CT Dialogue: Dara Bramson of the AJC Program for Students Abroad
Study Abroad Program: Krakow, Poland.
The year I studied abroad in France, I heard about a program in Krakow, Poland which taught American students abroad more about the history of Krakow and also how it was affected with World War II. This program happened to be none other than the AJC Program for Students Abroad.
I have always had a strange desire to go to World War II sites since, growing up in America, we learn a great deal about the war but cannot see the direct effects or monuments unless you live in Hawaii. Upon arrival in Poland, I immediately knew that I had made the right decision. We were greeted with piles of Polish food and a nice hotel in the middle of the Jewish quarter in Krakow. Throughout the rest of the weekend, we went all over Krakow as well as to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Seeing the horrors of World War II in front of you cannot be described, but going was an experience that I am glad I had. I was able to meet other students from all over the United States while learning more about European history.
The person who organizes these programs on-site is Dara Bramson, the Program Coordinator for the Auschwitz Jewish Center, whose main program is the AJC Program for Students Abroad. Continuing my series on talking with people who are employed in the tourism and travel industries, I interviewed Dara Bramson for a much different take on the travel experiences that students are able to have while studying abroad.
What is your official job title & what do you do on a day to day basis?
Since 2011, I’ve been program coordinator for the Auschwitz Jewish Center, which is under the auspices of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. My main focus throughout the year is coordinating the AJC Program for Students Abroad, long-weekend programs that take place in the fall and spring semesters in Kraków. I work with various groups facilitating dialogue sessions and organizing customized programs. I also edit the AJC newsletter and its companion blog, AJC Connect. When I’m not doing AJC work, I’m a freelance writer and photographer.
What did you major in during college? Why?
Believe it or not, I began college as a theatre major! I soon transitioned to journalism and double majored in history, which was a good fit for me – I realized that even if I didn’t pursue a career in the field, writing/communication skills would always come in handy. I began freelancing for local Miami publications in college and landed a full-time gig in New York when I graduated, which also required some travel. I loved the work I was doing – writing, editing, researching, producing travel content – but I always yearned to dig a little deeper into the places I was covering. The next step was grad school, where I studied sociocultural anthropology. People often think that’s random, but to me, anthropology was a sort of in-depth travel journalism that I always wanted.
How did you become a Fulbright Scholar, and what has it taught you?
I was fortunate to earn a Fulbright grant in 2011-2012 to conduct my fieldwork for my Master’s thesis in Kraków. The grants vary per country, but in Poland it was a nine month grant, which allowed researchers to conduct their research with support from the Fulbright program. I had already been to Poland on my own and for work, so I had a few contacts and was very fortunate to meet many amazing people during that time. Aside from my research findings, the greatest lesson was to continue being open to new people and experiences. It is now 2014 and I am still based here, thanks to the wonderful experience I’ve had contacts I’ve made, and supportive network in the US.
While in college, or before, did you happen to travel to many other countries? If so, where? Which was your favorite?
When I was younger I traveled often with my family, so I was always eager for the next adventure. I was fortunate to travel quite a bit in college for writing assignments and in 2006, after a summer internship in New York, I took off to London for another month-long internship. From then on I was hooked on solo travel, which I’ve done quite a bit of. In the following years I traveled extensively in Europe, shifting my focus to Eastern Europe and the Balkans – I’m drawn to cities that are historic and artistic, but also evolving from their past. I’ve traveled to several other countries in Asia and Latin America on assignment; I just returned from a three month fellowship in Thailand and explored the region, which I can’t wait to return to. There are so many favorites – all for different reasons!
You recently were in Bangkok for a Peace & Conflict Fellowship. How were you selected to take part in this/how did you apply to be a part of this conference, and what were some key take aways that you learned?
In March I completed a professional certificate in peace studies and conflict resolution as a Rotary Peace Fellow. When I learned about the program last year, I applied immediately and knew it would be greatly beneficial to my AJC work in a broader, global context. The program is designed for professionals in the field, so I was humbled to be the youngest in a group of 20 incredible international individuals who have been working in unique fields relating to peace and conflict for many years. I learned so much from this group, not to mention the content of the course, which included lecturers from all over the world. It was the first time in my career as an educator that I thought of myself as a peace builder. Now, I read the news differently and am eager to apply so many new lessons to my work.
Why did you choose to work AJC?
In graduate school I was selected as an AJC Fellow for a three week fellowship in New York and Poland that gave me the opportunity to get to know the organization. I was drawn to their unique, holistic approach to Polish-Jewish history and the Holocaust. I also participated in a museum education internship in New York later that year and admired the staff, work ethic, and approach to teaching about the history. When my position opened for 2011, I was the first in line! Ultimately, they chose me, and I am very fortunate to be part of the organization.
What part of this program do you like doing the best?
I have met amazing people through this work – professors, students, guides, other educators. I love constantly learning and discussing and having the opportunity to facilitate a learning experience for individuals. No matter how many times I lead the PSA, I always learn something new from my students.
What makes the AJC special?
In addition to everything I mentioned, the AJC organizes a very impressive array of programs for local and international students and adults. It’s a place for everyone to not only learn about Polish-Jewish history and the Holocaust but to learn about and discuss broader issues of discrimination, racism, and lessons of peace building. In addition to a fantastic staff and team of interns, there are always innovative things happening. In fact, the AJC just opened a new core exhibit in addition to a beautiful cafe in the house belonging to the last Jew of Oświęcim. I am proud to work for an organization that has a broad humanitarian goal.
Why should a student studying abroad spend a weekend in Poland with the AJC program?
I know I’m biased, but Kraków is a fantastic city, so spending a few days here alone will expose anyone to fascinating architecture, history, art, food, and people. The PSA is a holistic experience where students learn about history before the Holocaust and contemporary Jewish life and Polish memory after, with the opportunity to discuss throughout. I’m happy to report that students evaluate the program highly and stay involved as alumni.
What is the main takeaway from the program and how can students help from abroad and from their home campus?
In addition to learning about Poland, Polish-Jewish relations, and the Holocaust, the program aims to challenge students to question ethics and behavior in a broader, contemporary context. What contributions can we each make, as individuals, to a more peaceful, conflict-free world? We hope that through this case study, students will continue engaging with these questions and continue the discussion with us and their peers. We hope students will help spread the word about future programs, and by becoming an AJC Ambassador, alumni have the opportunity to work on this in more depth and get professional experience. We also welcome contributions to the AJC newsletter from alumni and always love to stay connected.