Concerned about increasing violence in the Gaza Strip, the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University have pulled back on study-abroad programs in Israel and the West Bank.
Penn's nursing program has postponed sending five students to Israel, and likely will suspend study abroad there for the spring semester. And the university strongly recommended that students in other programs in that region defer study abroad for the spring. Four of the six agreed; the other two applied for leaves of absences to study at Israeli universities on their own.
At Rutgers, nine students were scheduled to study there this spring. Six still plan to go on their own. One will remain home, and two others have decided to go to Australia, said spokeswoman Sandra Lanman.
"I have very mixed feelings about it," said Julia Selznick, 20, a Rutgers junior from Haddonfield, who said she now would not be able to complete requirements for her Jewish-studies dual major. "On the one hand, it's almost like it's not worth the risk. However, I have a lot of friends who live in Israel. I know a lot of kids who went there for community service programs over break, and everyone there said they couldn't feel the effects of the war going on."
Also a psychology major, she will study in Australia this semester instead.
Both local universities made their decisions last week as schools throughout the nation debate the issue.
"Some, like Penn, have decided this is not the right time to do those programs," said Gary Rhodes, director of the Center for Global Education at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "Others are keeping a close eye and continuing to operate them. Others have made statements that they definitely will continue to operate them."
At Penn, 11 undergraduate students were scheduled to study there this semester - 10 in Israel and one in the West Bank. Of particular concern to Penn were students in the nursing program.
"The nursing program includes travel from college dormitories to hospitals for their clinical rotations. It's that travel that we were most concerned about for the nursing students," said Anne Waters, executive director of the Office of International Programs.
The university was guided by Department of State travel warnings, she said.
In addition to a longstanding warning, the department on Jan. 6 put out an alert urging U.S. citizens "to maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness."
The alert noted that Israel began a military operation against terrorists in Gaza on Dec. 27, following ongoing rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into southern Israel. It also warned that protests against the military action in Israel and the West Bank could turn violent.
Some schools were undeterred.
Cornell University will send 11 students to four universities in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheva, which is near the Gaza strip.
"We haven't made any decision to change our policy," said Richard Gaulton, director of Cornell Abroad. "Obviously, if we felt our students were in particular danger in any country, we could withdraw them."
He said the university in Beersheva, where one student will study, has decided to relocate visiting students to a safer campus location.
Swarthmore College will send one student to the University of Haifa this spring, a spokeswoman said.
Drexel University will proceed with plans to reestablish a co-op program in Israel, which will start in September. They will reevaluate as the starting date nears.
Muhlenberg College in Allentown will keep a handful of students in programs in Israel. Students who want to study in locations where there are travel warnings are required to undergo special counseling with their families, said Donna Kish-Goodling, associate dean of global education and an economics professor.
Kish-Goodling emphasized that there are risks anywhere in the world, including the United States. She noted that Muhlenberg had students in London when the subway was bombed.
The suspension of the program at Rutgers has raised the ire of some Jewish leaders, who fear that it sends the wrong message and unnecessarily raises alarm.
"For those of us more familiar with security that Israeli institutions provide and how daily life is continuing at this time, it seems that the university's decision was unnecessary and harmful, of course, to the students who had planned for, in some cases, years to take part in this study-abroad experience," said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick.
Joshua Barer, 20, a junior Jewish-studies major from Westfield, N.J., was at the University of Haifa in the fall and plans to return on his own this semester.
"If you live in fear, then you're not really living," he said, adding, however, that he does understand Rutgers' reluctance to take on the responsibility of the risk.
"It's very different when you're over there, especially being around Israelis so used to it. You see they're not stressed," added Barer, who was in Israel since the conflict began intensifying last month and returned to the United States a few days ago.
Universities typically reevaluate their programs as conflicts heat up, said Tony Pals of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., suspended travel to Israel and the West Bank before 2002 and hasn't resumed.
"The State Department issued a travel warning at that point, and we took that into consideration," said Brian Whalen, president and chief executive officer of the Forum on Education Abroad, based at Dickinson, which maintains 25 active abroad programs.
In 2005-06, the most recent academic year for which statistics were available, 2,226 U.S. students studied in Israel for credit at their home universities, said the Institute of International Education.
Penn could resume study to the region in the summer or fall. "The university remains committed to our academic exchanges with Israeli universities," Waters said. "It is the current conflict situation that concerns us and guides our decision for spring term."
Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or firstname.lastname@example.org