‘More than I could’ve imagined’: MTSU group studies abroad in Israel

Photo by Ronny Simon / Submitted

MTSU students and faculty returned from a two-week trip to Israel on July 22. The group participated in an upper division political science course that many students call a “life-changing experience.”

This year marked University Provost Mark Byrnes’ and Interim Dean for the College of Liberal Arts Karen Petersen’s fifth year leading the program. They each visited Israel individually before deciding to develop a study abroad trip through the university, embarking on their first MTSU study abroad trip in 2013.

Petersen first visited Israel in 2006 as part of a fellowship to study counterterrorism. While she was there, she said she saw the benefits of learning on-location.

“During that visit, I realized that Israel makes an outstanding laboratory for students to explore the role of geography, history and religion in politics,” Petersen said.

Byrnes said he connected with the country on a visit with his wife and church group in 2007. It is very common for church groups to visit new countries and places to learn more about their faith, as well as being able to interact with different people. Many may even decide to hire transportation from places similar to United Coachline, (visit the website here) to help get them from place to place. For people like Byrnes, these trips could help to expand their horizons.

It was immediately apparent that Israel is an incredibly rich destination for anyone interested in politics, history, geography or faith,” Byrnes said.

This year’s group was the largest the professors have ever taken on the trip, totalling 21 attendees.

The study abroad program begins on the Mediterranean coast and works its way up to northern Israel before stopping for a few days near the Sea of Galilee. Participants spend their last few days in Jerusalem.

Although the general order and length of the trip are the same each year, Petersen said that she and Byrnes tweak the trip “to address different political issues.”

“This year, for example, was the first time our travelers got to talk with members of the (Israeli Defense Force),” Byrnes said. “It was also our first trip to Safed, a really interesting town in the north of the country.”

During the class, students went on excursions that tied together thousands of years of history and connected them to places they may have heard about in scriptures. Participants also visited places with extreme political significance, including the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, the Knesset, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Independence Hall.

In addition to being academically rigorous, some of the itinerary for the course was physically challenging. Hannah Berthelson, an MTSU junior, said that when she decided to go on the trip, she had to train.

“I knew I needed to prepare physically… I started going on walks, going to the gym,” Berthelson said.

Berthelson said that she also prepared for the course by reading the “Jerusalem Post” frequently and reading Biblical texts that connected to the places the group would visit.

Despite her preparations, Berthelson said, “I don’t think I really knew what to expect… The country itself was so much more than I could’ve imagined.”

Berthelson said that the hospitality of the locals stood out to her, but her biggest takeaway was the privilege of living in a country with relatively solid security.

“It gave me a very different perspective on my day-to-day life because their country is constantly under threat,” Berthelson said.

During the course, students learned about tensions on the northern border of Israel, especially with Hezbollah, a militant proxy of Iran that has relative autonomy in the southern part of Lebanon. Their guide explained that for Israeli citizens, the question is not if there will be another major conflict, but when.

Berthelson said after she returned, “I’m going to be able to count my blessings a lot more easily.”

Both Byrnes and Petersen said that students learn their own individual lessons from taking this course. However, Petersen said that there are two major themes she hopes all her students take away.

“First, not all problems have simple solutions,” Petersen said. “In fact, the most complex political issues, certainly the conflicts in the Middle East, may not have desirable conclusions. Second, the media does not cover complex issues competently, particularly the Western media.”

Petersen explained that a significant amount of time and attention is required to understand the Middle East. She said she would argue that in order to even begin to understand the complexities of the region, one would need to visit.

Berthelson said that she doesn’t think she would have been able to get the same experience in her journey to Israel if she had not gone with the class. Generally, she said that study abroad “opens a world of opportunities.”

“Study abroad opens up a lot of doors for students to learn and experience outside their comfort zone,” Berthelson said.

After five years of leading students through the country, Byrnes and Petersen are still highly motivated to return.

“As an educator, I am convinced that studying abroad is one of the most worthwhile things a college student can do,” Byrnes said. “I enjoy being part of that experience for students and witnessing how, for most of them, it is a life changing experience.”

Petersen added, “I see Israel as a second home now… It is a privilege to travel there with others.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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