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When Haifa's Technion Institute of Technology was nearing completion almost a hundred years ago, German almost got the upper hand over Hebrew as the institution's language of instruction. The debate was so intense that, according to William Chomsky's Hebrew: The Eternal Language, it "struck at the heart of the spiritual unity of the Jewish people."
In the end Hebrew won the day thanks to the intervention of the American members of the board of governors. A century later, however, Hebrew has lost its unchallenged status at the Technion - albeit with little threat of danger to the cohesion of the people of the book - after the Israel Institute of Technology this year became the second Israeli university to offer full undergraduate degrees in English.
Spearheaded by the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the recently formed Technion International School of Engineering is offering three Bachelor of Science (BSC) programs to international students - Civil Engineering, Water Resources and Environmental Engineering and Transportation Engineering, which can all be completed within four years.
The first group of 21 students, who hail from 13 different countries, including the US, India, China, Spain, Albania, Ghana and South Africa, began their studies in Israel last month, taking part in a pre-university period that focused around mathematics and physics, and that aimed to prepare them for the challenging academic year, which begins in December.
Arnon Bentur, dean of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering and one of the driving forces behind the new degrees, told The Jerusalem Post that the development of the program was "a strategic move." He called the program, in its initial form, "a nucleus for a vision of having, within a decade, a school comprised of a thousand students in a variety of engineering disciplines, and serving also as a platform for a student exchange and study abroad program, whereby students can be engaged in one or two semesters of study, and earn credits for completion of their degrees at their home universities.
"The program is bound to bring added benefits to Israel, as the students will become goodwill ambassadors for Israel when they return to their home countries," he added.
Here in Israel, Bentur said, "The program will provide multicultural exposure for Israeli students, who will interact with the foreign students, providing them with an international insight which is so important for developing career skills."
He stressed that the Israeli students could gain vital experience to benefit Israeli companies conducting business abroad.
"Another aspect of the program," he went on, "is its potential to attract Jewish students from the Diaspora who wish to combine their Zionism with engineering studies at an internationally recognized university."
ONE OF the 21 students enrolled in the program, 18-year-old Akshay Vajpayee from New Delhi, spoke to the Post about his decision to study in Israel, and his experiences so far.
"Back in India, I was looking for a good university to study at," he said, adding that he couldn't get into schools in the US because he didn't yet have the necessary SAT results. He applied to two different universities in Singapore, which he said were popular choices for many of his peers, as well as to the Technion. "I was admitted to both," he said proudly.
As he went about making his decision, safety was a prime concern. "In India," Vajpayee said, "Israel is considered a very dangerous place." He spoke with some friends who are currently involved in post-doctoral research at the Technion, and went about making what he called "an analysis."
"In India, the population is [so large] that you can't expect much focus on individual students... they have so many other students to deal with," he said, stressing how impressed he was with the attention he has received from the staff at the International School of Engineering, from the beginning of the admission process right through to today. Vajpayee was also interested to find out about prospects for after the degree, as he sees a possible future for himself in engineering research. He was reassured to hear of prospects in the United States, "at MIT, and even Stanford."
Racism was another concern: "Indians suffer a lot of racism [abroad], sometimes due to their color, and often because they do better than the other students." From speaking to his peers, he ascertained that Indians are held in high regard in Israel: "They have a reputation for coming [to Israel] to study hard, or to work hard."
And so the decision was made, and Vajpayee hasn't looked back: "Israel is great, the university is great, there's no discrimination... Since I landed, it's been great, the people are very helpful, and I've got amazing opportunities."
Vajpayee lamented that while he's enjoying the pre-courses, "for me, compared to the Indian standard... the classes are pretty simple." Most of the mathematics and physics classes, he said, covered material "I did three years back in high school," leaving him itching for the course proper to begin.
His initial impression of Israel is that it is "an amazing place... the people are so polite."
"Today, for example, I met someone and asked for directions... he couldn't understand English, and I can't understand Hebrew, and even so, he stood with me for 10 minutes... describing how to get there with his hands," he said. "That wouldn't happen in India."
Having been involved with the planning of the program, and now interacting almost daily with the students, Ariel Geva, the Managing Director of the school, shares both Vajpayee and Bentur's enthusiasm, telling the Post, "I really believe that this will work."
He reeled off facts, figures and anecdotes about the current group of students and how they've been doing in the past few weeks, and said that the team provides not just academic assistance, but also a full social schedule, including trips and workshops, and on-campus housing. Recently, for example, the whole group, as well as the staff, headed down to Jerusalem for a hike and tour.
Geva went on to say that thousands of copies of the impressive glossy brochure put together prior to the beginning of this semester have been circulated around the world. At present, he said, the staff is working on building connections with universities around the world, while at the same time tackling the blocks put in place by the very specific requirements for engineering degrees. The focus at the moment is on "raising an awareness of academic excellence in Israel," Geva said, as well as getting the message out there that "the Technion is a place to come and study."
Prof. Amnon Katz, the Academic Head of the Technion International School of Engineering, added that the curriculum is identical to that of the regular Israeli students, and noted the Technion's outstanding reputation.
"Israel," he said, "has been known for its accomplishments since its founding in 1948, by providing mass housing to huge waves of immigrants and construction of state-of-the-art infrastructure, such as water projects, recycling, energy plants and transportation."
He also mentioned Israeli companies such as Tahal and Mekorot, which are globally active, and said that "foreign graduates of the program can become engaged in their international activities."
At this point, with the students having a ball, a tight team running the show, and the solid plan for the future, it seems the only way to go is up.