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A year in the life: Fulbright grant takes Mount professor to Israel

February 16, 2018

 Portrait of: Yasmine Kalkstein

Professors often look forward to sabbaticals as a reprieve from the cyclical nature of college semesters, replacing rigid class schedules and the whirlwind of academia with quiet immersion in research and training. 

Yasmine Kalkstein’s sabbatical has been a bit different. 

Kalkstein, an associate professor of Psychology at Mount Saint Mary College, received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant from the US State Department in 2017. The grant sponsors her ongoing research into women’s medical decision-making regarding childbirth, including delivery methods and breastfeeding options. It’s a topic she’s been exploring for years, often alongside her Mount students through the college’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. 

But instead of hitting the books at home, the scholarship would lead Kalkstein to Israel, nearly 6,000 miles away from the Mount.

The plans for this big step were set in motion several years ago. In 2013, the professor met Tayla Miron-Shatz, director of the Center for Medical Decision Making at Ono Academic College in Israel, during a summer stay in the country. This meeting led to collaboration on several projects, including the pair co-authoring a paper with one of Kalkstein’s students. 

At their first meeting, Kalkstein expressed a desire to complete her sabbatical year in Israel to work more closely with Miron-Shatz. So when she was given the opportunity for the Fulbright scholarship, she knew her dream was about to come true.

However, Kalkstein was faced with a choice – she could go to Israel for just a few months for the Fulbright, or commit to staying in Israel for an entire year, allowing her children the opportunity to spend a school year in Israel.

In the fall of 2017, Kalkstein and her husband rented out their home, packed up their two young children, and moved to Rehovot, Israel for a year.

“This has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” the psychology professor explained. “As a Jewish person, I’m in my homeland with my people, so there’s a meaningful emotional and historical connection, unlike a connection I can feel with any other country.”

Taking on the role of student again has given Kalkstein new insight and enhanced tools as an educator.

“I understand culture shock in a way no one else can without having gone through it,” she explained. “I understand how much encouraging words mean. That empathy is what I know in the coming year I need to bring to my own personal teaching.”

Professor Kalkstein and her family in IsraelYasmine Kalkstein and her family are spending a year in Israel for Kalkstein's Fulbright research during her sabbatical from the Mount.

The experience has not been without its challenges and adaptations. Navigating the divide between being a tourist and a citizen, coupled with the challenges of raising a family in a foreign country, has presented plenty of cultural learning opportunities, Kalkstein noted. 

Kalkstein notes small challenges like tracking parking through an app versus a parking meter to bigger differences like getting used to a one-day weekend (in Israel, the weekend is from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning). Additionally, the school days are shorter than in America, but children attend school six days per week. Other cultural differences include favoring Whatsapp over email and general social culture: In Israel, Kalkstein said, “people don’t hesitate to give their opinion, but also invite you into their life.”

Even though she has visited the country before, living there has been completely different, she noted. Unlike being on vacation, grocery shopping, buying car insurance, and translating school information are everyday realities, activities that proved challenging at first due to language and cultural differences.

“I’m experiencing what it means to be an immigrant,” she said. “What it means to try to put your kids into a school system in a foreign language with different cultural norms, what it feels like to want to do everything you can to fit in and yet struggling to always figure out the nuances, getting laughed at for using the wrong preposition or my American ‘R’…this is what living in another country is like. But I love it, because I love being an explorer.”

And, “I finally can text in Hebrew,” she added.

For students who are thinking about studying abroad, Kalkstein offered some simple advice: Don’t let a single opportunity slip through your fingers.

“Someone wants to invite you to their house? ‘Yes!’ Someone wants you to try this eggplant dish? ‘Yes!’ Everything is a learning opportunity. Even when I have to sit and work on a research paper, I might as well do it in a coffee shop where the ambient sounds of Hebrew and Israeli music give me an experience,” she said.

With several months to go in Israel, Kalkstein is committed to living in the moment, but knows that her trip will certainly affect her when she returns to America and the Mount.

“Most Israelis are impressed with how much we've seen and accomplished in our time so far,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I only have a year!’”

She hopes to present this lifestyle challenge to her students when she returns to the Mount in Fall 2018. “I wonder if some of this attitude could be brought back to America. How would I live differently if I knew I only had a year in New York? I’m hoping that this experience will inspire me to continue seizing the moment even after I return home."

Professor Kalkstein's Fulbright group in IsraelYasmine Kalkstein, associate professor of Psychology, (center) is currently in Israel conducting research with fellow Fulbright scholars.