Success for Technion students depends on their homelands

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HAIFA — Dmitry Model and Hailu Mulugeta have a lot in common.

Both immigrated to Israel as teenagers in 1995. Both are bright and articulate. And both are students at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, one of Israel's most prestigious universities.

But Model comes from Russia and Mulugeta comes from Ethiopia — and as a result, their experiences at the Haifa-based school are much different.

Model, a 20-year-old studying electrical engineering, sees in the halls hundreds of faces from the former Soviet Union that share his culture and language.

"At a party, we want to speak Russian. If there are Israelis, we have to speak Hebrew. But if there are all Russians there, we don't have to," he says.

By contrast, Mulugeta is one of the few Ethiopian Israelis at the Technion, and his isolation appears to have made its way into his head — even though he tries to use it to his advantage.

"When a professor writes a formula and he gets to the point where it's just calculation and he says it's 'black work,' " using the Israeli slang for simple labor, "I feel I have to work harder," says Mulugeta, who is studying mechanical engineering.

Russian and Ethiopian immigrants are Israel's most celebrated population influxes during the past three decades — and the ones at the Technion are among the best and brightest. But while students from the former Soviet Union have managed to carve out their own space at Israel's training ground for its booming high-tech economy, Ethiopian students remain an anomaly — despite the Technion's best efforts.

What's true at the Technion is true in the rest of Israeli society as well.

About 90 percent of Ethiopian Israelis live below the country's poverty line, according to Micha Feldmann, a consultant on Ethiopian Israeli issues.

Unemployment rates are high and those who are able to find work often toil in manual labor and low-paying jobs, Feldmann says.

The fear, of course, is the possibility of creating a permanent Ethiopian underclass.

While Russian Israelis also have struggled, some 30 percent of academics and 75 percent of scientists are working in their fields, according to a 1995 Israeli government survey.

The massive Russian immigration has been an "unbelievable success," says Chaim Chesler, treasurer for the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Some Russian families are even establishing all-Russian-language nursery schools, a novelty in Israel.

The percentage of Russian students at the Technion — 600 out of 11,000 — is lower than the proportion of Russians in Israel's overall population, but "when you tell an Israeli-born student that there are only 600 Russian students, they don't believe it," says Pauline Pine, who immigrated to Israel in 1996 from Russia's Ural Mountains.

As you go up the academic ladder, the numbers increase.

Of 56 tenured professors in the mathematics department, 10 are from the former Soviet Union, according to Avi Berman, a professor of mathematics at the Technion. Eight of the 22 doctoral students are from the former Soviet Union, as are 46 out of 84 students in a recent sophomore algebra class.

By contrast, there are about 10 Ethiopian students at the Technion.

"If you had 50 or 60 Ethiopian students, and you'd see them in every corridor, it would make a difference," says Natan Assefa, a 30-year-old Ethiopian student who is graduating from the Technion this summer.

The issue is not solely about counting faces: Russian Israelis have created their own culture.

Walk along the corridors of the Technion and the influence of immigrants from the former Soviet Union is palpable. Russian-language handbills advertise movies, and snippets of Russian conversation can be heard in the hallways.

Students from the former Soviet Union at the Technion tend to stick together and create their own subculture.

Russian Israelis say they study together and socialize together, which perturbs some Israeli-born students who are turned off by what they perceive as clannishness and snobbery.

"When I see a group of Russians speaking Russian, I sometimes go up to them and say, 'Stop speaking Russian, you're in Israel now,'" says Ido Rotem, a student in civil engineering.

Even Mulugeta uses the Russian he learned in Ulpan to help him fit in with his fellow immigrant students.

"Everywhere I go, I try to speak Russian. It's better than Hebrew sometimes," he says.

The reasons for the discrepancy between Russian and Ethiopian students' experiences are many — including vastly different cultural legacies.

Israeli Ethiopian students, members of a community numbering about 70,000, come from a more traditional society that valued family and community more than technical education.

Money is a second factor. With so many impoverished Ethiopians, families are unable to contribute to their children's living expenses at university.

Discrimination is a third factor, says Assefa, who has worked parttime at one of Intel's semiconductor facilities in Israel for the past few years.

Both sets of immigrants must acclimate to another language and culture and the Technion, like other schools in Israel, has instituted a number of policies to help them.

Immigrants are allowed to delay their military services until after they earn their degrees.

The Technion also operates several programs for new immigrants, including a yearlong preparatory program and free tutorial and counseling sessions.