Working to build ‘futures’

The Atidim project is specifically designed to enable talented Israeli youth from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue academic studies in engineering and the sciences.When Ilana Sanvato was a toddler, her father carried her on his back from Ethiopia to Sudan, from …

The Atidim project is specifically designed to enable talented Israeli youth from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue academic studies in engineering and the sciences.When Ilana Sanvato was a toddler, her father carried her on his back from Ethiopia to Sudan, from where they were clandestinely flown to Israel.

At that time, he couldn’t have imagined that little Ilana would grow to be a woman who would study at the prestigious Haifa Technion, and finish with top honors in her class in the first Atidim pre-university program.

Atidim means ‘futures’ in Hebrew, and for the past four years, the organization has been working to bridge the gaps in Israeli society, while providing outstanding young people with the push to realize their dreams.

The Atidim project is specifically designed to enable talented Israeli youth from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue academic studies in engineering and the sciences. Following their studies, the young adults enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces as officers in their field of expertise.

In this way, the IDF’s need for a cadre of trained and committed personnel that represent the spectrum of Israeli society is addressed. Once they are discharged from the army, their skills, knowledge and experience place them in a good position to find employment.

Atidim, therefore, has long-term impact in offering participants the chance for social and economic mobility. At the same time, the program raises community morale and sets new standards for schools, proving that students from disadvantaged backgrounds can reach Israel’s most prestigious levels. The Technion, the IDF and the State of Israel have given the Atidim students a chance to serve their country and no less importantly, provide outstanding role models for their peers.

The Atidim program was founded four years ago by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, then IDF Chief-of-Staff, because of the lack of qualified candidates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and peripheral areas for the army’s academic reserves.

A minority of students from these communities achieved a full high-school diploma and even fewer enter universities. Atidim aims to change that by bringing the students with the highest potential to an advanced science oriented high-school diploma that will enable them to enter the best academic institutions.

Last August, Ilana and her fellow Ethiopian Atidim students were congratulated by Mofaz, who took time out from his schedule to meet the 23 students personally. Later, he addressed the audience of students, proud parents, Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Technion personnel.
The graduation ceremony was an emotionally charged event. The evening’s program included film clips about the students’ families’ former lives in Ethiopia and their aliyah to Israel, the Atidim program, Ilana’s personal story, and songs in Amharic.

Addisu Masala, an Ethiopian community leader and former Knesset member, addressed the group, giving his blessings to the program and praising Technion for its contribution.

“I think this program is a national mission of the highest importance,” says Muli Dotan, director of the Technion’s Center for Pre-University Studies told ISRAEL21c. “The students who come to us from the Atidim project are given an opportunity that they otherwise could have only dreamed about. As some of the Ethiopian students have told me, it allows them to aspire to achieve to the very best of their abilities.”

He says that the students come with a great deal of motivation to succeed, but also need a great deal of support – not only are they among the youngest group of students on campus, but many are living far from home for the first time, and are facing greater pressures than they have before. They mature very quickly after their arrival, he observed.

“I believe that in the near future, this group is going to make significant contributions, not only to their own communities, but to Israeli society as a whole,” he said. “Everybody benefits from this program: the students, the army, the universities, and the communities.”

Today there are more than 800 Atidim students throughout Israel, with approximately 40 percent attending the Technion. More than one third of the students who finished this year’s first pre-academic program for Ethiopians will begin their regular Technion studies this semester.

Those who began program included a total of 150 Ethiopian students from participating schools. In addition to the Ethiopian communities, participants in the programs include ethnic minorities such as Druze, Cherkes and Bedouin, and third generation Israelis from disadvantaged communities with emphasis on women.

The main program begins at junior-high and high schools levels. At the beginning of the program, the strongest students are identified and their studies are enriched. There is a focus on scientific studies, mainly: math, physics and English, all in advanced level, building self esteem, strengthening values and offering exposure to industry and to the academe

Over the past four years, the program has developed several branches. The primary program – the Atidim Academic reserve has the goal of encouraging enrollment of youth from development towns to the IDF and to the Academic Reserve, where they can gain high quality technological skills that can contribute to the IDF and give them a head start on their future.

The program gives participants the opportunity to earn bachelor degrees in Engineering, Applied Sciences, Medicine, Law and Economics. The program identifies talented 11th and 12th graders, helping them with the special aptitude test needed to allow university studies that precede army service, both in high school and through the pre-university preparation program at the Technion.

Those who are admitted receive special assistance during the university years, including coaching and social support, academic tutoring and financial aid, and programs that building leadership skills and a sense of belonging.

Another branch of the program, Atidim for Industry, enables young adults from development towns who have already completed their army service to become successful members of the Israeli industry and business world and a source of development to the regional industry.

The program offers students financial support during studies and potential jobs after graduation. For industries, the program supplies specialized and loyal employees, willing to contribute to the company and to the community. For the development towns in which they live, it strengthens the community and works towards social equality and decreased gaps.

Specific companies sponsor participation in the program, with the costs per student are divided between the sponsoring company and Friends of Atidim non-profit organization.

Students contribute 4 weekly hours during school year to the sponsoring company (preferably in community programs) and 100 hours during the summer vacation.

A third spin-off is called, Atidim Cadets for the Public Sector, and it hopes to integrate highly talented young adults aged 21-30, from underprivileged communities into the Israeli public sector. They are carefully selected for their quality military service or their work in their communities as ‘social entrepreneurs.’

The government civil service is involved with their selection and the design of the program. The 3-year program is partnered with the Hebrew University and the School of Public Policy, where they are provided with tuition, expenses, and tutoring. Throughout their studies, they are encouraged to build relationships with their fellow cadets, hopefully creating a long-term peer group that will continue after graduations.

The students go through a coaching and mentoring process by civil servants during their academic years, involving basic exposure to the civil service, understanding its essence and structure, mentoring and coaching aimed to expose the students to actual dilemmas encountered and the solutions provided, and a semi-internship during the third year in which the students will be employed part-time and will take part in specific projects.

When they graduate, they are committed to work in the public sector for 5 years after the end of their academic years, according to the needs of the civil service.