Alumni Spotlight: Ellen Munk Ebbesen

Ellen is a 20-year-old high school graduate from Denmark taking her second gap year. She enjoys traveling, volunteering, and helping in the communities she is a part of. She wants to study history at university in Copenhagen next summer. She recently went to Palestine to get a closer look at the conflict and to see all of the beautiful historic sites the country has to offer.

Why did you choose this program?

Traveling in Palestine

I chose this program in particular because I did not need teaching experience before coming here. I had been looking for a place to get teaching experience and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to do so.

Another bonus of the program is that you get Arabic courses, while being in an Arabic speaking country. I started as a beginner but I have learned a lot due to the fact that only a few people in Palestine speak English, so if I wanted to speak with them I was forced to do it in Arabic.

It has been a very intense way of learning, and I would definitely recommend for others to do the same. I have wanted to learn Arabic for a while since I already speak English and Spanish, Arabic was next on the list of languages I would like to learn.

Another bonus of the program is that as a woman you get to live with a host family. This is the perfect opportunity to practice Arabic and to get a closer look at the society you are living in.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The Excellence Center provided me with everything I needed for when I arrived in Hebron. They found a host family for me and they gave me all of the materials and books I needed in order to teach. As a starting point you plan everything other than that by yourself, but the center is very helpful with navigation, recommendations, planning trips and everything else you need, if you ask for it.

I had to book plane tickets and find an insurance that covered the West Bank (quite difficult) by myself. Also getting past the Israeli security (it only took 3 hours), and the transportation from Tel Aviv to Hebron I did by myself.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

You have to be very open minded and very relaxed in intense situations when going here.
The society and the customs in Palestine are very different than in most of the Western World. Go here with an open mind and you will learn so much.

It is very inspiring somehow to be surrounded by people that are this dedicated to their religion (especially from a Danish point of view where only a quarter of the population believe that there is a God). It was also an experience for me to realize that religious people, who on paper, are very different than me, actually enjoy a lot of the same things that I enjoy.

Another thing is the fact that the working hours and the amount of work is very different here than in the Western World. At Excellence Center there's only a few hours of intense work a day. You will with time get used to the slow pace of working and also the fact that everything runs on Arabic time, which means that everybody is always late.

You have to have a very relaxed character, when going here. From the intense questioning in the security section of Tel Aviv Airport to the countless questions about your reasoning behind going to the West Bank and probably also the classic "what are you doing with Arabs?" question, if you are crossing in an Palestinian car, by the Israeli soldiers at all checkpoints both within the West Bank and at the borders to Israel.

I cannot count on one hand how many times I have had an Israeli weapon pointed in my direction and if you are unable to handle these types of situations, then you should not go. They are unavoidable.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Volunteering Palestine with students

You work 5 days a week and have Friday and another day off that you can freely choose during the week. You start everyday with breakfast with the staff and the other volunteers at 9 o'clock. After breakfast you either have Arabic lessons, article writing, taking small trips around the city or planning of lessons.

Most classes begin around 2 o'clock, so you have plenty of time to plan for your classes. You either teach your own Intermediate level classes or assist local teachers on the lower levels of English. A day usually ends between 17 and 18:30. After work you can either spend time with your host family or with the other volunteers. The center also invites you for dinner around once a week.

I chose to have my regular day off on Thursdays, so I could travel to places further away and stay there, so I could use my Friday as well. You can get everywhere within the West Bank by taxi, but I prefer taking the shared mini buses as they are cheaper and they are a good opportunity to speak with local people as well. I used almost all of my weekends to explore the country and the center will gladly help you plan your trips or maybe even go with you on them.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?

I have never traveled on my own before. I have been to many countries but I have always done it with other people, either friends or family. I was very afraid of having to be suddenly independent and also feared that I might be lonely here.

The whole scenario of going to the Middle East as a young, single, blonde girl was also quite scary for me. I had no idea what to expect from this country or if I would be safe here.

It turned out that the country is wonderful and its people are all amazing. I had no reason to fear for my safety at all.

Being a tourist or a visitor in Palestine, everybody does as much as they can in order to make you feel safe and at home. I even experienced a taxi driver taking me home for free, because he felt that it was unsafe for me to walk on the dark streets by myself.

At no point during my stay have I felt lonely. The staff of the center are your new friends from the day you arrive. You probably won't be the only international volunteer here either, and generally the people who are brave enough to go here are all pretty amazing. You will have plenty of people to talk and travel with.