. Karen found less oral and inter-personal communication in Austin than in Haifa. “All students have e-mail, which results in wading through a great deal of junk mail every day,” she said. “It’s extremely time-wasting. Most students also find it easier to e-mail a friend than to telephone, which certainly was a culture shock for me.

Orly carried on the comparison: “Israeli students are more serious than American students, as it is harder to get a degree in Israel and they need to know two languages: Ivrit for their course, and English for the text books.
Karen felt that American students were more competitive. She found the academic system there completely different. “I spent far more time studying by myself, whereas study groups were common in Haifa, and I also have twice the amount of classes to attend.
The two students found much in common, with Orly teaching English to Ethiopian children in a caravan park, and Karen having taught Hebrew in Austin. They both agreed it was the best way to see and absorb different cultures first hand.

Orly admitted to having thoughts of making aliya, but said that any such move would likely have to wait. On completing her B.A. degree, she will be studying for an M.A. degree in Library Science back in Texas. Karen plans to give herself a year to find suitable work after she completes her degree. Perhaps in the near future, more Stetsons will be seen on the Haifa campus, and more falafel in Texas.

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