Marlenea Morgan got on a plane for the first time last summer.
She came back two weeks later changed.
After a study abroad trip in Israel through West Virginia University, Morgan had decided on a career and a path of personal improvement.
“There’s just so much about that trip that I loved and when I say that it changed my life, I don’t say that lightly,” she said.
The Wilsondale, W.Va., native took the study abroad trip to Israel offered since 2009 through WVU’s Religious Studies program. The trip is the only international archaeology program offered through the University.
Morgan graduated from WVU on May 13 with dual bachelor’s degrees in religious studies, and sociology and anthropology. She said the trip was a great help in pursuing her career. Since childhood, she wanted to be an archaeologist, yet she had never been on a dig before her 2011 trip. She was told by her adviser and trip leader Aaron Gale that she couldn’t be sure until she’d experienced it.
So she went to Israel.
For days she woke before dawn to get to the dig on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee in Bethsaida, where she and other students and faculty sifted through layers of rocks and dirt to find pottery shards and other remains of civilizations past. She touched the soil and shards that Romans had touched. She saw the chicken bones left over from their dinners.
“It was my first experience doing archaeology, my first plane ride; it was really my first a lot of things,” she said.
It was a lot easier for her to study abroad through WVU, because it can be more complicated to enroll at another school and pay their fees, which can be more expensive for outside students.
Morgan is now enrolled in a master’s program in WVU’s Department of History and wants to eventually teach at the college level and research women’s roles in the pagan religious history of Egypt, the Roman Empire and Greece. She plans on studying abroad in Israel again in 2013.
“I can’t imagine never going back to Israel because it’s such a beautiful place, such a great experience,” she said.
This year’s study abroad trip to Israel (May 26-June 18) will include 11 people: six WVU students, four faculty members and Stacy Jacobson, a reporter with WBOY in Clarksburg, who will be chronicling the trip. The trip is also open to students at other universities and community members who enroll in the trip as continuing education students.
Everyone back home can also keep up with the trip through a blog at http://religiousstudies.wvu.edu/israel_trip and Twitter account, @WVUReligion, which students and faculty will be using. You can also follow the trip on Twitter using hashtag #WVUIsrael.
Gale, coordinator of WVU’s Religious Studies program, has been participating in the dig for eight years and began the study abroad program in 2009. He originally found the dig on the Internet when he was hoping to visit a site that would add detail to his book on ancient Judaism and Christianity. Since then he has continued to volunteer and is now an area supervisor.
“Coming back every year to an archaeological dig is almost like putting together a puzzle,” he said. “You get this fascinating picture that you want to see completely developed in front of you, and every year you go, you add a few more pieces to that puzzle. So it’s an ongoing quest for answers.”
In 2010, a WVU student unearthed a very rare, gold Roman coin from the second century of the Common Era.
He sees the experience as bringing his classroom teachings to life.
“As I tell my students, it’s one thing for me to show you pictures from Israel, and it’s another thing for you to touch a 2,000-year-old wall in Israel,” he said. “Study abroad programs are very important because they add that dimension of experiential learning that you just simply can’t get in a classroom.”
These excavations in Bethsaida have been taking place for 25 years and are led by Rami Arav, director of the Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, which is made up of 20 universities across the world. The consortium accepts volunteers at the dig, including those from WVU.
Arav said the site is key for those studying the Hebrew Bible because the Bethsaida area has the only capital city from the 10th to 8th centuries before the Christian era (then it was known as Geshur) that is preserved so well, including a city gate and palace. For those studying Jesus of Nazareth, Bethsaida is the only place in Galilee where he visited that is available for archaeological research.
He said the excavations allow students to experience biblical archaeology in an interactive way.
“Many students say that it is the most significant part of their college education,” Arav said.
While on the trip, students go beyond the excavations site to experience life at the center of three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Gale said the students receive a cultural immersion, discovering ancient and modern Jerusalem and a region that has played a major role in human history.
Julia Zorn, a junior from West Union, W.Va., went on the trip last summer to take her first foray into archaeology just after the close of her freshman year.
She was excited to see the modern markets and was amazed by the ancient churches and the beauty of places like Mt. Carmel. Especially enthralling were the Rosh HaNikra grottos, caverns formed by the Mediterranean Sea pummeling a chalk cliff face.
Zorn, who is majoring in anthropology and wants to become an archaeologist, said she was fascinated by the excursion to Megiddo, known as Armageddon, which had been home to various cultures for thousands of years and has excavations showing human history at different points in time.
While much of the trip surrounds the past, students also get to stay on a Kibbutz, an Israeli community often centered around agriculture or industry, and gain an experience of modern Israel.
Gale said that students who go on the trip are typically interested in fields such as history, archaeology, sociology and anthropology, yet it greatly supports the mainstay of WVU’s Religious Studies program, which is world religions.
When Gale came to WVU in 2000, the program had a handful of students majoring in religious studies. Now more than 40 students have chosen to major in the subject and more than 1,000 students yearly are served through the department in total through signing up for a minor, taking classes or enrolling in the extended learning program.
The study abroad trip to Israel is one of more than 50 faculty-led programs that WVU is offering this year with more than 600 students participating, said Michael Lastinger, associate provost for International Academic Affairs.
Students also participate in exchange programs with more than 40 universities abroad. Besides Israel, WVU students will be visiting Brazil, China, Tanzania, Japan, Argentina, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Germany, France, Ghana, South Africa, Morocco and India, among others.
By Diana Mazzella
CONTACT: Aaron Gale, coordinator, Religious Studies
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.