Reflections from TAU Dual Degree Students on the Rewards of an Unconventional, International Education
As Columbia GS’s newest international program, the Dual Degree Program between Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Columbia University is a young but already mighty force. Offering students the opportunity to spend two years apiece at two world-renowned universities, and earn degrees from both, the Dual Degree Program provides an exceptional and truly international education. In honor of the arrival of the first cohort of TAU Dual Degree third-year students at Columbia this academic year, we spoke with four of those juniors—Lee Tzanani ‘24GS, Kristupas Packauskas ‘24GS, Daniella Coen ‘24GS, and Judah Wahba ‘24GS—about the most challenging, rewarding, and memorable parts of their Dual Degree experiences so far.
What is your hometown and major(s)?
Lee: My hometown is a place called Gedera, in Israel. It’s a very small town south of Tel Aviv. You can have two majors in the program [one at TAU and one at Columbia], so my first major is philosophy and my second major is cognitive science.
Kristupas: My hometown is Vilnius, Lithuania and my majors are information science-business and philosophy.
Daniella: I grew up in Los Angeles but moved to Israel in 2016, and my major is psychology.
Judah: I’m from Brooklyn, NY and I went to high school in Manhattan. I’m currently majoring in information science at Columbia and at TAU I majored in Middle Eastern Studies.
What drew you to the Dual Degree Program?
Lee: I’m a nontraditional student for the Dual Degree Program, which actually at GS is very traditional in a way! But I grew up mainly in Israel, spending a few years in Paris and Boston, and then immediately after high school I went to the army for four years. After, I worked at a cybersecurity startup, so I had more time after high school to really think about what I wanted to do. For me, school wasn’t necessarily the obvious next option, it was more of a choice, but the fact that I found the Dual Degree Program actually made my choice much easier. The concept of two majors, two universities, two countries, and a liberal arts education, which is quite rare in Israel: it really drew me in.
Kristupas: I was drawn to the Dual Degree Program by the opportunity to have an incredibly unique college experience. With Tel Aviv and New York being hot spots of culture, scholarship, and innovation, splitting my time in college between TAU and Columbia sounded like a near-unbeatable proposition in terms of how much it would put me outside of my comfort zone and allow me to expand my worldview.
"With Tel Aviv and New York being hot spots of culture, scholarship, and innovation, splitting my time in college between TAU and Columbia sounded like a near-unbeatable proposition."
Daniella: I lived in Israel for the past six and a half years, and served in the Israeli military as an active-duty combat soldier in the Combat Field Intelligence Unit on the Egyptian and Jordanian borders. I originally heard about Columbia GS through friends with similar backgrounds and unordinary life paths to college, and I felt I could see myself here. But while I very much wanted to attend Columbia, I wasn’t ready to leave Israel quite yet. When I found out about the Dual Degree Program, it really was the best of both worlds for me; I could continue living in Israel, get an education from TAU—one of the best universities in Israel, and get an education from Columbia—one of the best universities in the U.S.
Judah: I was always planning on spending a gap year in Israel, but when I found this program that would allow me to spend two years in Israel, I thought that was a really interesting and great opportunity. I actually got waitlisted to the program when I first applied, but I ended up officially getting in around mid-May and I dropped out of the other school I had enrolled in! I just felt “of course I’m going” from when I heard about the Dual Degree Program. It was always my number one choice.
What was it like arriving at Tel Aviv University as a first-year student?
Daniella: As a nontraditional student, I had already been living in Israel for quite a few years prior to my first year on the TAU campus. I already spoke the language and had many friends, both from the service and not, all around Israel. I was very integrated into the culture and society by that point. But I still faced a difficult transition entering into a new program with all new people—most of whom were quite a few years younger than me and most of whom were brand new to Israel, coming from all over the world. Adjusting to this new environment was probably the most challenging, especially because the first year of the program was during COVID-19, so we were all on Zoom. It was really difficult at first to bridge the gaps created by that digital and physical distance, but with the combination of the TAU campus’ open, outdoor layout, opportunities to meet people from within the Dual Degree and other programs, and smaller class sizes which facilitated ease in connecting with and becoming friends with everyone, it was eventually easy to get comfortable.
Judah: I think the biggest challenge had to be COVID-19. When we arrived, it was September of 2020 and about a month after we started school we went into a full lockdown and we didn’t even really spend time on campus until the second semester. During that time though, it allowed a lot of us who were first-years in the program and living in the dorms to get very close. We would meet up and do classes together, eat meals together, and we just became friends really quickly. Even now without COVID-19, I heard that this kind of closeness is still the case in the program. I think we kind of set a blueprint, and now the community is staying like that. I was really grateful to be able to experience that with my classmates.
What has it been like coming to Columbia as a junior?
Lee: TAU is very homey and small, so coming to Columbia and New York City, while there are parallels between the two places, does feel like a move to a bigger scale. It’s something to get used to, but also a very exciting transition. I am enjoying the academic and extracurricular parts of the university, while also exploring the city’s infinite opportunities. It can be both energizing and overwhelming. .
Academically, it’s also quite a different style. The classes at TAU are usually small, but at Columbia classes range from 12 people to 300 people. I think also one challenge is that with our program we have quite a few requirements that are tangled between the two institutions, especially with our two majors. I recommend doing your research and working with your advisors to be on top of things like knowing major requirements and prerequisites for certain classes.
"GS students are really friendly and welcoming, and each person has such an interesting story, so there are endless connections to be made."
Daniella: Coming to Columbia this fall was so exciting. Entering as a new student to the campus but with junior status was a bit strange at first because you are, essentially, a freshman—knowing close to nothing about where anything is, how anything works, who your classmates are etc. But after the first semester, and after some difficult moments, I was able to get my footing. While I’m still learning new things about the school every day, I can say that now, in my second semester as a junior, I already feel totally comfortable here on campus and have found a great community and group of friends. GS students are really friendly and welcoming, and each person has such an interesting story, so there are endless connections to be made. Having the added scaffolding of friends and peers from the TAU Dual Degree Program coming to New York together in this joint experience definitely provided a soft landing coming to Columbia as a junior, and it’s so comforting to have so many familiar faces.
On both campuses, what groups or activities have you been part of that have been most meaningful?
Lee: Clubs in Israel are different from the U.S. in that if you’re “part of” the club, that means you help run the club and you create opportunities and events for everyone on campus. You don’t have to join any club to go to its events. But at TAU, I was part of the leadership of the Entrepreneurship Club which had both undergraduate and graduate students. Everything at that club was initially in Hebrew and I took it upon myself to advocate for more events in English because so many of my peers were not Hebrew-speakers. The club would have lectures from entrepreneurs and CEOs that were inspiring and who you could really learn from, but if there’s a language barrier, you can’t participate. It was amazing to be part of the team, to connect with people, and to specifically reach out to people from our program and make sure they’re aware of our club’s events. There are so many more organizations on campus that students can be a part of, whether that’s attending events or being a club leader.
Kristupas: Columbia has no shortage of clubs and organizations, and so I really encourage any incoming Dual Degree students to take advantage of what Columbia has to offer. Some of the groups that I have been involved in at Columbia are the Columbia Daily Spectator, student government, the Columbia Social Entrepreneurship Group, and GS Alliance.
I think a common misconception that you sometimes hear is that it is impossible for Dual Degree students to be seriously involved with clubs at Columbia because they are coming in as juniors. In my opinion, however, that is very often not the case—if you find something you love here and make an effort to get involved, you will almost certainly be able to, and I think it'll immeasurably enrich your experience of being at Columbia.
What advice would you have for other Dual Degree students, especially entering first-years and third-years headed to the Columbia campus?
Lee: Looking back, my main advice would be to really track your academic progress and requirements, especially if you’re interested in doing two majors. I would also say that you should consider whether a liberal arts education is what you want; I think it really suits some people and it might not suit others. But if that’s something you’re interested in, then this program is really worthwhile.
"I think this program offers you such a valuable opportunity for anyone interested in learning from two great institutions, and I encourage people to take advantage of that as much as you can."
Kristupas: Columbia and New York can be a lot at certain times, but you are not alone in navigating this transition—the Dual Degree community and the university as a whole can be an incredibly supportive space, so don't hesitate to reach out to your upperclassmen, faculty, and advisors as you are finding your place here.
Daniella: My advice to Dual Degree students as first-years and then making their way to campus for their junior year would be to take advantage of the opportunities around you. Israel and the TAU campus and NYC and the Columbia campus are in many ways two completely different worlds, and with that, come with their own unique opportunities. It’s really such a privilege to get to experience both, instead of four years in just one place. Take chances, branch out to different groups of people and places and activities, and get out of your comfort zone every chance you get!
Judah: I think it’s important to build a unique path through the program that works for you. In doing that, it can be helpful to talk to other Dual Degree students who are doing similar things that you are interested in. So, my advice would be to reach out to other students and ask them how they’ve made this program work for them.
I would also say that at both schools, any major and any department you want to go into, you’ll find incredible advisors and professors. I think this program offers you such a valuable opportunity for anyone interested in learning from two great institutions, and I encourage people to take advantage of that as much as you can.