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5 SLU seniors travel to Israel for firsthand study

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CANTON — The safety and security of the St. Lawrence University campus has taken on new meaning for six students.

Five of the six spent a portion of their winter break in Israel working on honors research projects. The last was denied an Israeli visa, so he spent the time in Jordan and Egypt, though he also is researching Israel and Palestine.

The senior government majors say that now that they are back on campus and attending regular classes, they are more aware of how much more smoothly things run in a country that has not been deeply divided for decades.

"It takes 'don't sweat the small stuff' to a whole new level," said Matthew Iacono, who also is majoring in economics. "It's like, 'Oh, man, I have a paper due in two days that I haven't even started yet. Big deal. I'm at school; I'm not worried about what's going to happen to me on campus, walking to my house.'"

The students never felt threatened during their 10-day tour of Israel and Palestine, but they worried about getting their stories lined up when they were going through checkpoints or customs on their way into and out of the country. It was easier to get around, they said, when their blond Israeli tour guide was leading the way rather than their Palestinian bus driver.

The sixth student, Hassan Raza, was denied a visa to enter Israel because he is from Pakistan. He spent the time traveling around Jordan and Egypt, leaving just before the revolution began in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Trips to Israel are not common academic affairs for north country students; the trip came about only because the six seniors all wanted to do honors projects related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their professor and adviser, Ronnie M. Olesker, decided their research could best be done on the ground in the Middle East, so they spent most of the fall semester organizing the trip and writing the proposals to make it happen.

They met with Palestinian government and business leaders; officials with the Knesset, or Israeli parliament; Israeli settlers; Palestinian refugees; journalists and young Palestinians in a nightclub in Ramallah. The conversations they had never could have happened without the trip, said O'Keefe E. Foster of Norwich, Vt., who spent a lot of time e-mailing officials requesting interviews before the group left Jan. 10.

"Actually showing up in Israel showed them that I was serious," said Mr. Foster, who is researching how new media are changing perceptions of the conflict. "We got their e-mail addresses and their business cards so we can contact them with follow-up questions."

Now that they are back, the real work starts for the young researchers, who also include Igor Dabik and Zlata Unerkova, both of Macedonia, and George J. Cuchural III, Hingham, Mass. By the time they graduate in May, their experience from the 10 days in Israel and loads of research will have morphed into 80-page papers. Only the best government students are invited to do honors theses, Miss Olesker said. After the papers are written, the students will march across the graduation stage with honors degrees in government.

"The trip was great, but now we have to pay the bills," Mr. Foster said.

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