Stern Expectations vs. Reality: One Year, Two Perspectives

By: Talya Hyman  |  January 22, 2018

For many Modern Orthodox high school graduates, the expected and sometimes obvious next step is to spend a year learning in a seminary or yeshiva in Israel. Stern College for Women encourages the seminary year by accepting and transferring seminary credits into Stern academic credits via the YU S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program. Participation in this program enables the  seminary year to be counted as the freshman year for Yeshiva University students. Post-seminary students benefit from this arrangement because they return to campus as sophomores. Those who matriculate to college directly from high school, on the other hand, are labeled as “true freshmen”. These students jump straight into the Stern College experience. Though post-seminary sophomores and true freshmen become first-semester on campus students at the same time, their Stern College for Women experiences and perspectives can be surprisingly different.

Rivki Levy, SCW ‘20, who spent a year learning in Israel last year, said that she decided to learn in a seminary to create a “foundation for my Torah learning that I could build on for the rest of my life.” While still in Israel, seminary students are guided through the Yeshiva University registration process by representatives of the S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program. Though supported and helped prior to arriving on campus, adjusting to the demands of college can be challenging. Levy said, “I expected the workload to be a little less. I heard people saying that [college is] easier than high school because you have more free time. But there is a lot of work to be done, and a lot of commitments to fulfill.” During the times when she has felt overwhelmed, Levy found support from her TAs and RA. She stated, “They have been so sweet and helpful in getting me acclimated into life at Stern. They offer me advice and suggest things, and have even come into my room at three a.m. to help me figure out my schedule.”

The social element is a common concern of many college students while acclimating to a new environment. Of her expectations, Levy said, “I was hoping that the environment would be a really friendly place where you’re surrounded by all your friends and everyone is supporting each other. I thought I would stay with the people I knew from seminary, so I didn’t expect to make any long-lasting friendships at the beginning.” She was pleased to find that her expectation was mistaken. Levy revealed, “Surprisingly enough, I did meet a lot of people. Even though orientation was really not a fun experience, I met a lot of really great people.”

Students who spend a year learning at a seminary in Israel commonly feel as if they are in a spiritual and religious bubble. Leaving the confines of that bubble can be intimidating. Yeshiva University is unique in its approach of combining an academic education with Torah and religious studies. However, Levy admits that one of her biggest first semester challenges has been learning how to adapt to post-seminary life. She expressed, “It’s been difficult learning not to be in Israel, and being in a much more secular environment. It was like being in a little cloud there. It’s been extremely hard trying not to forget how that experience felt in Israel, and trying to continue that here.”

Attending Stern College directly out of high school is often the road less traveled. True freshmen, Arielle Sarraf, SCW ‘21, is one such student who decided not to spend a year in Israel following her high school graduation. She asserted, “Even after I looked more into it, I didn’t think Israel was for me.” Before arriving on campus, Sarraf was looking forward to “living in the City, walking to classes, being with different kinds of Jews from all over the world, and having different experiences with shabbatons.”

True freshmen arrive on campus without the advantage of having received assistance from Stern College representatives like the post-seminary students had in Israel. Sarraf is of the opinion that the administration “doesn’t really care so much about true freshmen. I wish they were friendlier.” True freshman Sigal Melnik, SCW ‘21, said, “I find the administration confusing because I don’t know who to go to for what. Sometimes I just end up not asking my questions because I don’t know where to go.”

While in Israel, many seminary students form close friendships with other participants from their respective programs. This leaves true freshmen at somewhat of a disadvantage. As Melnik shares from her perspective, “Everyone sort of has their group already.” Similarly, Sarraf has experienced that those who first spend a year in a seminary are commonly less open to making new friends because “they already have their crew from Israel.” Much of Melnik’s first semester at Stern has been overshadowed by her expectations regarding the friendships she believed she would have formed by now. She said, “I expected to make so many new friends, to meet my best friends for life here. So far, I have not.” Stern students who graduated from a small high school, and who did not attend summer camp or a seminary in Israel, have to work harder to meet new people and put themselves out there. Melnik believes that the numerous Stern club events have been beneficial in helping her meet people. She also appreciates that there are events reserved specially for true freshmen to meet one another. However, Melnik commented, “Not a lot of true freshmen show up to these events, so it’s hard to make friends when no one’s there.”

Levy, now a sophomore, empathized with the true freshmen who have found meeting new people and forging close friendships to be difficult. She shared, “I think it’s harder to come in as a true freshman because you’re surrounded by all these people who know each other, so it must be really overwhelming.” Sarraf and Melnik agreed that if they had gone to Israel prior to their first semester at Stern, their experiences would be different, especially in regards to knowing more people and finding their place on the Stern campus.

Having recently completed their Fall 2017 semester final exams, the students interviewed now continue their Stern College for Women experience as upper freshmen and upper sophomores. To new students who may be arriving on campus for the Spring 2018 semester, Levy suggests, “Always have an open mind to meeting new people. Don’t get hung up over all the little details and troubles that may come up because everything will sort itself out, even if it doesn’t seem so at the moment.” Though Melnik’s first semester as a true freshman was filled with challenges, she shares, “My RA told me that her first year was not the greatest, but she’s happy now. That gives me a spark of hope.”