Finding Inspiration in the Middle East

3 Feb

Students at Smith College are able to study environmental issues away from campus with a number of excellent organizations. Environmental science and policy and government double major Siiri Bigalke (’15) is currently in her second semester as a student at the Arava Institute.  We thought we’d share her reflections on what she learned and experienced at the Institute thus far.

What led you to choose the Arava Institute? What elements of the program were compelling to you?
The mixed community aspect at the Institute really intrigued me – I was curious about what it would be like to live with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Americans/other internationals. Being located in the Middle East, a region with such potential for renewable energy, also compelled me to study at the Arava Institute. I believe the U.S. can learn a great deal from the development of alternative energy sources in the Middle East so I was interested in witnessing first-hand how the region was working in a trans-boundary method towards a cleaner energy future.

Siiri_AravaSiiri Bigalke (far right) makes pita bread with her classmates during their field trip through the Negev.

What has surprised you about the experience?
I was surprised at how I was able to challenge myself into defending what I believed in as well as being able to examine my own perspective at times. I typically avoid conflict, so having to discuss sensitive issues and dive into heavy topics was a really fulfilling experience for me.

Describe a memorable moment during the semester. 
This year Hanukkah and Thanksgiving fell on the same day so we held a “Thanksgivukkah” feast in the student lounge. Nearly everyone contributed with preparing or making some sort of dish. Due to the varied cultural and national backgrounds of the group, we had everything ranging form Greek, Japanese, Arabic, Israeli and traditional Thanksgiving food. It was a very clear example of how diverse the composition of the group truly is.

How has the Arava Institute prepared you for the future?
I have become increasingly more interested in looking at how different faith backgrounds approach environmental sustainability – and looking at the intersection and commonality among these groups in order to approach trans-boundary management. In the future I hope to incorporate a greater understanding of how different backgrounds – not only religious – but historical, cultural, gender, and national identities shape an individual’s approach to environmental sustainability.
On a less theoretical level, I have also become increasingly interested in learning Arabic and deepening my understanding of the Middle East – a region of the world that is commonly mis-portrayed and misunderstood in the US.

What would you say to student thinking about study abroad or interning at the Arava Institute?
I would say to push yourself out of your comfort level – whether your challenge is living in a mixed community environment, standing up for your identity, or contributing your own personal story to a discussion. The Arava Institute provides the opportunity and context for all of these challenges and methods to grow as a student and more generally as a citizen of this complex world.

The Arava Institute Study Abroad Program is an accredited university-level program for undergraduate and graduate students. Over the course of one or two semesters, students engage in an interdisciplinary program comprised of courses in diverse environmental fields, a Peace-building and Environmental Leadership Seminar, and educational field trips.

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