While Rachel picked Ben-Gurion University of the Negev for the excellence of its Health Sciences Faculty and its philosophy of bringing good health care to peripheral areas, she discovered the bonus of its US-style campus. “I built an Israeli life there,” she says. “I roomed with Israeli students in the dorms, studied with them in class, swam with them in the pool, joined them at parties, salsa dancing, animation modeling. And because it was Be’er-Sheva, not Tel Aviv or Jerusalem where every other person speaks English, I used the Hebrew I was learning in the university ulpan. I was integrated from the very beginning.”
“The stars aligned for me”
One of only 1,600 students awarded the Fulbright Program’s prestigious cultural exchange scholarship in 2014, Rachel had newly graduated from Arizona State University in Biology and Bioethics, and “the stars simply aligned for me,” she says. “The West African Ebola virus epidemic was beginning, and it was only five years since the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic. It was vital to learn why uptake of vaccine in Israel is relatively high, and take this to places where it’s less than 40 percent. I soon discovered the way to do this was with Prof. Nadav Davidovitch in BGU’s Health Systems Management Department.”
Gur-Arie organized her internship in vaccine ethics (“though it was more like a research fellowship,” she says) at BGU with the university’s Office of International Academic Affairs, which included an ulpan and several English-language courses. She had visited Israel only twice before and knew no Hebrew — although her father, who came to Israel from Morocco when he was six, had grown up in Beit She’an and spent almost 20 years in the country until attending the University of Ottawa for his MSc. There he met his Canadian-born wife and decided to remain in North America.
“I was born in Ottawa in 1984, but moved a year later to America’s ‘Wild West’ — Phoenix, Arizona — when my father got a job with Motorola,” smiles Gur-Arie. “After graduating from Phoenix’s public school system, I studied Biology and Bioethics at Arizona State University.”
As the 14 months of her Fulbright scholarship ended, in March 2016, Gur-Arie’s supervisors, Prof. Davidovitch and Dr. Anat Rosenthal, urged her to stay on for her doctorate — an invitation that would make her the department’s first doctoral student to transition from ‘foreign’ to Israeli student.
“Although my Hebrew was serviceable by then, and I totally loved the university and Be'er-Sheva, Israel was never meant to be more than temporary, so I said, ‘No thanks,’ and went back to the US,” she recalls. “I looked at the universities there where people typically study to climb the academic ladder. I saw amazing departments and met well known and highly respected faculty — but six months after I left Israel, I found myself back at BGU asking to join the doctoral program after all. I missed the university and missed Be'er-Sheva. It was October and the last day of registration. To my joy, the offer was still open. They accepted me and I chose Ethical Responsibilities of Healthcare Workers as my dissertation topic.”
Making the most of Covid
Early this spring, just months from the end of Gur-Arie’s four-year doctoral program, the eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic made the importance of health-workers as a health resource devastatingly clear to the entire world. “Throughout the doctorate, I’d been a teaching assistant in BGU International’s spring and summer semester programs for foreign students on Health in the Age of Globalization,” she says. “These programs are unique, underscoring the impact of social determinants (environment, education, transportation) on health, rather than that of medicine and the clinic. It’s pointless, for example, to build a clinic in a remote area, if people have no way of getting there. The courses are very popular, bringing dozens of international students to Israel each year, to examine the politics, sociology, philosophy and economics of public health in formal lectures, class discussions and public healthcare fieldtrips throughout Israel. Covid-19 made the courses more relevant than ever, while preventing foreign students from attending them…”
BGU International’s response was to take the programs online. “We redesigned our teaching, making lectures shorter, incorporating podcasts, bringing in guest lecturers and seeing how public health measures play out during pandemic,” says Gur-Arie, who taught the six-credit online course with Prof. Davidovitch, Dr. Rosenthal and Lotan Kraun. Launched in July, it was attended by 35 health, healthcare science and management professionals and students from 17 countries (among them: Argentina, Canada, China, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, United States, Venezuela, Vietnam) — including older global public health professionals who would have been unable to come to Israel for one month for the course.
With her doctorate nearing completion, Gur-Arie is relocating later this year to Baltimore, Maryland, for a postdoc at the Oxford-Berman Institute for Bioethics (a partnership between Oxford University’s Wellcome Centre for Ethics & Humanities and Johns Hopkins’s Berman Institute for Bioethics), where she will continue researching the wellbeing of healthcare workers.
“I want to come back to Israel,” she says. “I love the country; I’ve loved my years here and I’ve loved my studies at BGU. From faculty to students to BGU International, people have supported and helped me, coming up with creative solutions when I hit roadblocks with my Hebrew or navigating differences between the Israeli and US academic systems. From the beginning, Dr. Davidovitch had faith in me.
When I signed up for the PhD, he told me: ‘You’re going to produce a really good doctorate.’”
“Being a foreign student isn’t always easy, but I never doubted it would work out for me. Being at BGU isn’t just about pushing to the top, as in so much of academia, but about your colleagues rooting for you to succeed.”
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is a leading multidisciplinary research university in southern Israel known for its scientific innovation and cross-disciplinary applied research. BGU is home to excellent, innovative researchers and students who are committed to social consciousness and community engagement.
With 20,000 students, 4,000 staff and faculty members, and three campuses – in Be'er-Sheva, Sde Boker and Eilat – BGU is fulfilling the vision of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, for whom the university was named, who believed that the future of Israel lay in the Negev region. BGU is at the heart of a unique ecosystem where higher education, advanced technologies, industry, business, healthcare and government come together to develop groundbreaking research. Beer-Sheva’s Advanced Technologies Park (ATP), co-founded by BGU and adjacent to the main campus, is an expression of this synergy and is home to multinational companies, university research labs and start-ups.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev offers a variety of study programs in English. International students from over 50 countries enjoy a full calendar of activities and events, and a variety of clubs and organizations. BGU, famous for its active and dynamic campus life, offers an immersive experience, providing Hebrew lessons, volunteering opportunities and a range of joint activities and courses with Israeli students. Living in on-campus housing with Israeli students as roommates, international students experience Israeli culture firsthand by forging friendships and building memories.