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UC students face hurdles if they want to ‘study abroad’ in Israel

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 1, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Marion Said's parents didn't like her proposal: Having just completed her second year at UCLA in 2006, the political science student from Sherman Oaks wanted to drop out of school so she could spend a year studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

That would mean Said would need to reapply for admission to UCLA the following year, and no one would guarantee her the university would accept a single credit from her year in Israel, even though four years before, UCLA had had an official education-abroad program at Hebrew University.

"Everybody who's gone to a UC campus knows that everybody says something different. No one will sign anything. I was really worried that none of my classes would count," said Said, now 21, who in the end received credit for each of the 10 courses she took. "It would have been worth it even if my classes hadn't counted. But knowing now how easy it was, it's frustrating that I spent literally months going to peoples' offices, trying to be responsible about it, and getting no answers."

Since the UC suspended its study abroad program in Israel on April 11, 2002, Said and countless other students -- literally uncounted because the UC has no such database -- have officially dropped out of the UC campus they attended, possibly forfeiting financial aid, and enrolled directly in an Israeli university or through a third-party provider for a semester or more of study.

But the uncertain endeavors of UC students wanting to study in Israel may soon ease. A groundswell is building, with the student governments at UC campuses in Berkeley, Davis, San Diego and, most recently, Los Angeles passing resolutions urging the university to reinstate the program.

The UC Office of the President and Board of Regents have taken notice, and in August Provost Wyatt R. "Rory" Hume sent a letter to campus chancellors instructing them to simplify the process for interested students. That would include providing counselors who could advise students on whether the courses they planned to take would count for credit; allowing them to maintain their university e-mail account; and facilitating return to the university without the need to re-apply.

"For students to have access in general, especially to the Middle East, is extremely important," said Margaret Heisel, deputy to the associate provost and study-abroad liaison. "Right now that is a hard thing to do. You have to use third-party providers or direct enrollment. For the interim we want to make that easier. And for the future, I hope we can reach a conclusion that is better than that."

The lynchpin is student safety, or, more specifically, university liability.

UC suspended its Israel program after the U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning in December 2001, as the Al-Aqsa Intifada gained steam. Travel warnings to Israel have been modified several times since then, most recently in July. The bulletin does not urge American citizens to stay out of Israel but to avoid Gaza and the West Bank and "remain mindful of security factors when considering travel to Israel and Jerusalem."

A travel warning also halted the UC study program in the Philippines, and the 450,000-student California State University, more than twice the size of the UC but with a smaller education-abroad program, continues to prohibit study in Israel and the Philippines for the same reason.

"If there was a huge demand of students wanting to go study in Iraq, it would still be difficult to justify safety-wise," said Ben Allen, a law student at Berkeley and the UC student regent. "I don't think we should go around willy-nilly setting up offices because students show an interest in one."

"But with Israel and the Philippines, there is enough sustained interest over the years that a program seems justified."

Other universities, from the private USC to the public University of North Carolina (UNC), have reinstated their programs in Israel since the intifada officially ended in early 2005 (though terror attacks, particularly along the northeastern Gaza border, continue). UNC's main stipulation is that students sign a waiver if they wish to study through the university in a country that has received a travel warning.

The UC's general counsel has drafted such a waiver, but only for students enrolling directly in an Israeli university or through a third party. Hume, the provost, also has asked the president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, M. Peter McPherson, to help public institutions devise a universal policy. McPherson was unavailable for comment, and it's unclear whether the topic will be discussed at the organization's annual meeting this month.

"I know there are State Department travel warnings, but lots of colleges and universities have found ways to continue to allow students to study in Israel and continue to receive school credits," said UC Regent Norman J. Pattiz, founder of radio network giant Westwood One. "We should be able to get this resolved, and resolved quickly. So, I and others will be keeping a close eye on this to make sure it doesn't drag on indefinitely."

Meanwhile, some of the 2,500 Jewish undergraduates at UCLA and thousands at other UC campuses -- not to mention Christians and Muslims and other students who want to study in Israel -- will continue to take a chance on educational alternatives.

"It's such a hassle in the end to go through all the bureaucracy of dropping out and maybe not getting credit, and then trying to come back," said Miranda Bogen, a UCLA second-year student in Middle Eastern and North African Studies who elected to defer beginning college for a year to study in Israel and plans to drop out of UCLA this spring to return for another year. "But I think it's worth it because that is my area of study and it's the only place in the Middle East I'd want to go, and there are top universities in Israel."

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