From tending sheep to the Ivy League

Yarden Fanta-Vagenstein, the first woman of Ethiopian descent to earn her doctoral degree in Israel.When Yarden Fanta-Vagenstein and her family of 11 landed in Israel from a northern Ethiopian village in 1985, she didn’t know how to read or write. …

Yarden Fanta-Vagenstein, the first woman of Ethiopian descent to earn her doctoral degree in Israel.When Yarden Fanta-Vagenstein and her family of 11 landed in Israel from a northern Ethiopian village in 1985, she didn’t know how to read or write. Many from their Ethiopian community in Africa had never crossed a street, opened a refrigerator, or ever had the chance to operate a flush toilet.

Separated from the modern conveniences of life and 2,500 years of Jewish history, returning to Israel on a rescue mission named ‘Operation Moses,’ wasn’t only a life-saving opportunity from famine for some, it was a journey on a time machine.

For better or worse, Israel is not just another Western country – it is a fast-paced, competitive, and technology-driven society like no other place on earth. Yet despite the differences between Israel and rural life in Ethiopia, where she was tending cows and sheep, an illiterate Fanta-Vagenstein took on the challenge of school at age 14.

Today, she is the first woman of Ethiopian descent to earn her doctoral degree in Israel. With a PhD from Tel Aviv University, and now stationed at Harvard University where she is doing post-doctoral work in the field of education, Fanta-Vagenstein plans on developing an education curriculum to assist those who are illiterate integrate into the education system.

Fanta-Vagenstein hopes to play a role in influencing policies in education everywhere. Her doctoral thesis explored the cognitive and cultural changes that the Ethiopian community went through after moving to Israel, specifically in regards to their achievements in science and technology.

In 2001 at Tel Aviv University, Fanta-Vagenstein also established a program called “Thinking Science,” to expose Ethiopian-Israeli teens to technology and science. It is still going strong.

She has published papers on the topic of education and technology and is now writing a book. “My community was not reading and writing,” Fanta-Vagenstein tells ISRAEL21c, “yet they were intelligent in their own ways.

“I was concerned about the general opinions people had about Ethiopians, and proved through my research that there are other channels for learning, when people don’t know how to read and write.”

Getting to Harvard took a lot of determination and support from her community. Along the way, she was encouraged by Tel Aviv University and through the university earned a fellowship funded by a Detroit-based philanthropist, Joel Tauber, who is determined to see Ethiopian-Israelis enroll in higher education.

Tauber also played a central role in Operation Solomon, which brought 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991. Fanta-Vagenstein has received financial support from Tauber, and because of it perhaps, is now destined to impact illiteracy in American societies as well. She is stationed at Harvard until 2009.

From a village in Ethiopia to an Ivy League college in America, how does it feel? “I am enjoying it so much,” says Fanta-Vagenstein, “It’s a big challenge. To touch the top of academia is a huge opportunity for me, a privilege.”