West Bank: American-style college for Palestinians hopes students stay

Honors College, an new American-style university for Palestinians, offers dual degrees from Palestinian and American universities.

Daniel Estrin
Palestinian students at Honors College read their work aloud.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

On a crisp November morning, six Palestinian men and women read passages aloud in halting English about a Mexican-American boy struggling with his Hispanic identity. Their professor, Rebecca Granato, pushes them: “What does this metaphor mean? What’s going on here?”

Ms. Granato’s Language and Thinking class is one of the inaugural courses of Honors College, the brainchild of Bard University President Leon Botstein in New York and his counterpart, Sari Nusseibeh, at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. Bankrolled with $1.5 million from the George Soros Open Society Initiative and scholarships from the Consulate General of the United States in Jerusalem, Honors College awards dual degrees from the two universities along with a dose of American educational values.

“[Palestinian students] are geared at remembering parts of a text and reciting things back,” said Granato, one of the program’s six full-time faculty and a Bard graduate. “But when you ask them what that means, they can’t think more deeply about it.” The program’s 34 students are Palestinian-Americans and children from villages and refugee camps. In the classroom they take on an American casualness, arriving late and clutching travel mugs of coffee.

Iman Rahman grew up in Brooklyn and was in her first semester at the University of New Orleans when her parents decided to return to the village of Bir Nabala, north of Jerusalem. Ms. Rahman said an English-language program was a relief amid other adjustments to living in the West Bank. Jacqueline Sfeir, an educational consultant, hailed Honors College’s efforts but warned that without jobs for graduates, the program may become “an exodus machine.”

Granato said the college is working to train students for the job market. But the students dream of travel. Diya Hawwarin grew up in Hebron and hopes to study economics in the United States, then return to the West Bank. 

Ziad Abdeen, the acting dean of Honors College who studied in Britain and at Johns Hopkins University, is counting on that. “We hope our first cohort of students ... will be instrumental in changing [Palestinian] society,” he says.

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