TAU’s International BA in Liberal Arts Celebrates 10 Years

A retrospect on the first bachelor’s degree in English at Tel Aviv University

06 August 2023


When the International BA in Liberal Arts launched 10 years ago, the founders worried there would be little interest in the program – after all, it was the first bachelor’s (BA) degree in English to be offered at Tel Aviv University (TAU).


“We had no idea if anyone would show up,” recalls Prof. Milette Shamir, TAU’s vice president international, who was put in charge of creating the program.


At the time, TAU only had a master’s-level international program, and TAU’s humanities faculty was not set up to accommodate students who weren’t Israeli. Shamir brought on Brian Bolton, an American who had recently moved to Israel, as director of the program. Together they navigated each step, including which majors to offer and how much tuition to charge, until the degree was ready for the world.


And once enrollment opened, applications started rolling in. There was the woman from Poland who enjoyed reading Israeli writers and felt compelled to study in Israel; the man from Scandinavia who grew up always hearing about the Holy Land; the daughter from the United States who wanted to reconnect with her father’s university.


“All of these interesting people started showing up on our doorstep,” remembers Shamir. “That’s when we knew we were on to something.” The first cohort welcomed 50 international students.

BA in Liberal Arts - Class of 2015


A Decade in Retrospect


Since that first year, the International BA in Liberal Arts has grown significantly – both in terms of the number of students, who come from 30 different countries around the world, as well as in program offerings.


“We’re constantly looking at ways to evolve the program and how to best improve what we offer international students,” says current program head Prof. Noam Reisner, who adds that a significant strength of the program is how it builds on what Israel uniquely offers – from Middle Eastern studies to courses embedded in Israel’s startup culture.


Students can now choose majors and minors not only in areas such as literature, philosophy and Jewish and Israel studies, but in life sciences, entrepreneurship, and digital culture and communications. Degree offerings too have expanded; in addition to the International BA in Liberal Arts degree, on offer is also a dual-degree program with Columbia University, as well as the International BA in Liberal Arts and Management.


And while course and program options have expanded, the BA degree still maintains boutique-sized classes that allow for more approachable and open discussions between teachers and students. All international students, too, have the support of The Lowy International School’s student life team, which is on call 24/7.


Additionally, both Reisner and Shamir emphasize that the program’s decade of success is really thanks to the program’s directors – after Boltman was Anat Lotan, followed by Ayellet Shaham; today, Ayelet Diamant wears the director hat.


BA in Liberal Arts - Class of 2023


Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education


With the establishment of the International BA in Liberal Arts, TAU also ventured into new territory by embracing a more traditionally American educational approach – one that offers students a range of humanist-focused courses and study tracks: something ever more critical given the complexity of the global challenges we humans face today.


“A liberal arts degree in the humanities makes for better people and better citizens – people who are more ethically conscious … it ultimately encourages students to think for themselves and be ethically and morally responsible within a very complicated world,” says Reisner.


Many of the program’s current and previous students would agree.


Noemi Bowman, an alumnus from the United States and Hungary who graduated in 2021 and majored in literature and minored in Jewish and Israel studies, applied to the program as she had always been interested in the human experience. “By majoring in literature, I began to see how much of us is reflected in characters from literature and it makes you realize that as humans we haven’t really changed,” says Bowman.


Alicia Teo, who is from Singapore and also graduated in 2021 with a major in digital culture and communications and a minor in philosophy, feels similarly about the program’s wider benefits. Having begun her studies in business, she noticed a remarkable shift when she switched to the liberal arts program: “The business program looked at things transactionally and the liberal arts program was the flip side of that; the program really honed a sense of empathy and an understanding of the human condition.”


For Max Berger – an American and this year’s valedictorian – the program allowed him to explore his many interests. “Knowing I could study four different tracks and in Tel Aviv … this really was perfect for me,” says Berger, who majored in philosophy, minored in Jewish and Israel studies, and holds concentrations in English literature and entrepreneurship.


Max Berger - Class of 2023 Valedictorian


Bringing Liberal Arts into the Working World


Whether alumni go on to complete graduate work after their BA – which a number have, including at universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, UCLA and Toronto – or whether they decide to enter the working world outside of academia, all agree that their BA education at TAU has helped them immensely in their professional life.


While Berger is still a fresh graduate, the program helped him gain clarity about his future professional career: “I came to the realization that I’m very interested in urban issues and thinking about the ways the built environment shapes our daily lives.”


As for Teo, she finds her training helps her at her job with Singapore venture capital firm Lyra Ventures. “I’m working with partners from different parts of the world,” she explains. “During the program we studied critics like Michel Foucault, and it made me realize there are so many perspectives and ways to view the world … that has really helped me to empathize with different viewpoints.”


Bowman, who works for Masa Israel Journey and was recently promoted to brand and creative content manager, too continually finds herself putting the skills she learned to work. “Today in my writing, a lot of it has to do with touching someone on an emotional level, and I’m always using my training,” she says. “I’m constantly asking: why am I writing this, what’s the goal, what is the outcome we are trying to accomplish?”


Moreover, Bowman believes the program is one of the best decisions she has made. “I remember everyone asking me, what can you do with a liberal arts degree?” she recalls. “I always said that my dad majored in French in university, went on to become a consultant and is now the VP of sales at a massive fintech company. It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do anything I put my mind to.”


Want to Learn More?


The application portal for the International BA in Liberal Arts degree remains open until August 31, 2023. Interested in learning more about the program or applying? Visit international.tau.ac.il/Liberal_Arts.


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