Experiment Brings U.S. Education To Palestinians

For the first time, an American university and a Palestinian one have joined forces in a unique collaboration. Bard College of New York and Al-Quds University have launched a program in which 80 Palestinian students receive a liberal arts education and get a Bard degree while staying in the Palestinian territories. The experiment is controversial; Palestinian students studying at the Bard program have been taunted and threatened by members of Al-Quds University for their perceived privileged position. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

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For the first time, a Palestinian university is teaming up with an American institution to offer a dual degree. New York state's Bard College and Al-Quds University joined forces this year to offer liberal arts undergraduate degree and a master's in teaching. The collaboration aims to change the way Palestinians are educated, and it's controversial. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Jerusalem.

Unidentified Woman #1: How does this concept of the other affect our movement from sympathy to empathy?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Susan Sontag's 2003 work "Regarding the Pain of Others" is hardly the usual reading material in the Palestinian territories. Born to Jewish-American parents, Sontag was one of the leading literary figures in the U.S., and her works are a common cornerstone of a liberal arts education.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible). They do the same. They see the news for once, and they (unintelligible).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a small classroom at the Al-Quds University, 12 students, a mixture of young men and women, discuss the work in English, relating it to their experiences as Palestinians growing up under the Israeli occupation. Rebecca Granato(ph), a graduate of Bard in the U.S. and now a teacher at the Bard program here, says the aim is to get the students thinking critically.

Ms. REBECCA GRANATO (Teacher): One of the things that we're trying to do is to get the students to think about a variety of texts from a variety of different angles in the liberal arts spirit and tradition. You know, we try to draw on their own experience and get them to talk about things that have happened to them, things that are really real to them, to get them to relate things in a very tangible and personal way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For many here, it's a totally new way of learning. Education in the Palestinian territories, and indeed in much of the Arab world, is more of a static enterprise. Professors are lofty individuals who impart knowledge that the students are expected to memorize and recite. Jualit Khalid(ph) was a student at Al-Quds before transferring to the Bard program.

Mr. JUALIT KHALID (Student): Everything is different. The curriculum is different. The way the professors treat us is different. The way that we process academic things is different. Everything is different. Even the social life between the students is different. We're more intimate.

Mr. SARI NUSSEIBEH (President, Al-Quds University): You know, I'd love to be taught in such a classroom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The president of Al-Quds, Sari Nusseibeh, shows off what will be the new Bard facilities. They are currently being built with a grant from USAID. Nusseibeh says Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, came up with the idea of a collaboration. Nusseibeh thinks the Bard program will be pivotal in changing Palestinian society.

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: In Palestine, as a whole, it is the kind of thing that will help transform the nature of social development. More creative, more dynamic, to do things because they have reasoned about them, because they love to do them. They become, therefore, creators, inventors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In many ways, it's an ideal partnership between two innovative institutions. For example, Bard offers the largest prison degree program in the U.S. Nusseibeh has formed research ties with Israeli institutions of higher learning, even though the state of Israel doesn't recognize degrees from Al-Quds University.

Susan Gillespie is the director of the International Institute for Liberal Education at Bard College.

Ms. SUSAN GILLESPIE (Director, International Institute for Liberal Education, Bard College): The purpose, really, of this kind of partnership is to enable people to really talk to each other in a deep and serious way because we actually, in this era of globalization, absolutely need that. Problems will not be solved without that. They will get worse. You know, this is about it's not about the politics of politics. It's about the politics of education.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, there have been bumps along the road. One-third of the teachers at the Bard program are of Jewish origin. Four of them are actually Israelis. That has rubbed some Palestinian students and teachers on the Al-Quds campus the wrong way.

Academics involved in the Bard program also say that some staff and students at Al-Quds see those enrolled at Bard as privileged and elitist. Last month, a group of Bard students was playing American football on campus when they were verbally harassed and physically threatened by two members of the Al-Quds staff. The situation was resolved without incident, but it has raised tensions.

Despite the difficulties, many of the 80-some students in the Bard program say they love it. Yasmine Shawamre(ph) sits on some steps outside the Bard classrooms. She's come from Chicago to study here. Her father is Palestinian and her mother, Jewish. She says she never felt like she fit in until she came here.

Ms. YASMINE SHAWAMRE (Student): I want to be well-rounded, and here, you know, I'm studying intro to human rights, like, you know, law material, and it's just, like, I'm so interested in it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yasmine hopes one day to become a jazz singer. With her peers around her, she un-self-consciously sings to a visiting reporter.

Ms. SHAWAMRE: (Singing) Didnt mean to waste your time. So I'll fall back in line. It's 6 a.m., and I'm all messed up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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