Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2012, 8:10 am

College trip to Israel brands Ambrose students in multiple ways

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By Leon Lagerstam,

Photo: Leon Lagerstam / staff
Ian Ross of Geneseo, Kemper Rusterberg, 20, of Park Ridge, Ill., and Joe Bailey of Indianola, Iowa, were three of five students who were enrolled in the Political Economy of Israel class at St. Ambrose University, Davenport, which included a Jan. 1-14 trip to Israel to see what they had studied.
DAVENPORT -- Listing a college trip to Israel on their resumes should help a group of St. Ambrose students market themselves better to prospective employees, and lift the term ''branding'' to a higher meaning.

Five Ambrose students and two professors spent Jan. 1-14 in Israel to complete a project started by the late Dr. Mark Brand.

The trip was part of the Political Economy of Israel class Dr. Brand taught until he died of cancer last summer.

''It was Mark's dream to take an Ambrose group to Israel, and we attained his dream,'' student Joe Bailey said.

''We were also told that going on the trip would look good on a resume because of the connection with Israel we made,'' student Kemper Rusterberg said. ''We were told we would be able to market ourselves better.''

It was a type of Dr. Brand ''branding'' he would have been proud of, Mr. Rusterberg said.

The trip was an obsession Dr. Brand talked about even on his death bed, according to Dr. Ryan Dye, International Education director and history professor at St. Ambrose.

Dr. Dye and Dr. Patrick O'Leary accompanied the students on the trip, which included a visit with Dr. Brand's daughter, Ali, who lives and studies in Jerusalem with her husband.

The class Dr. Brand created was designed ''to introduce our students to Israel and Palestine, an area St. Ambrose doesn't address that much in its curriculum,'' Dr. Dye said.

The trip provided an added value of actually seeing the locations talked about in class, he said.

Seeing it live instead of just in textbooks or on TV was ''just a little bit better,'' Mr. Bailey and students Ian Ross and Mr. Rusterberg said in unison.

The group spent one week in Jerusalem and the second week touring Bethlehem, the south of Israel, Tel Aviv and Haifa, visiting businesses and cultural sites, Dr. Dye said.

They also visited Sapir College, Hebrew University and Bethlehem University, Mr. Rusterberg said.

The trip included stays in kibbutzim, where they picked tangerines, dug up potatoes and toured a plastics facility operated not by a CEO, but run by a kibbutz near Gaza, he said.

Another business they visited was an electric-car manufacturer called ''Better Place,'' he said.

Each student also had a research project to do. Mr. Bailey, who grew up on a farm in Indianola, Iowa, chose agriculture, and said he was enthralled by how people in Israel could grow crops in the desert, and by their high-tech irrigation systems, operable by cellphone, including the ability to check soil temperatures and adjust directional controls.

Visiting small shops and little street markets interested Mr. Ross, who said he was able to pick up quite a few haggling skills along the way.

''When it came to prices or price tags, it's a cultural norm to haggle,'' he said. ''The key of doing business there is the people, and trying to understand the culture and ideologies that contribute to the economic conditions.''

Yet, trying to understand those conditions only led them to better grasp the meaning of the word ''belegan,'' a Hebrew, adopted-from-Polish word, meaning ''chaotic mess,'' Mr. Rusterberg said.

Everyone has an opinion about the country's political unrest, Mr. Ross said. It's something you often see reported in the news or on television, ''but when you're in Israel, it's not something you hear about only every day, it's every minute,'' he said.

The amount of visible bomb shelters served as a sign of the constant threat people in Israel face, Mr. Rusterberg said. ''Even the bus stops are bomb shelters.''

''And everything you do there gets viewed as some kind of political statement,'' Dr. Dye said. ''When planning a trip like this, it certainly presents significant challenges tied to logistics and to the complex political picture.''

Not to mention, the mix of three dominant religions vying for attention, Mr. Rusterberg said.

''Going to Israel definitely made my global perspective grow,'' he said. He also felt his Catholic faith grow as well.

Mr. Bailey agreed.

''I'm Catholic, too,'' he said. ''It was so powerful to see all the places I've read about in the Bible for all these years -- the birthplace of Christ, where he was crucified, and the stages of the cross.''

''We were humbled every day,'' said Mr. Ross, a member of the Quad-Cities Jewish community and son of Alan Ross, executive director of the local Jewish Federation.

Humbled by discovering ''we'd never fully understand the chaotic conditions of the country,'' Ian Ross said, and humbled by the memory of Dr. Brand -- ''mindful of the passion, and thankful for all the work he put into this to make it happen.''