Ethiopian Scholar visits the Sentinel
Dr. Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein
Dr. Vagenshtein being interviewed
Dr. Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein is the first Ethiopian woman to earn a doctorate in Israel at the Tel Aviv University and she is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University.
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
The story of Dr. Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein’s odyssey from a village in Ethiopia in 1985 through the Sudan Desert to arrive in Israel took approximately one year and to listen to her narrate the gut-wrenching episode of her life is an Earth-shattering experience. She left Ethiopia at the age of 11 never having been to school. She used to attend to the family livestock and education was neither a conscious need nor a distant desire. It was totally off her radar and when she arrived in Israel, she did not know how to read or write did not speak Hebrew. Dr. Vagenshtein started school at the age of 14.
The distance she has traveled to achieve a doctorate in Science and Technology in Education in addition to continuing her field of discipline at Harvard University is a testament of her enduring spirit and a demonstration of the genius of the human mind. And though she began life speaking the Amharic language (Ethiopian), migrated to Israel, where she spent most of her formative years–cultural, social and academic–learning to speak Hebrew (Israeli), her adopted language, she had an excellent command of English, her third language. Her journey from illiterate to doctorate, through hardships and challenges, has energized her to pave a pathway for future immigrants.
She began at Harvard where she said, “Right now, I’m doing research on immigrants from different countries and my focus is how people move from developing countries to modern society and manage their new lives. So I’m trying to find out in my research how, as a state, and as a country, we can help those people who come here with a different kind of knowledge.”
In examining how illiterate immigrants adapt to modern societies, specifically Ethiopian assimilation in Israel, Dr. Vagenshtein does not need to research very far, for she is a product of that transposition and assimilation–the ideal example. Not only did she assimilate, she also directed and managed the methodology whereby immigrants in general, and Ethiopians in particular, can assimilate into another (Jewish) culture. She was a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv’s School of Education, her alma mater, and presented key Israeli educational and political issues as an emissary for Israel to world leaders. (“She wrote the book on assimilation,” there and here). She is tri-lingual and, of course multi-cultural.
“I left Ethiopia when I was eleven; there I spoke Amharic,” she continued. “When I went to Israel, I had to learn Hebrew but I think Ethiopian difficulties are not only about language … language is just one of the difficulties that we have to deal with because we grew up in a village without any of the technology that we have today. We did not have radio, television, newspapers or schools; we had to learn everything from the beginning.”
In understanding the transition from an agrarian society to a knowledge/modern society, Dr. Vagenshtein laid out how modern-day conveniences are taken for granted, as they are customary, not exceptional. “Simple things that are obvious for my children and for all of us … because you do not have to learn how to open the microwave; I don’t think that’s everyday life. So this was the first process–how to go shopping. Because we had to make all our food and here you can just go out to buy things to eat. We had to learn these things from the first day. So the language difficulty was the biggest and this is the second (biggest). It’s a long story why I got to my first grade when I was 14; it was difficult to hold a pencil for the first time. So it was really challenging in many ways.” That Dr. Vagenshtein became the first Ethiopian woman–and she is still a relative young woman–to have earned a doctorate in Israel, is a task of monumental proportion. Since she got her Ph.D. degree in 2005, she has published a body of knowledge that is incomprehensible. The title of her thesis was “The Effect of Transition from an Agrarian to a Knowledge-based Society on Technological Literacy among Ethiopian Immigrants in Israel,” which in essence is the story of her life. In addition to her Ph.D., Dr. Vagenshtein holds a Masters degree in Educational Counseling and a Bachelors degree in Criminology and Sociology.
As she explained why she and her family migrated to Israel, Dr. Vagenshtein said, “First of all, I’m a Jewish woman and Israel is the only country in the world that’s a Jewish State, a Jewish country; and when were in the village (in Ethiopia), we did not have any idea what a Jewish country look like. We always wanted to go there but it was impossible because we did not have a car or access to the airport. We did not have a ticket for the airplane and that is why it took us long… it took us years to come to the Jewish State.” (A recent news story claimed that more than 25 million could be displaced by 2050 and Africa–Ethiopia’s continent–will be hit the hardest).
Dr. Vagenshtein’s accomplishments includes participating in an “Israeli-Palestinian Extreme Expedition to Antarctica”; serving on the board of directors for Israel’s Ministry of Education; presentations to numerous universities in the United States and Israel; and publishing numerous academic manuscripts. She has received awards for “Excellence for Consistent Contribution to Society,” “Interactive Science Thinking Project,” and “Excellence in Social Contribution.”
Her post-doctoral work at Harvard is particularly important as to how immigrants are impacted via their cognitive skills and literacy acquisition.
This endeavor is borne out of Dr. Vagenshtein’s life experiences and a desire to assist her Ethiopian countrymen in attaining a much better quality of life than she began with.
(Elzenza Rankins, Brian Carter and Xavier Higgs assisted with this interview).