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UNB student learns about cybersecurity and ‘home restaurants’ on tour of Israel

Author: Kathleen McLaughlin

Posted on Jul 11, 2023

Category: UNB Saint John , UNB Fredericton

Alaba Olawunmi

In the busy city of Beersheba in the Negev desert, Alaba Olawunmi sat in the backyard of a home restaurant taking in the food and culture of Israel for the first time in her life this past March.

“The story of Israel is better experienced than it is told,” said Olawunmi. “It was amazing to take it in first-hand and meet so many wonderful people, and a privilege to meet the President of Israel and Jordan’s Prime Minister, among others.”

From Nigeria to Canada, the mother of four isn’t afraid to experience new things. So, she could not resist when the University of New Brunswick (UNB) offered her the chance to visit Israel, a country known for its thriving technology ecosystem, rich history and vibrant culture.

The trip was made possible by a partnership between the Lawrence and Judith Tanenbaum Foundation and UNB’s McKenna Institute.

Over the next three years, the Tanenbaum - McKenna Institute Digital Innovation Exchange will facilitate a student and faculty exchange program between universities in Canada and Israel.

The program will focus on developing digital and entrepreneurial skills and fostering innovation and research. It will provide students and faculty from partner universities opportunities to learn about each other's cultures and academic systems.

"The opportunity offered through this partnership to UNB will help our students gain new perspectives of the world while at the same time reflecting back towards their education," said Abby David, strategic program director of the Mckenna Institute at UNB and member of the advanced technology ecosystem in Israel. "It's truly an invaluable opportunity that will encourage collaboration, knowledge sharing and personal development for everyone involved."

Olawunmi's journey to Israel with the Rhode scholars serves as a precursor to future exchange programs.

She was one of two UNB students pursuing a master’s degree in applied cybersecurity in the faculty of computer science that were invited to join a group of Rhodes scholars on a 10-day delegation in Israel.

It was a multi-faceted, intellectually rigorous program designed to challenge assumptions and explore the complexities of Israeli culture, politics and society.

During the trip, Olawunmi and the group of Rhodes scholars visited renowned research institutions, including Ben-Gurion University and its Cybersecurity Innovation Centre. They also visited the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation and Takwin, a centre for accelerating Arab and Israeli entrepreneurs using technology to build global companies.

“I loved seeing the Cybersecurity Innovation Center and how they use cybersecurity technologies to support the country and export to the world with a fail-forward mentality,” said Olawunmi. “That, for me, shifted my mentality and made me think, what problem am I going to solve?”

Back home in Nigeria, Olawunmi founded a mentorship program to help young women embrace technology and find purpose in their work. She is currently mentoring women online while she studies at UNB. Being selected by the McKenna Institute to go on the Israel trip gave her a feeling of recognition and support she needed to keep the group motivated while she is away.

“When you are nominated among so many people, it shows that the organization and the school believe in you,” said Olawunmi. “That feeling, along with seeing women in cybersecurity and technology, gave me the energy to motivate the ladies in my mentorship group and I’ve already seen results with some of them taking giant strides in their endeavours.”

Olawunmi found the cultural immersion to be equally as enriching. They learned about the people, ethnicity, culture, history, political atmosphere, religion and food. They also had a walking tour of Jerusalem’s old city, visited Christian holy sites and museums and had dinners with diplomats and other dignitaries.

A highlight for Olawunmi was the homemade cuisine served in the backyards of home restaurants run by Israeli women, like the ones operated by the Bedouins in the Negev Desert.

“It was a really unique experience to be served in the homes of these women, who could not run restaurants outside their homes due to their culture,” said Olawunmi. “The food was very good and they had great hospitality.”

“Experiential exchanges for students founded on international partnerships like this are integral to our vision to be a highly engaged faculty involved in globally relevant applied experiences for our students” says Luigi Benedicenti, dean of the faculty of computer science at UNB.

“We are profoundly grateful to the McKenna Institute and the Tanenbaum Foundation for providing this opportunity for several of our master’s in applied cybersecurity students to learn more about what is happening in the rapidly evolving area of cybersecurity in fellow academic institutions in Israel,” added Benedicenti.