Prestigious grant sends Stanford grad back to Israel

Aysha Bagchi still remembers her first trip to Israel. It was the summer before she left for Stanford, and the then 18-year-old was traveling with her father. Climbing the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City, watching women crouched in prayer at the Western Wall, Bagchi couldn’t escape the feeling that she was at “the gravitational center of the universe.”

Four years later, the recent Stanford alumna will be returning as the 2011 winner of the prestigious Haas/Koshland Memorial Award, a grant that funds one student annually for a year of study and personal development in Israel.

“I’m so thrilled, so grateful that they took a chance on me,” said Bagchi, a native of Austin, Texas, who says her father’s love of travel influenced her from a young age.

She added that she knew it was unusual for the committee to select a non-Jewish student. “I didn’t grow up in a religious family … but when you visit these religious sites, you learn so much about human nature, how people search for meaning. I’ve always been drawn to spiritual tradition.”

At Stanford, Bagchi studied philosophy, history and law; her senior thesis considered the rise of homeschooling in the United States, and the challenge of balancing child, parent and government interests within such an insulated system.

Aysha Bagchi

Soon, as a part-time student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem over the next academic year, she hopes to apply what she learned at Stanford to a study of Israel’s education system. In addition, she wants to volunteer as an English teacher at a Jerusalem school.

The Haas/Koshland Memorial Award, one of many scholarships under the wing of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, is open to college students, from sophomore year through graduate school, who were raised in the Bay Area (or attend school here) and wish to broaden their personal or academic life.

Named in honor of the late Walter A. Haas Sr. and the late Daniel E. Koshland Sr., the award has been given since 1982. Students need to submit their applications by Feb. 1 each year.

In her personal statement, Bagchi explained why Israel was the ideal place to continue her studies — aside from being a land she felt personally drawn to.

“Israel provides so many penetrating lenses into the world: the challenges to coexistence in pluralistic democracies … the roles of cultural differences, border disputes, terrorism in global conflicts, the legacy of the Holocaust and the safety of minorities in multicultural societies, the incommensurable quality residing in cherished places that leads to long-term disputes,” she wrote. “Israel is a boiling pot for so many global issues.”

Bagchi leaves for Israel Aug. 31. She’ll take a three-week intensive Hebrew language program, then have a few weeks to travel before beginning her studies. She’s been speaking with professors and friends for advice on where to go in Jerusalem as she prepares for the trip.

More than anything, she’s looking forward to being in a place she felt such an instantaneous connection with four years ago.

“I know Israel is seen by a lot of Americans as just a place for Jewish people, and of course it is that,” she said. “But it’s such a fascinating place, and I do think others should experience it. I’m just thrilled about this opportunity.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.