Well I’m back in Sacramento. After 7 1/2 months abroad, I’ve returned to California to finish grad school and figure out what follows. When this semester begins, I have to hand in this essay to the Global Education office to tell them about my experience studying abroad in Istanbul. Since this blog will chronicle my life back in the States, it seemed fitting to start it off with this.
Four months in İstanbul was not enough time. I distinctly remember the feeling of my first few nights in the glorious city when it felt like I had all the time in the world to make the most of my study abroad. Then a month was gone, then another, and soon enough I was boarding my flight and leaving the country, and it felt as if none of that had been real. It passed so quickly.
One moment I was taking my first walk through the snowy streets of Taksim Square, and the next I was riding the metro to Ataturk Airport.
As these moments were slipping by at such a rapid pace, I learned quickly how to appreciate the moment. I learned how to take walks along the Bosphorus, idle on the lawn at South Campus, take photo journeys through the surrounding neighborhoods, and how to soak up the sights of this unforgettable city. In wanting to explore the country and spend time with my new international friends, one of the most difficult parts of studying abroad was ignoring the urge to skip class in exchange for an adventure.
The good news is that I was a good student. I only missed one or two of my Turkish classes for the sake of a weekend trip or unplanned event. For the most part I was able to ignore the allure of İstanbul and maintain consistent attendance at school. I feel any student who studies abroad will come to realize that the hardest part about studying abroad is the “studying” part, and not because the classes are exceptionally difficult, but because you’d much rather wander the hillsides than sit in a desk on a beautiful day!
I honestly had the best time of my life in İstanbul. From landing to departure, the entire experience was remarkable. It is difficult to put into words how much fun I had overseas. What I enjoyed the most was meeting dozens of new people from all corners of the world and making great lifelong friends. We laughed and danced and took walks and got lost and went on tours and partied and made hundreds of unforgettable memories. I loved having a dinner where I was the only American at the table eating with friends of all nationalities. The variety of language and culture was incredible. I learned something new every day simply by talking to my friends, classmates, and roommates.
The Turkish culture was very inviting. The language was beautiful, fun to learn, and when utilized outside of campus it was always rewarding to communicate with a local and order food without a hitch. I never had any problems with cultural bias. I was treated kindly and with curiosity. Knowing how to small talk with the locals made the experience better because it showed that I cared enough about the culture to become a small part of it.
There was plenty of variety in İstanbul, from the styles of the locals to the choices of cuisine. The city is well respected and loved by its citizens. They embrace new ideas and trends and make them their own. They are respectful of outside opinion and strive to make İstanbul a memorable, significant presence to the global eye. I was definitely won over by the city’s charm. I want to go back as soon as I can.
Regarding the education I received there, the teaching was top quality and the amount of work was fair according to my major and grade level. This was my first semester of official grad-level coursework. The classes were small, usually no more than six or seven students, and the discussions were lively and intimate. While the teachers spent some time lecturing, most of the classes were structured like debates, with every student sharing and trading ideas. To be honest, I was a little intimidated by the high intellect of my classmates, all of whom had actual hands-on teaching experience that I lacked. I wish I would’ve contributed more to the discussions, but I was a bit shy. My classmates all seemed to know each other and the professors quite well. Plus, when class was not in session, the students were prone to speak in Turkish and I was often left out of the loop—although on many occasions, they would realize that I was clueless and would gladly translate for me. They all taught English outside of university, so they had great language skills.
The work I did consisted mostly of essays and readings, with a few presentations. I had to construct a wiki page for my Computer Assisted Language Learning class. I had to research grammar testing methods and create a portfolio of test samples with a two-hour presentation to go with it, as well as create a grammar test of my own (this being my biggest project of the year). There was a lot of reading of academic articles, and unfortunately with the temptations of exploring the city and spending time with friends, some of those articles were simply skimmed over before class. In-class discussions were common. Some students spoke a lot more than others, but everyone contributed. There were no tests in any of my classes other than Turkish For Foreigners, and that class, I must admit, was the least rewarding because the professor’s teaching method was lackluster and few students found the motivation to even attend class. I got an AA in Turkish and BA’s in the rest.
It’s important for future exchange students to know a few things: There are many stray dogs and cats around İstanbul. They are friendly and well fed by the locals, who treat them with general respect. If you go for spring semester, expect snow and rain for your first month or two. After that, the weather gets beautiful. Don’t let the exchange rate fool you. Do not think in American dollars. Think in Turkish Lira. Just because it’s “half the cost in dollars” does not mean you should buy it. You will run out of money quickly. Travel outside of İstanbul. I recommend Trabzon and Antalya. Use Pegasus Airlines because it’s cheap and convenient.
The benefits of my experience are limitless. On the basic level, learning another language and mastering the public transportation of a foreign country are invaluable skills. I also became involved with an entirely new culture, which opens your mind to many new points of view and truly strengthens your understanding of what it means to be human. I benefit from the habits I formed there, such as taking my education seriously while taking advantage of my travels. I have made friends who live all around the world; invaluable connections for someone who plans to travel more in the future. Most importantly, I found out what it feels like to be a foreigner, which we overlook when we are so accustomed to seeing foreigners in the United States. It is important to know what it feels like to be outside of your country, removed from your mother tongue, removed from your natural habitat, and encouraged to learn new skills and adjust to unfamiliar customs.