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The making of the world of chemistry is the model on which Professor Nava Ben-Zvi, president of the Hadassah College Jerusalem, has built her revolutionary vision of teaching, pioneering the world of higher education and technology throughout the past 30 years with the aim of providing equal access to education to a society that is becoming more diverse every day.
"Education opens doors to people from all walks of life. Well-educated men and women can strengthen and enhance a society and bring about change," says Ben-Zvi, one of only two female college presidents in Israel. "At the end of the day it is all about the chemistry between people and the structures of building a society similar to the structures in chemistry."
Ben-Zvi, a scientist at heart, fell in love with the world of chemistry and molecules in the 5th grade.
"I was fascinated by molecules and I wanted to find the remedies that will make people live forever," says Ben-Zvi.
Transforming her childhood vision, Ben-Zvi made it her business to internalize long-term learning and ethics, looking at higher education as a business that provides long-term solutions.
"We look at people as human beings and we believe in the importance of teaching ethics as a way to prepare them for the business world," says Ben-Zvi. "To run an institution of higher education is about education and students should be better people when they come out of here. You need to open your eyes, you paint a rainbow in the sky and we want to load it with a better future."
Ben-Zvi understands the symbiosis between a changing world and the importance of creating different ways of studying and learning, adapting higher education to the modern world.
Completing her army service as an Education Officer, Ben-Zvi in the early 1960s climbed an academic career at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem starting from a B.Sc. in Chemistry and Physics to a Ph.D. in Chemistry and finally to Professor of the Science Teaching Center.
"Chemistry in those years was not the subject that was naturally chosen by girls, but it had less of a male stigma than physics or mathematics," recounts the 63-year professor. "We were a small group of girls at high school and during my studies we made up about 30 percent, while today about 60% of my students are female studying science-based subjects."
Since the 1970s, Ben-Zvi has been at the forefront of innovative teaching, whether as one of the founders of the Open University of Israel or as a pioneer and leader in the use of technology in science education and Web-based learning.
"I like to create using technology in science and I consider myself lucky to have been in places where I could and still can make a change," says Ben-Zvi in her natural and modest manner.
In the mid-1990s, Ben-Zvi created Snunit, the first Hebrew-based learning and teaching Web site crowned with the slogan "To fly beyond the imagination," which moved the Hebrew University into the new age of multimedia learning.
Three years later, she initiated AVIV - A Virtual Israeli Venture - the first virtual school in Israel aimed at creating a new educational paradigm.
Ben-Zvi has over the years collected several prizes including the Jubilee Award for Excellence in CMC Based Education; the Moach 1st National Award; the Kay's Award for Outstanding Technology and Science Innovation for her work with Snunit; and most recently the first President's Global Leadership Award from America's ninth largest university, the University of South Florida, which was awarded to those "who have achieved exemplary accomplishments in international leadership or global relations."
Seven years ago, the Hadassah College in Jerusalem, which offers academic degrees in Optometry, Environmental Health Services, Medical Laboratory Sciences and Biotechnology, invited Ben-Zvi to become its president.
"When they decided to move into the 21st century, they chose me," Ben-Zvi says proudly. "It was clear to me that I had no choice but to accept as I view it as my duty to try and attain the highest academic and educational standards for the young people of this country and this city."
Since then, Ben-Zvi has transformed the vocational training center into a hi-tech educational paradise that endows students from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds with the right tools and opportunities.
Situated one block away from a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem and two blocks from an Arab neighborhood, the college weathers the surrounding turmoil with stunning resilience hosting Jews, Israeli Arabs, men, women, the physically challenged and new immigrants.
Ben-Zvi challenges herself every day to think of ways to make higher education more accessible to everyone, testing her success alongside that of the students.
"My secret of success is that I care about what I do and the people I work with and at the same my success is measured by my students' success," says Ben-Zvi. "I go by the principle, 'what you see is what you get,' I am very nice and I am also funny."
This academic year, the college opened with 1,850 students, the largest enrollment in its 37-year history, while partnerships and collaborations with industries in Israel and throughout the world continue to expand.
"We are proud to say that today over 50% of HCJ students come from outside the greater Jerusalem area and we continue to attract a diverse group of students from different geographical and social backgrounds," Ben-Zvi reports with excitement. "About 10% of our students are Israeli Arabs, mainly from the North, while about 14% of our students are from a low social status."
Ben-Zvi added that the college had a heavy system of scholarships, making it possible to recruit students from a variety of backgrounds.
"We are also working with haredi women, offering them separate classes," says Ben-Zvi. "We are taking them to places where they never thought they could be into studying the world of communication technology or medical laboratory science."
It seems no coincidence that Ben-Zvi heads the college that honors the pioneering spirit of its founders - the women of Hadassah.
"My students can say our president is from science, she is a woman, she can count, which makes them feel better about their abilities to succeed," says Ben-Zvi.
Looking back at the past 30 years, she notes that today women are no longer interested in becoming teachers only, but rather tend to diversify.
"Women go into various subjects. I don't have to push my female students, although we do have less women in engineering and more in biotechnology and biology. At the same time, we see more women in the workplace including returning mothers, while we can see more men taking leave of absence or working in kindergardens," Ben-Zvi observes. "Still, I think, we can do more for advancing girls by putting a stronger teaching focus on science, teaching the bigger picture for them to receive a well-rounded education."
Unable to explain the near inexistence of female college presidents in Israel, she suggests that her prestigious posting was a combination of luck, a focused mindset and knowing what she wanted to do.
"I never felt that I am inferior to men and no one told me that I couldn't do what I wanted," says Ben-Zvi. "Don't we create our own ceiling? Part of it are educated decisions and I believe that technology makes it possible."
For the mother of three, technology and education also makes it possible to juggle the private and the working world.
"I have three children, two grandchildren and one husband in this order," says Ben-Zvi with a big warm smile coming over her face. "They know that work is very important for grandmother but they think that I am a good at multi-tasking juggling both worlds."
Ben-Zvi is clearly a strong believer in the causal relation of our being and our ability to make a change.
"I believe that you live for a cause and the sky is the limit," says Ben-Zvi. "Women don't look at the ceiling they look at the skyline."
Prof. Nava Ben-Zvi
Married with three children
* B.Sc. Chemistry & Physics, Hebrew University Jerusalem
* Teaching certificate in Chemistry and Physics
* M.Sc. Chemistry, Hebrew University
* Ph.D Chemistry, Hebrew University
* Senior lecturer at the Science Teaching Center, Hebrew University
* Academic director, Snunit Educational Information System, Hebrew University
* Professor at the Science Teaching Center, Hebrew University
* President, Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem