OTI Come Home

Student diplomats who embarked on a three-week trip to Israel and Palestine this past August were spotlighted at a welcome back event, “Between Turbulence and Hope,” hosted by the Olive Tree Initiative on Tuesday, Oct. 2 in Pacific Ballroom D, to share their experiences in the Middle East.

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University

Students, faculty and community members alike were present to hear reflections from UC Irvine students about their experience in the Middle East.

The night was separated into two parts, the first being a presentation from students who went on the trip this past August, followed by a discussion session where representatives sat and spoke with attendees sitting at their respective table.

The director of the program, Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig, began by thanking attendees of the event, community members and faculty members who accompanied the students on the trip. He helped start the organization that has now spread to ten campuses across California, including Stanford University and most of the UC campuses, with the exception of Riverside, Davis and Merced.

The spotlight then moved to the students who chose to share their experience while on the trip.

Hassan Rassmy, Erik Olson, Lauren Quijano, Devin Yaeger, Lauren Padick, Michelle Miro and Melissa Garcia were the six UC Irvine students who shared a piece of their experience talking with diplomats and experiencing the culture of the Middle East.

The backdrop on the student speakers was a slideshow of pictures from the Aida Refugee Camp, Washington D.C. and Jordan, to name a few, giving the audience a taste of the sights they took in.

“There is no amount of training, and education and reading that can properly prepare a person for this region. Being there physically cemented the understanding of this conflict,” Rassmy, a third-year international studies major, said.

Experiential learning was a theme strung throughout many of the students’ reflections, a number of them saying that there is no other experience that can compare to immersing yourself into the region and experiencing the conflict.

The students who spoke represented the diversity within the group of student diplomats. One student, Olson, connected his degree in engineering to his experience in the Middle East.

“There are two sides to engineering, and I think to any academic study: the theoretical side and the experimental side,” Olson said. “You are missing a lot between reading a book and watching a movie or even talking to us about it. There is always something that is going to be missing, and that’s why you go there and experience it yourself.”

Other students took different approaches, such as Ph.D. student Miro, who was able to relate the trip to her research dealing with water, to viewing the trip as a mechanism to understand activism, as described by fifth-year Quijano.

Following the speeches, UCI and UCLA representatives were at individual roundtables to discuss the trip and answer any questions attendees had.

Students asked questions ranging from issues such as the role of Gaza in negotiations, to security dilemmas faced in the Jerusalem airport.

The Olive Tree Initiative holds two annual trips in the summer to regions dealing with conflict, and specifically emphasizes conflict resolution in their curriculum. UC Irvine and UC Los Angeles students attended the trip to Israel and Palestine, while the other branch of the Olive Tree Initiative travelled to Turkey and Armenia in early June.