At North Central College, we’re no strangers to sending students abroad. With a robust study abroad program, as well as international service trips, we have been exposing students to major global needs and experiences for many years. In 2012, the Office of Ministry and Service took an opportunity to provide an entirely different kind of trip for our students: an immersion adventure in Israel and Palestine.
Our goal was fairly straightforward: expose students to historically significant land, along with the narratives of Israelis and Palestinians living within the modern ethnic, religious and political tensions. We wanted an experience that was both spiritually engaging and intellectually challenging to our student’s understanding of justice, peace and conflict. After taking our second trip this past summer, it has become evident that this experience is not only changing students’ lives but engaging them in critical dialogues related to civic action. In A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012) the authors suggest a framework for civic learning that necessitates the development of knowledge, skills, values and collective action. The Israel/Palestine immersion has provided the perfect context for this type of student development.
For almost four months prior to our departure, we educated students on the history, conflicts and people groups they would encounter. The trip consisted of challenging cultural experiences related to the impact of ethnicity, religion and citizenship on everyday people. Twelve days, twelve cities, ten students, three seas and an innumerable amount of conversations with people from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Israeli, and Palestinian backgrounds made for a ‘learning lab’ of sorts for students. We spent almost equal time in the West Bank as in Israel, experienced the Kalandiya checkpoint, coffee with a Jewish settler and tea with Palestinian village women. We spent time with orphans in Bethlehem, steps from the birthplace of Jesus, and entered the temple where Jewish Patriarchs are buried - without our Muslim guide, who was prohibited from entering.
Each day of the trip gave students the opportunity to apply what they learned and critically inquire along the way. They evaluated Israeli/Palestinian actions from multiple sources, the role of the United States in the peace process, their responsibility as American students and influencers, and how they might be bridge-builders for their peers in other areas of conflict. Students began to develop important skills in analyzing and evaluating complex information from multiple perspectives in tension-filled environments.
In our daily reflections, we saw students wrestle with their newfound empathy for those on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the conflict. Students communicated a deep desire to see reconciliation and justice and felt personally responsible for acting upon and communicating what they were learning. This personal connection came, in part, because of the deep relationships they began to build with people like our guide and driver. It was no longer acceptable for them to interact with information on the news or generalizations of one group or the other without associating the face of a friend.
Although not every student left needing to immediately ‘change their world,’ four of the ten have taken significant actions in light of their experience. One student has developed his very own study abroad program in Israel so he can go back and learn more about the people there, while keeping on track with his studies to become a pastor. Another student has worked with a small Palestinian organization to develop a grant proposal that will bring conflict resolution and children’s books to a burgeoning community center in a rural West Bank village. A third student delved deep into the complex history of the land and gave an informative speech to a group of her peers. Finally, an honors student committed to researching and writing her entire honors thesis on the water crisis in the West Bank.
These students are undoubtedly “converting civic knowledge into civic action,” as A Crucible Moment describes.
We will, no doubt, continue to seek out these types of international and domestic ‘learning labs’ as avenues for civic engagement. In two short years, this trip has had an immense impact on our students, evidenced by their work after experiencing Israel/Palestine. It has also had a significant impact on how we think about creating civically engaged, global citizens. Sending students into one of the most complex conflict zones on earth will have that affect.