My mom called me this week and told me she had been reading a blog that she found through my site. “It’s really good,” she said. “You should highlight it one week.” When I found out she was talking about Mary in Haifa, I smiled because the interview was already in the works. It was good to know that my mom enjoyed Mary’s blog as much as I do. I’ll admit I’m a bit partial to Mary in Haifa for several reasons. 1. Mary and I met in 2005 at the University of South Carolina and since then have met up for dinner in all my subsequent cities when she comes through for work. 2. As Mary is a study abroad professional, I love that she is studying abroad herself in Haifa, Israel to pursue her master’s degree in Holocaust Studies. 3. Mary is always full of surprises, for instance, she was on the roller derby team in Reno, NV. 4. Her blog is wonderful, thought provoking, and really highlights the cultural experience of being a non-Jewish American grad student in Israel. Now that Mary has been in Haifa for 6 weeks, we’ve been able to exchange emails and thoughts on her new home. If you’ve thought about grad school abroad or living in Israel, Mary has some great advice.
What has surprised you so far about life in Haifa?
Truthfully, one of my biggest surprises has been the security situation. I’m an avid news reader so before I came the news was full of stories about Iran ramping up their nuclear program, missiles being launched from Gaza and growing tensions in next door neighbors Syria and Lebanon. Honestly, my first week here – I was pretty jumpy. Any loud noise and I was whipping around trying to figure out where it came from. I very quickly realized that despite being surrounded by chaos, an entire society of people was just simply living their lives. I know this sounds Captain Obvious but I guess in some small piece of my naive mind, I half expected people to be jumpy and scared all the time. That’s not the case in the slightest. The security issues are still there but they are more like the white noise in the background to a very full life. For the most part, I do feel safe here.
How is your experience living in Israel different from your previous times living abroad?
School is much more intense this time around. When I lived in Germany, I took German classes 4 days a week and an Intercultural Communications class once a week. I had a Eurail pass and we’d travel every single weekend. My time in New Zealand was after I graduated so I had no school responsibilities – my work schedule was the only thing I had to plan around. Grad school is time intensive so I have to make an effort to carve out time to explore but it’s important to me to do that. Yesterday, I read 3 chapters of a book, then went and explored the Druze bazaar just north of campus. One thing I love this time around is being around so many people from all over the world. The dorms are mostly full of international students so even a trip to the mini-market is multicultural. Two days ago, I was invited to join some Polish friends at their consulate to celebrate Polish Independence Day. Who ever would have thought that I’d be celebrating that in Israel?? We have some incredibly interesting students from all kinds of backgrounds here so even simple conversations have a depth to them that’s not typical at home. I even recently discovered that in our midst is a girl who’s father is the President of her country (sorry not naming countries for her privacy).
What did you do to minimize your culture shock?
I’m big on research. Before I came I read a boatload about Israel and Haifa. Everything from student blogs to watching YouTube videos. From TripAdvisor to Wikipedia. I even used Google Earth to check out the neighborhoods around the university. I found people who had been to Israel or Haifa before and picked their brain. In addition, I also researched groups that I might be interested in joining. One of my biggest worries when moving abroad is always how to find friends. By knowing in advance that there is an English community theater, a roller derby team and a Young English Speakers group in my new city – I felt more confident that I could create a place for myself in Haifa. I reached out to all three of these groups before I ever left home. I wanted to make sure that I had an outlet outside of school too.
What is on your “must do” list while living in Haifa?
Well, I have a whole Israel to do list on my blog but Haifa specifically – I’d like to walk through the Bahai Gardens (I’ve only seen it from the outside), visit Elijah’s cave and take the gondola from the beach and up Mt Carmel. Israel – floating in the Red Sea, visiting the Masada at sunrise and wandering the ancient streets in Old Jerusalem. Outside of the big touristy things though, I’d like to find “my cafe” in Haifa – you know a place where the waitress knows your order, you can get a cup of coffee and study for hours. I know that seems silly but to me that really illustrates that you’ve settled into a city. When you have a specific grocery store, a favorite cafe, a much loved bookstore. When you are finally able to build these relationships, you are no longer anonymous. You are a citizen and a member of a community.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in graduate school abroad?
Do your research! Many countries use different teaching methods so be sure to look into this too. Be aware that grad school abroad is just as intense as home so don’t come expecting a super easy, relaxing time. Be sure to plan time in your schedule to get to know the city and country you are living in. As grad students, it’s very easy to get buried in your work and not pull yourself out until your program finishes. You are abroad though! Soak up the culture! Make time to enjoy your new city.