Harvard’s best-kept secret

Myths about the inaccessibility of an Ivy League education are keeping many highly qualified Israelis from applying — and that’s a shame

Harvard University (Shutterstock)
Harvard University (Shutterstock)

The only thing that’s common to Israeli Harvard graduates is that before they were admitted they constantly heard “You’re planning to go where? To Harvard? That’s a joke, right?”

Harvard University has a long history of accepting Israeli students, though in small numbers, to its ranks. Most notably, the Business School, The Kennedy School of Government and the Law School can all boast Israeli graduates. So why is going to Harvard, and other top schools, so scarce for graduate studies in Israel and is almost non-existent for undergraduate studies?

There are two reasons: lack of knowledge and a misconception about the costs.

“If I didn’t work for Mckinsey, where there’s a culture of studying for an MBA in a top school, I would never have applied,” says Roman Itskovich, a recent Harvard Business School graduate. “I didn’t hear about the possibility of studying at Harvard even once through my time in the communication corps in the army, studies at Tel-Aviv University and previous work at a Tel-Aviv based startup.”

Harvard accepts extraordinary candidates, who have shown that they are smart, have leadership potential and are interesting people. It is surprising how many Israeli candidates discount their experience and achievement and don’t even apply.

When I graduated from Hebrew University, I felt that I had no chance of going to the Harvard Kennedy School or being able to afford it. I wasn’t eligible for the Wexner fellowship, which sponsors 10 Israelis a year. Only later, when I was a Sauv’e Scholar and met Megan, a fellow Sauve scholar and Kennedy School graduate, did I hear that I stood a good chance. I applied, got accepted and received the E. David Fischman scholarship.

Financial aid is Harvard’s best-kept secret. “If you would have told me two years ago that I will end up doing my bachelor’s degree in Harvard, I would have thought you were crazy,” says Sharon Stovezky, a sophomore at Harvard University. A friend studying at Columbia University had tipped Sharon off. “She is the only person I knew at a top US college, and she made me realize that I’m both accomplished enough to be accepted and that I will get generous financial aid if I do,” she added. Now Yael, Sharon’s sister, is a freshman at Harvard. They both say they owe the opportunity to the financial office.

These two myths — Harvard’s inaccessibly and costs — are keeping many Israelis from applying; when there are precious few applications, there are also fewer students. And that’s a shame.

That’s what encouraged Roman and I to initiate Global Leadership Initiative (GLI), an organization that aims to develop Israeli leaders by helping talented young people apply and get accepted to top global universities such as Harvard. The development of GLI is also informed by the insights I have gained as a Program Officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, where we are focusing on identifying, connecting, supporting and creating global networks of young adults who are empowered to create the type of change they want to see in the world. GLI, like many network-centric initiatives, is a means to link high-potential individuals with the high-quality environments and support professional development, as well as the development of social capital that can create positive change in Israel and throughout the world.

In order to succeed in a globalizing world and advance Israeli society, Israel needs a strong network of leaders with a global skill set. GLI aims to help brilliant, motivated young Israelis who have already developed a strong sense of their Israeli identity to join their international peers in Ivy League schools and other leading institutions for undergraduate studies. This will expose them to the platform, networks and knowledge that global leaders are exposed to — assets they can later bring back home to Israel.

“This network needs help developing, and that’s what GLI is for,” Roman says. “In 10 years, we will have a strong community of global leaders with very strong ties to Israel that will develop the well-being of Israel, as will be seen by their business activity, academic performance and involvement in the public sector.”

An important side benefit of this initiative is that we will have a critical mass of smart and motivated students on leading university campuses in the US that can help to improve the atmosphere toward Israel. The Israel Conference shouldn’t be just a Harvard phenomenon.

There is an incredible upside for increasing the accessibility of top-notch global education to young Israelis. GLI’s aim is to share Harvard’s best-kept secret.

Yaniv Rivlin (yrivlin@schusterman.org) and Roman Itskovich (roman.itskovich@post.harvard.edu) are the co-founders of GLI.

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