A group of American academics who visited Israel last week said they found it to be a very different place than that described by the many college administrators who have suspended their study programs in the country during the past several years. "We have been welcomed, and we feel comfortable and challenged by the complexity of the issues here," said Patti Brown of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania during the group's farewell dinner in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Israel has always been a popular destination for American Jewish students. However since 9/11, said the visiting international program heads, there had been an increase of some 64 percent in students interested in traveling to the Middle East - making it the region with the biggest rise in interest on American campuses. It was during this same period, however, that US State Department warnings about travel to Israel caused university administrations to be wary of sending their students here. In many cases, students have been forced to take leaves of absence to study here, and were unable to receive academic credit, apply for scholarships, or receive student health insurance for studies in Israel. Recently, however, US universities have begun to reinstate their Israel study programs, and have been sending the directors of their international programs to see the situation for themselves. "News reports can give people a much stronger picture in terms of risk. Being here, the impression of risk is much lower - I didn't feel in danger at any time," said Brown. "Educational institutions are sending the wrong message to people if they say it's too dangerous to come to Israel - because people do live and study here," she said. "I'm very excited about students coming to the Middle East to study and understand the issues from the perspective of their host countries and not from the American media," she said. "They come home less emotional, less ready to resort to stereotypes." "I have actually found campuses here amazingly safe," Miami University of Ohio's Sarah McNitt told The Jerusalem Post. This American academics were hosted by the University Consortium for Overseas Programs, whose members include the University of Haifa, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University and Hebrew University. The visitors spent one day meeting with students and teachers at each of the universities, and traveled throughout the country. "We are looking for people who wouldn't have necessarily come here on their own," said Ben-Gurion University spokeswoman Faye Bittker. On the eve of their departure, the visitors all agreed they had gained a new perspective, not only on security issues and Israeli academia, but on the country as a whole. "There's more than two narratives here - that's the biggest lesson I've learned," said Donna Kish-Goodling of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. "Before coming I thought of Israel as being very homogeneous," McNitt said. "This visit has been really interesting - it didn't provide me with any answers, just more questions."