(May 6, 2019 / JNS) My whole life I’ve been overflowing with questions. I’ve tried to address these curiosities by diving headfirst into my passions and leaping at opportunities for adventure: I studied developmental psychology and global health at Muhlenberg College, joined the University of Florida Diabetes Institute as a Research Coordinator and then moved across the world to live in Israel through a Masa Israel Journey program, Masa Israel Teaching Fellows.
It was my time in Israel that changed me the most.
My transition from college to the professional world was challenging. I moved halfway across the country and worked in a biomedical lab that was predominantly run by men. I felt intimidated, struggled to find my voice and began to have deep-seated uncertainties about my future. The only thing that I was certain about was that I wanted a more hands-on experience where I could apply my knowledge on health and education in the field. I had spent the summer of 2014 in Israel and felt a strong calling to go back for a more immersive experience.
While I was first there in 2014, I experienced what living through conflict on a day-to-day basis was really like. The rocket attacks from across the border and the Red Alerts echoing throughout Jerusalem were what really got me interested in working with children in conflict zones.
When I traveled to Israel with Masa, I saw the way that women serve fearlessly in positions of power. I was so deeply inspired by the women I met through the program; their resilience and unabashed approach to both life and work. It was the first time that I saw so many women in senior positions spanning across so many different fields in business, policy, medicine and technology. It gave me a different view of what was possible as I continued to pursue my professional interests.
But it wasn’t just the powerful women I met in Israel who changed my life; it was also the kids I worked with in conflict zones in southern Israel. Masa understood my personal and academic interests, and set me up with the opportunity to work with schoolchildren in southern Israel impacted by the conflict at Israel’s border with Gaza. From my studies, I know that kids around the world experience stress and trauma in different ways: Some are born into poverty or domestic violence, and others experience structural disadvantages that impact development. Through teaching, I saw the impact that cultural exchanges and empathy-building programs can have on children’s social interactions, cognitive development and overall empowerment. I was always drawn to helping others, and this experience confirmed that I want to focus my attention on working with families and young children living in stressful environments.
I became particularly close with a curious and sweet girl named Talia. While she was remarkably bright, she had trouble concentrating for long periods of time in the structured classroom setting, so I was assigned to work with her on a one-on-one basis. I quickly realized that she wasn’t responding to classic teaching methods, so I focused on what she was passionate about: art. I took the time to create lesson plans that were interactive and artistic, teaching English through drawing as opposed to conversation. By the end of the year, she had made huge strides in her language skills.
I learned over the course of my time as a teacher that passion is always worth pursuing, even if you need to move across the ocean to do so.
My experience in Israel has shown a model of women’s leadership I had not experienced in the United States. I have taken that model and internalized it, giving me the power to explore opportunities I would have shied away from prior to my experiences in Israel. Currently, I am at UNICEF assisting the organization’s president, and also at Columbia University researching how poverty and conflict impact childhood development.
Inspired by the change-makers in Israel across various fields, I now see that I have what it takes to rise in my chosen field and take charge of my own future as I make plans to further my education and work on behalf of families and young children.
Sarah Levine works at UNICEF USA, assisting the organization’s president on projects such as the Child Friendly City Initiative. She is a graduate of Muhlenberg College with a degree in psychology and public health.