For Ali Malik, who visited Israel and Palestine in September with 13 other UC Irvine students, the trip’s highlight wasn’t on the official itinerary. During the group’s stay in Jerusalem, Malik walked every morning to the Dome of the Rock – the Muslim mosque – to pray.

“On the way, I’d see Christians going to church and Jews going to the Wailing Wall, and I realized we were all going for the same purpose – to worship and please our lord,” says Malik, who took the trip as part of the student-led Olive Tree Initiative. “It had a huge impact on me.”

Founded in 2007, the initiative comprises student leaders from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze and unaffiliated backgrounds. They include members of Anteaters for Israel, Hillel, Muslim Student Union, Society of Arab Students, Middle East Studies Student Initiative and other campus organizations. Finding common ground and opening dialogue on the Middle East conflict among people with different ideologies is a key goal of the initiative.

After spending several months studying Arabic in Damascus through the International Opportunities Program, Malik joined his fellow students on the two-week visit to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, Haifa and other cities within Israel and Palestinian territories. They talked with academics, community and religious leaders, and activists in the region.

“You can study these things in books, but being there brings them to life,” Malik says. “The trip revamped my opinion of the conflict. I now feel that, although it’s a deeply complicated issue, it’s resolvable if we can talk to each other.”

Malik felt the tension on two occasions. First, Israeli soldiers prevented him from going into the Jewish section of Hebron, and one intimidated him by following closely in his footsteps. In another incident, he was detained for more than two hours by Homeland Security upon arrival back in the U.S. – where he was born and raised.

“Even though I had letters from the Israeli consulate and the UCI chancellor, they took me into a back room, went through my bags, photographed all of my papers and asked me personal questions about my family,” he says.

A fourth-year history major and religious studies minor, Malik hopes to study foreign policy in graduate school and someday become a diplomat. He’s spending fall quarter working at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars through the UCI Washington D.C. Academic Internship Program.

For their efforts, Malik and Moran Cohen (to be featured in a Nov. 10 Spotlight) both received the XIV Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship, which recognizes UCI students committed to ethics and leadership on campus and in the community.

He and Cohen will use their scholarship – which includes individual awards of $7,500 and a shared award of $2,500 – to “work rationally for peace” and foster more conversations about the conflict. They participated in Olive Tree Initiative’s first public forum Oct. 23 before a packed crowd in the Student Center’s Crystal Cove Auditorium, and they hope to do more at local mosques, synagogues and campus venues. They also want to recruit new initiative members and organize another Middle East trip next fall.

“When we first started the initiative, no one thought the trip would become a reality. People said we’d never get the funding. But we raised more than $60,000 from the Muslim and Jewish communities,” Malik says. “There’s something unique about this initiative that has brought people together.”