Co-op in Israel Means New Language, New Culture in Addition to Work Experience

As a biomedical engineering student, Julie Speer knew that she needed international experience to prepare for her career.

“We are studying and attempting to create solutions to clinical needs that do not affect just citizens of the United States,” the pre-junior student said. “These are global problems, and I believe that working with a diverse team on these solutions will make them that much better. Multiple heads are better than one, certainly, but students and employees who studied in different regions of the world may have a unique perspective to bring to the table.”

Speer realized that she had a golden opportunity through Drexel’s co-op program. It’s no surprise, then, that she accepted a co-op position as a research assistant in Haifa, Israel, alongside other international researchers and students at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (which has been called the MIT of Israel).

“I was excited about the opportunity to work in Israel, a country I loved when I visited with my family when I was 13 years old,” she said. “I knew some Hebrew from my childhood, and my newfound friends encouraged me to speak only in Hebrew.”

Speer improved her language skills in the lab, because Technion’s language of instruction is Hebrew and most of her coworkers were native Russian speakers who spoke Hebrew fluently. She completed group and independent projects in areas including the mechanical testing of polymers, cytotoxicity testing and biologically induced corrosion.

“I also had the opportunity to compile data and compose reports for collaborative projects with global companies — some of which were companies that had Pennsylvanian locations where some of my peers from Drexel were doing their co-ops,” she said.

Speer did much more than apply classroom theories in a professional work setting, because that professional work setting was located thousands of miles away. In addition to learning the ropes of research and work, she adapted to office culture in another nation.

She quickly learned that everyone in the office always ate lunch together, even if it meant waiting for everyone to sit down. Coworkers would try to meet at noon or 1 p.m., but sometimes they wouldn’t eat until 3 p.m.

“It was a big to-do. No one would touch anything until everyone was seated and could eat,” she said. “This meant you were often extremely hungry before lunch.”

Another adjustment? The typical workweek in Israel is Sunday to Thursday, compared with Monday to Friday in the United States. But Speer made sure to spend her weekends, no matter what days, exploring her new area of residence.

“I tried to travel as often as I could and organized trips independently and with other international students to places close and far,” she said. “We traveled to the north, camped on the Sea of Galilee and hiked in the Golan, and went south to Eilat and across to Jordan. We went east to Jerusalem and southwest to Tel Aviv. I even ran the 10K 'Desert Challenge' in the mountains near the Dead Sea, which was certainly different from the running training I do in Philadelphia.”

Since coming back to the States, Speer has already expanded her international experiences even further. During her spring break, she volunteered to go to Panama with the Global Medical Brigade organization.

“I have always thought that it is so important to travel, which is an opportunity that allows you to learn so much about yourself, the world around you and where you wish to fit into the large picture,” she said.