For the past 8 years, student-leaders from Jacksonville University have visited Israel to experience first-hand with their peers from around the country what it takes to become the leaders of tomorrow.
“I’m interested in investigating different ways of life, and this is the perfect way to do it,” says senior D’Ayn Sayre, one of five current Jacksonville University students chosen by the Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA) to join this year’s Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission to Israel. “We’re scheduled to meet an incredibly diverse set of people from ambassadors to farmers. We’ll experience everything from historical to religious sites.”
In addition to D’Ayn, JNF-USA also chose seniors Emilia Santana, Rachel Pugliese, and Milena Lazovic and junior Mary Hehn to join this year’s mission. Thanks to David and Linda Stein, whose generosity earmarks a number of seats each year for students from Jacksonville University and the University of North Florida, the five current Dolphins will spend 10 days on the fully subsidized educational trip to Israel this December and January. They join 20 other Dolphins who are alumni of the program, which JNF-USA runs to help develop student leaders into the next generation of community leaders, according to Nelson France, who runs the program for JNF-USA.
“This program is as much about what these students are seeing as who they are seeing it with,” says France, JNF-USA’s Director, National Initiatives, Israel Advocacy and Education. “Each student is having these experiences with 39 other student leaders, including athletes, fraternity and sorority and student government officers. We have an incredible alumni network in Jacksonville who make a tremendous contribution to the community.”
JNF-USA selects participants from colleges and universities around the U.S. through a competitive application and interview process. Successful candidates participate in pre-trip webinars in the fall semester and facilitate follow-up campus activities in the spring semester.
In 2018, Reggie Agulto ’21, a history major, joined the Caravan and helped inspire several of this year’s Jacksonville University participants to apply for the program.
“There is the concept of truth from your own perspective,” Reggie says. “It’s good to explore on your own to experience the truth. During my trip, every day after that day’s activities, our group would sit down for a discussion, sometimes as long an hour and a half. I would hear heartfelt comments from my peers about how the experience affected them.”
“It has helped me challenge myself to talk about challenging topics with my peers.”
Once Caravan participants return from their trip, JNF-USA asks them to share their experiences with others and recommend individuals for future trips. When Reggie returned from her trip, she joined fellow Caravan member and resident assistant Magyanis Ruiz ’21 to present their shared experiences through a residence life presentation. All five of this year’s participants either attended the presentation or otherwise discussed the trip with Reggie or Magyanis.
“The mission of the program focused on diversity and facilitating leadership really drew me in,” Mary says. “These are students from all over the country who debrief their experiences at the end of each day. I want to hear different ideas. Sometimes, we have like-minded people around us, and we might not be hearing all types of ideas.”
Ideal candidates for the Caravan are students at US institutions who hold leadership positions in student organizations including, but not limited to, government, ethnic and minority groups, LGBTQ groups, women’s groups, service groups and Greek life who will be sophomores, juniors or seniors at the time of travel, according to JNF-USA. All five Dolphins have held leadership positions around campus: D’Ayn on the Shooting Team; Emilia with the Pre-Law Society; Mary with Gamma Phi Beta; and Milena and Rachel with Alpha Epsilon Phi.
“We’ll have this group of students learning about the community, its political system, its social system, from Israelis but also from each other,” Emilia says. “I’ll make sure everyone at JU knows what it’s like when I get back.”
Mission participants spend time in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and rural areas of Israel meeting Jews, Palestinians and other Israeli citizens from all walks of life. JNF-USA’s goal is to expose participants to multiple experiences so that they can facilitate constructive dialogue about Israel and the Middle East on college campuses across America upon their return.
“Not every student is willing to spend their winter break in a global immersive experience,” Mr. France says. “The participants are leaders on campus who we believe will be the leaders of tomorrow.”
By Jim Mullay