Turkish students discover individualism in the U.S.
BY EMRE PEKER, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE
[to the companion interview with Gunay Evinch, "The changing role of Young Turks in the U.S."]
Serdar Özenalp arrived in Charlottesville, Va., around midnight after a 20-hour journey from Istanbul, Turkey. He hailed a cab with two friends who were also about to begin their undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia and drove south on Route 29 to University Circle, where he stayed at the cozy International House. It was August 1998 and it was hot.
Eser Turan took a 24-hour trip from Istanbul to San Francisco. An African-American couple she met on the plane gave her a ride to a high school friend's house. It was her first time in California, where she would soon begin her master's in architecture at UC Berkeley. It was a pleasant day in August 1996, with cool breezes welcoming Turan to the city.
Young Turks today are going abroad in ever-increasing numbers for their higher education, just like their predecessors in the 19th century. They seek to explore new horizons and exit Turkey's rigid educational system. For most, the United States is what France and Germany were to their forefathers: a land of opportunities and fresh ideas. And so they come each year, in thousands, looking for knowledge, fresh experience and a taste of the American lifestyle they followed from afar.
Their adventures in the United States are translating to new ideas back home, making their Western-influenced insights on Turkey unique and valuable as the country's democracy moves from its infancy to adolescence. Or, they are shocked upon their return to Turkey, experience difficulties in readjusting to an old way of life and start planning an escape.
"After I came back to Istanbul, I realized that living in Istanbul is not that appealing - as opposed to missing Istanbul, living abroad," Özenalp said during an interview. That was not always the case.
During his first semester at UVA, Özenalp was homesick. He found the American students immature and naive, he said, "We were already a little beaten up when we got there, and they were all fresh. The nice thing is, they didn't adapt to us, but we kind of adapted to them. So we started off fresh too."
The fresh start was painful at times. While it helped that he shared the same taste in music and laughed at the same jokes - "it wasn't like we went to Saudi Arabia" - the comforts of home were hard to give up.
The decision to study abroad
Like most Turkish students in the U.S., Özenalp came from an upper-middle class family. He grew up in Bursa, two hours south of Istanbul, where he attended a private elementary school known for its successful graduates, who, like Özenalp, ended up in Turkey's best high schools.
Following seven years at the prestigious Koc School in Istanbul, where he was a boarding student, Özenalp, like 50 percent of his classmates, decided to pursue his undergraduate degree in the United States. His education at Koc set him apart from the majority of high school students in Turkey, making him more independent and willing to follow his dreams.
"The education we got and our experience was not exactly the experience that a regular kid would have in Turkey in high school," Özenalp said. "We were taught to do whatever we wanted to do, go the way we liked."
Özenalp had initially planned to pursue a mechanical engineering degree in Turkey, in line with his parents' wishes. But most of his friends were headed to America for college, and weighing his options, he decided to give it a shot.
It was not an easy process. Özenalp had to juggle studying for the rigorous and comprehensive university entrance examination in Turkey - which is offered only once a year - with getting good grades to boost his class ranking, scoring well in the SATs and drafting application essays.
After sending in his applications and taking the Turkish university tests, Özenalp waited to see the results. In the end, his options were much better abroad and he settled on the engineering school at UVA. He said, "I didn't choose to go to the U.S., it just happened that way."
Turan ended up on the West Coast in a similar fashion. She was planning to continue at the Istanbul Technical University, where she ranked among the top 10 students in the undergraduate architecture program.
Her exceptional academic performance provided opportunity for her to continue straight into the master's program at the university. But a "bizarre problem" eliminated Turan's chance to seamlessly pursue her master's at ITU by knocking her off from the top 10: the review board deducted 30 points from her final project because it was in pencil, not ink.
Driven by her urge to continue studying, Turan considered opportunities abroad. Like Özenalp, she graduated from one of the top-five high schools in Turkey, Uskudar American Academy. Seeking excellence, she applied to Columbia University, MIT and UC Berkeley.
"Columbia and MIT were very expensive, so I went to California," Turan said during an interview. "I never even wanted to go to the U.S. ... It's just faith, a turn of events."
Turkish students on American campuses
Turan and Özenalp are two small pieces of a growing trend. The number of Turkish students in the U.S. increased by 15 percent from 10,100 in academic year 1999-2000 to 11,622 in 2005-2006, according to the Institute of International Education. And while their presence is felt across universities in America - Turkey ranks eighth among all countries with students in the U.S. - they represent less than 1 percent of all Turkish students in higher education.
A Turkish student is estimated to spend more than $28,000 per year, according to a paper on the migration of highly skilled Turks to the U.S. by Şebnem Köşer Akçapar, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration. With a gross national income per capita of $4,710 in Turkey, an American education is not everyone's cup of tea - a similarity Turkish students share with their forefathers.
Young Turks were the elites of Ottoman society with strong ties to the intellectual, bureaucratic and military communities, who put their faith into science and concepts like progress and natural laws, Princeton Prof. Şükrü Hanioğlu wrote in "Preparing for a Revolution: The Young Turks 1902-1908." Thus, he noted, their ideas were "very different from those of the average person in the street."
Beginning in the mid-1800s, Young Turks embraced notions of fraternity, equality and liberty. But, Hanioğlu wrote, as elites they also claimed "the duty of molding the masses in accordance with requirements of general progress," an idea they got from French psychologist Gustave Le Bon. Finally, they sought to advance their minds in line with John Stuart Mill's theories that the elite must be intellectual.
The modern Turkish students in America too seek to satisfy intellectual curiosity, but in a rather different way. Current and former students in the U.S. who participated in online interviews listed individuality as the number one characteristic trait they gained through their American experience. In a parallel vein, they also mentioned becoming more independent, professional, self-sufficient, disciplined and patient.
The turn back to Turkey
Özenalp was no exception. By the time he graduated from college he had already broken with traits that would have continued had he pursued his education in Turkey. He dropped out of the engineering school, instead getting his degree in foreign affairs. Then, he decided to postpone returning to Turkey and aiding his father's new business - a typical career path - in favor of moving to New York to attend the French Culinary Institute and become a chef.
"It sounded very interesting to cook, it was nice, it was New York, it was fun, I had a good time," he said of his decision. "Afterwards I was, like, maybe I'll go open a restaurant in Istanbul." And so, the food enthusiast moved back to Turkey.
Turan took a different road back home, but followed a similar can-do path. After graduating from Berkeley, she started working as an architect, blazing through six firms - including top-dogs HOK and Swatt Architects - in six-and-a-half years. During her tenure in San Francisco, she noticed skepticism towards Turks on certain policy issues and took an interest in addressing them.
The challenge to belief systems
Living in the U.S. tickles Turkish students' patriotism. They vigorously defend their country when confronted with issues that are often discussed in terms of black and white in Turkey - such as the Armenian genocide, treatment of Kurds and Cyprus. But, they also question why these issues are ignored and addressed in defensive ways.
"I realized that a lot of people in the U.S. had very different ideas about Cyprus, and other issues," Özenalp said, adding that Americans lack historical knowledge but are more up to date in current events. "In the beginning I was very pro-Turkish, like, 'we didn't do anything bad.' ... By the time I graduated, I knew that something bad had happened."
Özenalp's dilemma is not a new one, nor an isolated case. "It's an awakening for a Turkish kid to go there, you learn that a lot of stuff you know for sure are actually questioned," he said. Turkish students in the U.S. are often confronted with foreign policy issues rooted in history and get frustrated addressing them (See Q&A with Gunay Evinch).
Özenalp, like many of his peers, was on the traditional, defensive side of the issues. He was not, however, an active participant in Turkish society activities. He described his relationship with other Turkish students as one-on-one, as opposed to through traditional Turkish networks. "I liked them, but I didn't choose to hang out with them," he said.
Instead, Özenalp joined a fraternity, where he lived his second and third years, and socialized with Americans for the most part. If, during a conversation or in one of his policy classes, a touchy issue came up, he would argue and try to present the Turkish point of view.
Turan, on the other hand, took matters in her own hands. Confronted by an "overambitious Armenian lobby," she began researching historical events and checking Turkish lobbying efforts - especially after San Francisco passed a law recognizing April 24 as Armenian Genocide day.
"I realized that Turkish-American associations were extremely incapable of responding to the allegations," Turan said. "And I also realized that a lot of Turks didn't even know how to talk about this." The realization inspired her to start activities to introduce Turkey to her community.
Before she knew it, Turan was organizing the community to get the Turkish message out, helping new Turkish students settle in the Bay Area, typing travel itineraries for American friends visiting Turkey, promoting parties organized by Turks and attended by as many as 700 people with diverse backgrounds, photographing events and running a significant public relations operation in the very little free time she had.
Following salary and promotion freezes in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Turan started thinking about shifting gears in her professional life. Acting on some friends' suggestion that she convert her pro-bono PR work into an enterprise, she quit her firm and started Turkuaz Productions - a marketing and PR agency to promote businesses, artists and cultural events in the international Turkish community. And although Turkuaz is based in the U.S., Turan moved back to Istanbul in 2006 for logistical purposes.
Emerging from the ashes of an empire
"In Turkey we do live in this sphere of thinking everything is OK," she said. That sentiment is shaken for Turkish students who have a difficult time countering criticism from their peers. "Building a nation out of the ashes of an empire has not been easy."
The ashes and the nation building Turan refers to are both the legacy of Young Turks, whose revolution led to the establishment of the second constitutional period in the Ottoman Empire on July 23, 1908. Their movement, like Turan's, had its roots in Western thought.
The successes and failures of the constitutional monarchy are subjects of long debates. But their ideas did lead to the reestablishment of the parliament at the end of the Ottoman Empire and constitute the pillars of modern Turkey - arguably the most significant accomplishment of Young Turks.
But the accomplishments of Turkey's 84-year-old republic are not without shortcomings. As the country's democracy matures, increased responsibilities and the transfer of power from the elites to the masses cause pains on multiple levels.
The mentality of democracy "for the people, despite the people" is changing, said Yıldıray Oğuz of Genç Siviller, or Young Civilians, a non-profit organization with members from all over Turkey that promotes democracy through a unique brand of activism - using humor to engage opposing parties in the discussion of divisive issues.
Indeed, Turkey is divided on many issues. On the international front, factions debate how to handle ascension talks with the European Union and what Turkey's role is in the Iraq war and on how it should contain Kurds in Northern Iraq. On the domestic side, the country is battling renewed terrorist activities by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, as well as debating the fundamentals of its democracy: secularism, religious and civil liberties, the army's role in politics.
"Democracy could not be calmly discussed in Turkey because of legal restrictions enacted in the 1950s," said Oğuz, who is pursuing a doctorate in political science with a focus on the political freedom in Turkey. "People who went abroad to study the modernization of Turkey - such as historians and political scientists, those who were in touch with foreign academia - were very instrumental to starting a meaningful discussion of issues."
Discussion of the obstacles and problems Turkey faces in modernization and democratization is easier abroad, Oğuz said, because developments do not affect daily life. "People who went abroad reduced the tensions surrounding the issues in Turkey," he said, "enabling us to see a lot of issues more clearly."
Turkish students in the U.S. do not only get a perspective on how their country looks from the outside, but also how another country - one they admired growing up - works. As they adapt to a new lifestyle, their comprehension of Turkey and its image abroad changes - and along with it, their expectations from life back home.
"It's 2007, and we're in a country that still discusses its regime. In America the biggest discussion would be 'is Bush a good president or a bad president.' Here it is, 'is democracy a better regime or is sharia a better regime.' We should be beyond that. I don't care if people put on headscarves, I don't care if people pray, I don't care if people drink," Özenalp said, and added, "I have a plan to get out of here, I'm over this discussion."
Özenalp moved back to Istanbul on July 4, 2004. After a brief stint with his father he started a business importing herbs, smoothies and other food products to Turkey. He met his German wife in New York, where the couple hopes to move back once the business's loans are paid off. Despite the difficulties of running a Los Angeles-based business out of Istanbul, Turan plans to stay in Istanbul.
"Turkey is in a very critical point, and if nobody supports Turkey - and Turks cannot fully support themselves right now - if Turks outside of Turkey, or non-Turks outside of Turkey do not support Turkey, it's a problem."
Turan plans to continue expanding her PR business, providing critical insider observations on current events from Turkey through her agency's news portal and improving the marketing and branding efforts of domestic- and international-based Turkish companies abroad.
Individualism takes Young Turks in all directions
Today's Young Turks are not motivated by the elitism of old, but by the individualism of our day and the promise of succeeding through one's own ambition. An American education influences Turkish students in many ways, stimulating them to rethink their goals in life and their aspirations for Turkey.
Like Özenalp, some shun the notion of return. "But I have more resources to explore," said Igal Nassima of Istanbul, who lives in New York and plans to continue his life in the U.S. "I miss variety of cultural, geographical characteristics, but after a certain period of time, this nostalgia becomes a separate entity you see with every other foreigner you talk to, but you cannot relate to it anymore."
Others are still undecided. "I would like at some point to at least try living there," said Erkin Şeker of Bursa, who has been living in Virginia for the past eight years. "My Turkish experience as an adult is limited to high school, which I can hardly identify as a Turkish experience." Şeker is more used to the American way of life now, but would like to work at a university in Turkey. "Maybe in the next decade," he said.
And then there are those who want to be in involved in the everyday life of Turkey, to affect and see change.
"I learned how to survive in difficult situations by myself," wrote Dilek Gokturk, a violinist and PhD candidate in music at the University of Florida. "I learned to look at my country from an outside perspective. I became more objective and less rigid in many issues. Although I was always an independent person I became more independent and more confident after coming here."
Dilek will move back to Turkey in January 2008 to become a music professor at a university. "I want to give to my country whatever I have learned here," she said, "As a good citizen, everybody should do this."
[This story was originally published in August 2007 for Immigration Here & There, a project for the Medill School of Journalism.]