Beyond the Bubble: The Study Abroad Student Who Didn't Come Home
“Beyond the Bubble” is a new series brought to you by The Student to detail the experiences of students taking the semester (or year) off from school. f you are an Amherst student taking the Fall 2020 semester or 2020-21 school year off, consider submitting a personal essay about what you’re up to for the “Beyond the Bubble series! All submissions should go to [email protected] and [email protected].
I knew from the moment I walked into the i24 NEWS newsroom, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, that I was exactly where I needed to be. I also knew that at any given moment, I could be sent home and the ride would be over. I made glaring factual errors during my first interview and knew nothing about Israeli politics; my only prior journalism experience was a broadcast journalism class I had taken that fall.
I happened upon the job by accident. It was my second week in Israel, when one day after class, I took a different bus home to explore the neighborhood a bit. I happened to see an i24 NEWS reporter out on the street with a cameraman interviewing people. So I thought, “Why not talk to them?”
They agreed to speak with me about journalism in Israel in exchange for a soundbite on the coronavirus. I mentioned how I was interested in news in the Middle East, that I was studying abroad at Tel Aviv University and that I was looking for an internship. They asked about my work clearance, and I made it clear that I was just a student. The reporter then offered to send my resume along to the English channel at i24. I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but then I got an email a few days later from the head of the English channel asking if I could come in for an interview that week. The email itself never specified for what position.
My first interview was a few days later. I went in expecting to interview for a mere intern role, given that I was a foreigner with no experience who would only be there one semester. Instead, they revealed that they were interviewing for a full-time associate producer.
It was painfully obvious that I had no idea what job I was applying for, but I soldiered on with the interview, just happy to have the experience. I even managed not to cry when I accidentally referred to Prime Minister Netanyahu as “President Netanyahu.” (my interviewer corrected me mid-sentence.) I was ready to be flat-out rejected when instead, she looked at me and asked, “So, you can stay for the tests?” Miraculously, I’d made it to the next round.
After an English language test, a Middle East general knowledge test, a writing test, a panel interview, three letters of recommendation and a final HR interview, I got the job. I didn’t know how I’d manage my new full-time journalism job — I was on my semester abroad in Israel, and still had a full course load to attend to — but I had to try.
So when they asked if I could commit to a year, I said yes without hesitation. I had gone into my semester abroad in Israel expecting to go on an adventure or two, then get back to my real life in the U.S. come May. I had my visa paperwork ready to file by early March. Then, Israel shut down.
Israel initially had one of the best coronavirus responses in the world, with restrictions beginning before the country even hit 50 cases a day. Even so, many people on my study abroad program returned to the U.S. as their home universities called them back. At first, I figured Tel Aviv University shutting down would be a blessing in disguise, because it would make balancing work and school easier — my housing was even guaranteed through the program I was enrolled in. But then, the immigration office also shut down, and I couldn’t get the work visa to start at i24.
i24 was understanding and assured that my job was waiting for me. We agreed that we would check in again in a few weeks, but truthfully, no one knew what was coming. It was early in the pandemic and most people still thought the world was overreacting. I decided not to panic.
Then I realized that things were going to get much worse before they got better. After two weeks, Covid-19 cases soared, and Israel wasn’t letting in any foreigners. And so the panic ensued.
I had two options at this point: go home jobless or wait it out in Israel. i24 couldn’t hold the job forever, and even people with the best resumes were struggling to find work in the U.S. If I went home, I had no idea when I would be able to come back to Israel — or if i24 would still be waiting for me when I returned.
It might seem silly to stay in a foreign country during a pandemic to wait for a job that I hadn’t yet started. But, I was a rising college senior and aspiring journalist with minimal experience. Even without the pandemic, the job market looked pretty bleak. At best, I was expecting to find a post-grad internship, then hope to become a news desk assistant, and then hopefully try my hand at being an associate producer — but, considering the state of the industry, even that plan felt precarious.
By late spring, the U.S. put all countries on a Level 4 travel advisory. I received emails warning me to come home immediately or risk being stuck abroad indefinitely. My mom would call me just to say, “You need to come home now. You need to come home now. You need to come home now” on repeat. I legally couldn’t go any further than 100 meters from my apartment. I debated whether I should stay or go home as the indefinite nature of the situation became ever more apparent. Meanwhile, I was quarantined with my apartment roommates and people from the apartment downstairs, the only ones left in our program.
My quarantine felt like a low-budget version of Netflix’s Too Hot To Handle, with a bunch of average-looking twenty-somethings whose hook-ups and love lives interested no one. Around nine each night, one group would magically find themselves in the other’s apartment. We would watch movies, play card games, anything to distract us from the reality of the pandemic. Days were long, weeks were short and everything felt like it blurred together.
The worst was during Passover break in April. It was two grueling weeks of nothing to do. We didn’t have class, and our mental health was deteriorating.
One of my roommates was a hypochondriac who got more paranoid as the pandemic got worse. She spent the entire time looking for flights home and fighting with her parents when they actually tried to book one. At many points, I was ready to book a flight home too, but another roommate reminded me that I’d be more depressed going home — at least in Israel I was living with friends and had a possible job.
So instead, I sulked in silence in my room, mad at myself for being so hung up on my problems when people around the world were going through much worse. I wanted this job, but though it would have boosted my resume, I didn’t really need it. Without it, my worst-case scenario was going home to my stable household while I made progress toward my Amherst College degree.
I couldn’t even be mad at the Israeli government for shutting everything down. My desire for a job had nothing on the vital need for government action to curb the virus. I was never mad at the world, just depressed that I finally felt like I had a path for myself, only for it to slip away the second I got close to acting on it.
By early May, I was resigned to going home to figure out my next step. I couldn’t legally work in Israel, and my parents weren’t about to fund a summer of me just waiting around for a job. My roommate Missy and I toyed with the idea of working on a kibbutz for a few months, but they weren’t really looking for volunteers either. Then, two weeks before my program ended, something miraculous happened: Visa offices reopened.
Israeli bureaucracy is like the worst D.M.V. office in the most crowded city you can imagine. My visa appointment requests repeatedly went unanswered, and phone calls consistently led to dead ends.
The end of my program had felt so far away for all of the quarantine, but suddenly, I was a day away from moving out with no job, no money and nowhere to live. My savings were gone after months of no paycheck, but visa offices opening up was enough for my parents to graciously help me out for one more month.
My roommate Missy was just as committed to staying as I was. So on that last day, we left together with nowhere to live, and all of our belongings spread across two different friend’s places. We spent the weekend couch-hopping. First, at a friend’s place. Then, by sneaking into the university dorms to stay with our friends from quarantine. Airbnb seemed like a very obvious option, but we had no idea how long we were going to need it.
Neither one of us felt comfortable signing a lease on a place until we had work visas in our passports and job start dates set.
Eventually, Missy and I had enough, and marched to the visa office, paperwork in hand, desperate to find someone who would listen to us. After four hours of waiting in line, I finally sat down at what felt like the single desk in all of Tel Aviv handling visa applications. The process was shockingly fast once I could actually hand someone the paperwork. The man printed the application as we were talking, stuck it in my passport, then sent me on my way. I started work a week later.
Many people were confused about why I stayed in Israel for a job I couldn’t even start. It was Missy who helped me see that giving up and going home is never the only option. Even though I often felt overwhelmed by my new reality, she was never scared of things not going her way.
Missy knew that even in her worst-case scenario, she’d find a new path for herself. Once I internalized that, I could finally see the options in front of me. So, I took everything day-by-day, ready to pivot, knowing that everything was going to be ok.
It may seem like I was risking a lot for just a job, but, it was finally making peace with the idea of going home that made waiting for the job bearable. At first, I was so panicked at the idea of losing my one full-time job offer and going home in defeat, that I spun into a serious depressive swing. I needed to let go of the situation to see it clearly. Once I stopped panicking, I could look at the facts to see how whether it was worth waiting things out. There’s also the factor that if all else failed, I could always go home, back to the original plan. Sure, I would have to take a bit more time to get where I wanted, but that’s life. A lot of my decision making came down to having the privilege of options.
I ended up going with my gut. I might not have needed the job, but every part of me wanted it. I could either have gone the safe route and returned to the U.S. or see where this unknown road could take me. Both options were valid, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet, so I stayed. It might seem cliche, but the adventure also kind of excited me. I don’t know what my future holds, but I know I’ll never regret the summer that I couch-hopped in Israel for a few days before I started an unexpected job.
Things honestly just clicked when I walked into the newsroom, that I was in the right place. There are very few places like it in the world today with a place for me at this time. I love world news, especially the greater Middle East. I’ve spent years studying political science in class, but this was a chance to see it unfold in front of me. I also loved the idea of working at what is essentially a news startup; it had only started in 2013. It was a place where I could both learn, and help shape the channel as it progresses, even in my small role, and even in a world that seems to render so many of us powerless.