Saturday, January 18, 2014

Birzeit vs. MIT

Birzeit University was the first university to be established in Palestine (for some definition of established and Palestine), but the indisputable facts are that it first opened it's doors for student enrollment in 1924 near the village of Birzeit near the (now West Bank) city of Ramallah, about 20 km northeast of Jerusalem. Today it is considered one of the premiere learning institutions in the Middle East. 

Comparing to MIT: Stats

Because my comparison to universities comes from my own alma mater, MIT, I find it easiest to compare basic facts. 

Characteristic MIT Birzeit
Undergraduate enrollment 4528 (Source) 8465 (Source)
Graduate enrollment 6773 (Source) 1388 (Source)
Percentage of females 45% female in undergraduate programs, 31% female in graduate programs (Source) 64% female (Source)
Housing ~75% live in on-campus housing, about 90% live in MIT-affiliated housing (Source) Most students live off campus, either at home or in the nearby Ramallah, Birzeit, or al-Bireh (no definitive source on this, gathered from asking a few Birzeit students)
Urban environment In Cambridge, MA; Greater Boston (population ~2 million) 20km north Jerusalem, 2 km east of Ramallah (population ~27000); suburban environment (Source)
Departments / majors 46 B.S. programs, > 24 post-graduate programs (including PhD and ScD) (Source 47 B.A. programs, 26 M.A. programs (Source)
Semester structure 2 semesters + 1 IAP + 1 summer semester 2 semesters + 2 summer semesters(Source)
Yearly (undergraduate) tuition $43210 (Source) 48 Jordanian dinars / credit hour; ~140 credit hours per major - ~$8500 total(Source)


Today I was lucky enough to go with Sadek (who is graduating from Birzeit this June) to see the university for myself. We started the morning at 8am leaving Jerusalem (we had to allot time to get through the traffic that would inevitably happen at a checkpoint before we crossed into the West Bank). His classes started at 9am, so for three hours I wandered the campus, poking into every single building, museum, lobby, hangout area, and open space that I could find. I wanted to get a feel for the campus and it's life uninhibited - I wanted to see what it was like to be a student at Birzeit for a morning. 

Here is a collection of observations about Birzeit, using MIT as a benchmark. 

  • As a woman not wearing hijab, I felt in the minority. But not for the reason you think - the campus is about 65% women. It turns out that the majority of women wear hijab and adhere to the stereotypical versions of Islamic dress. Of course, there are plenty of women on campus who do NOT where hijab, but I felt that my uncovered blonde hair was in the minority. 
  • The walls of the buildings were off-white. No posters, no advertisements, no photographs, no awards. In every building (except for the civil engineering hallway in the engineering building and half of a hallway in the business building) seem to boast or advertise for accomplishments of students and staff. The surface feeling you get from walking around is that either students are not encouraged to advertise, or they are actively banned from advertising. In either case, the multi-color that is present in any hallway of MIT is not there at Birzeit. 
  • There are no easily-accessible computer labs. Walking through a hallway at MIT you will see lounges, computer labs, benches, hangout spaces, etc. Walking through the hallway at Birzeit you do see benches everywhere, but few common study spaces where someone can sit with their computer and work. 
  • There is no open wifi everywhere on campus. My bubble world of MIT has taught me that I can have strong wifi anywhere I want. Apparently this is not the case at every other university - there is a strong protected network, but no open wifi. 
  • There are no carts of stuff moving back and forth. MIT's labs are either glass-walled or spread across parts of campus. There are constantly students, professors, staff moving carts of science, engineering, and interesting things all across campus. This is not the case at Birzeit. 
  • Of course, as is the norm at most American universities, each major or department has it's own building - there is no MIT norm of connected buildings, fluid and non-rigid differences between departments, and unclear boundaries between buildings.