Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June 2021, undergraduate student Katherine Woodard (SFS’22) interviewed a second-year student at Bethlehem University (BU), in West Bank, Palestine. In this interview, the student discusses BU’s distinct dedication to an English language-based curriculum and the way BU has impacted her worldview.
Please, tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m excited to be a part of your research. It gives me experience with an American university. I’m from Hebron and I am 19 years old.
Could you tell me a little bit more about how you get to school? Other students from Hebron have told me it takes a much longer time [to travel to BU] than it does for the people from Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
In my opinion, having to travel is not bad. Hebron is a bit more of a conservative society. I like going to Bethlehem because I see it as, like, a more open society, a more open environment. I like to socialize and meet new people. The way from my home in Hebron to Bethlehem is not very difficult as compared [to] other students traveling from further distances.
Why did you decide to go to Bethlehem University rather than another university in Palestine?
I find universities near me in Hebron to be too conservative, and I have been dreaming about going to Bethlehem for the past two years. Bethlehem University has an American education system, and it's also known for good quality English education. Also, BU has more Christian students and students from other faith backgrounds than Hebron University or other universities in the area.
Why is an English education important to you?
Now, in this age, I see the English language as the international spoken language. It’s a good language for communication. And as well, it's good for me as a teacher because I would like to get a master's degree abroad. And to go to America to study more, you must know English. You have to be fluent in English.
What do you want to get a master's degree in?
Translation, so English is very important to me.
I know Bethlehem University offers human rights courses in English. How do you feel about Bethlehem University offering classes on human rights?
It’s a great opportunity for BU students because other universities do not offer human rights courses at all, much less require them.
These human rights courses are often taught in English. Do you think that the English component makes things difficult for students? Or, in your opinion, is it a good thing that the class is in English?
Studying for this course in English is not easy because it's not our mother tongue. It’s not our mother language, [but] it's beneficial and educational to take the course in English because it helps us engage with human rights doctrine in a new way. We engage differently because of it.
How have these classes, and your education more broadly, affected the way you engage with other people?
The courses I took while studying at Bethlehem University have helped me approach other people much better. I know how to approach [Israeli Defense Force] officers better. But also, I know how to approach Christian students much better. Here, I learned to communicate with all types of other students and teachers as well.
That’s a great example. How did you engage with Christians before your time at BU? What’s different now?
When I went to school in Hebron, all the students were Muslims. So, my idea about Christians was that they have this superiority and that they look down on other people. Or they’re racists. Or they’re very hard to communicate with and they’re very hard to handle. But after going to Bethlehem University, I see that we’re all the same. After talking to Christian students, I see that they’re kind and enthusiastic. Now, I see Muslims and Christians as if we're like brothers and sisters.
So, being in classes with students from different faith backgrounds—that changed your opinion?
Yes. Right. 100%.
We’re going to change topics a bit here with our next question. What does it mean to you to be politically active?
In public, I’m not politically active. But I see the news, and I hear the news, so I have a general knowledge about what’s going on. For me, a person who is politically active is a person who knows a lot and is always up to date on what's happening in the world. To be engaged politically is to be unafraid to share your opinions about things, about politics. [A person who] isn't afraid, like, you know, to tell their opinions about politics.
Do a lot of the students you’ve met at Bethlehem University consider themselves politically active?
Not all students. For sure not all of us. I have only met a few who are politically active.
That is one of the things that a lot of students have shared with me, that they feel there is a global misconception about what students in Palestine are like. These students said the same thing as you: They don’t think they’re politically active. Are there any other misconceptions that you feel like people from outside Palestine have about university students here? Or about Palestine more broadly?
Yes. The biggest misconception that others have is that the Israeli government is the government of Palestine and that it's Palestinians who took the land from Israelis.
Do you feel like you understand the situation between Israel and Palestine better because of the classes you have taken at your university?
I accredit [sic] my perspective and understanding of the situation to a history course I took here at the university about the history of Palestine. Unlike at other universities, the Palestinian history course is a requirement here. The course made me understand the history behind the country: everything that has happened in the past and the events that led to today. My education at the university has encouraged me to be more involved in society, but, of course, my education is much better and I can get much more involved when my education takes place at the university rather than online.
Yes! That's true for me as well, taking classes online can be extremely difficult. But I’m glad to hear that you have generally had a really good experience at Bethlehem University. With that said, is there anything that you would say the university could improve on?
The first thing that comes to mind is restructuring the university requirements. We don’t need to have so many requirements in every subject. There are lots of required subjects that I feel are not applicable to every degree, and we shouldn’t be forced to take these courses. Some requirements are beneficial for all students, like the courses in human rights or Palestinian history, but for other more specific categories, I feel that I should be able to pick between classes, rather than take everything.
For example, if you are not interested in focusing on learning English, you shouldn’t be required to take so many classes in English. A few classes are good, yes—but, for example, science classes are a requirement for many degrees, and science classes are usually taught in English. This can make understanding things very difficult for students who aren’t interested in learning English. For human rights classes, English is good. But not for everything else. Is that clear?
That makes sense to me. That was my last question. I really appreciate all your time and input into my research. I learned a lot from what you shared.