Study Abroad Isn’t (Only) a Vacation

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Yeni yılınız kutlu olsun (Happy New Year) everyone. Want to start 2015 off with some good karma? Check out the Educational Volunteers Foundation of Turkey (TEGV), which provides free and secular after school educational activities to primary school children all over the country, and has helped almost two million students. I’ve actually been spending every Saturday afternoon teaching English at one of their learning centers, and it’s been a real pleasure working with the kids there. The best part of my day comes at the end, when they wave and exclaim “Guudbai, Reechard! Ay vill sii yuuu!” Hurts knowing that their English at age ten is better than my Spanish ever was… Anyway, check them out and consider sending a donation.

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You Went to the Finest Schools, Miss Lonely

Study Abroad, as I was reminded before my departure, is not a vacation. Yes, we do a lot of tourism. Yes, we spend a lot of time figuring out the little differences and quirks that we never saw back home. Me, I’m the type of guy who was able to make Turkish friends and figure out Istanbul’s convoluted mass transit system in less than a week but needed a month to figure out how to open a door and figure out how those (gosh darn mother-loving) bidets worked. But at the end of the day, most of our time is spent in classrooms and doing school-related stuff. Now, if you’re reading this and thinking of going abroad for the first time, there’s a few things to keep in mind.

1. Put down your report card, you ain’t all that bright. So, you got selected to study abroad, and may even had to beat out other applicants. You may have even gotten a scholarship to help pay for it. Obviously you must be pretty darn sharp, right? I mean, here you are, a student at the e-lite University of Washington (Either one of the top 20-100 schools in the world, depending on who you ask), going to some school in Not America that you probably never even heard of until you signed up. I mean, Boğaziçi’s top 300 on a good day, so obviously the challenge couldn’t be nearly as much as what you face at our Public Ivy, right? I mean, at UW you’re probably averaging somewhere around 3.2-3.9 cumulative and 3.6-3.9 departmental or something if Study Abroad’s willing to send your post-teenage greenhorn (behind) to the other side of the world. You may have even spoken to exchange students from the school you’re going to, who swear up and down that your Study Abroad Institution is much more laid back than UW, and that until exam week you’re in for a charmed life. But I’m willing to bet you didn’t account for one thing.

For the last thirty years or so, American universities have been profoundly guilty of practicing grade inflation. Your outstanding grades probably would’ve earned your dad a decent B+…maybe. Europe, on the other hand, has most decidedly not adopted this practice. Mid-terms hit a lot of us Yankees like a left hook from Pacqiao. For example, in my Late Ottoman History course, I got the 11th highest score out of 90 takers-a 78 (A typical UW 2.3). Over half the class flunked. One guy got a five. A five! UW history courses practically give you a fifty for showing up on test day, so you can imagine the agony we feel. The Europeans and Turks feel especially sorry for us, as we’re paying for this punishment. I believe that the exchange students who championed Boğaziçi’s laid-back environment weren’t lying to us per se, but one has to remember that Boğaziçi only sent them because they too were the best of the best, and it is true that Boğaziçi is a slower-paced school, as UW tends to keep people busier on an everyday basis and Boğaziçi ensures that its students only feel the pain during exam weeks. I don’t know which you prefer, but I miss how UW could keep my work ethic in fighting trim throughout the quarter. Sure beats the sudden starts and stops of Boğaziçi. Worst of all for us is that despite the higher standards, we’re still looking for our A’s; our native and European compatriots are often more concerned with passing rather than acing, and actually failing a course is very common at Boğaziçi-17.5% of grades handed out are F’s, after all. Therefore, that 0.0 grade that practically equals a death sentence at UW (and is thus virtually never given) is a reality here and unlike here is not the end of a student’s world…but try bringing that up on a graduate school application or to financial aid. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I would bet the response would be a very urbane variation of “Lol you failed in Turkey?”

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2. You also can’t assume that you’re much smarter than your native classmates. Chances are, they could probably school you on a thing or two. Remember, they had to learn English just to get their foot in the door. How many of us could stroll into a university where the lecture language is in a tongue that is nothing like our own? Also, Boğaziçi only accepts the country’s best and brightest, and as they all belong to a specific department, you’re studying on their turf. Admittedly, I’ve been a bit cavalier about a few things. I was born in the Year of the Rabbit after all, and now here I am, running for my life from a horde of chain-smoking, ayran-drinking tortoises. It’s true, for example, that in Europe language classes operate at a slower pace than in America, and my intermediate Russian class was for me a rehash of stuff I picked up in RUS 101 last year. So I could sleep through it, but my classmates caught up quick, and now they can confuse me in two languages. The same happened in French, where I saw my classmates quickly get in the habit of exercising what little they knew. On that note, I had to withdraw from that class, as my honest-to-God above average grades amounted to a D in UW terms. C’est la vie. Now in Turkish, they really come out swinging. The first-year course moves a good deal faster than UW’s, and while I believe I was up to the challenge in my grammar class, the reading comprehension class also designed for advanced students absolutely blew me out of the water.

3. Prepare to have your sensibilities challenged. You know how I know half the class flunked that midterm? Because Boğaziçi publicly posts the grades of all students, just so you know how you stack up against your peers. This is great for a competitive-minded person like myself (and from my understanding the whole idea is to foster a healthy competition amongst the students), but if you’re more modest or if you just suck, you can imagine how embarrassing this can get. Students do not have the right to privacy when it comes to class standing. One of my classmates in Russian invited several of us as well as our Hoca to dinner, and naturally we wanted to know our final grade. The professor told us right there. “You got an AA, you got an AA, you got an AA, you didn’t…” and she even talked about the unfortunate student who failed. And mind you, the Russian prof is one of the nicest people on campus.

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4. Professors are simply more authoritarian here. The first-name basis relationship generally doesn’t exist at all outside of some language classes where the professor is used to dealing with foreign students. People often greet their instructors with deferential bows. Professors often do not discuss, but dictate, and while it’s not illegal to ask a question, one better have a fine reason for interrupting the lecture.

I had a French teacher, who while pleasant personally and completely capable of creating a fun and lively learning environment, was often spontaneously possessed by the spirit of Robespierre. Everybody who takes Russian at UW is familiar with the regular first-year instructor. Every student knows she has their best interests in mind and is completely willing to go a mile out of her way to help you when you need it, but she loves putting her students in the hot seat and often plays up the role of the tyrannical Soviet-era interrogator (and like with the Soviets, it got to the point my classmates would develop strategies to avoid being called on).

This French teacher made her look like the Fairy Godmother. I can’t count how many times I’d seen this guy bellow “Parlez-vous Francais!”in student’s faces, how many times my accent was ridiculed mid-speech, how many times I’d be called up and asked to deliver French dialogues by memory (mind you, I’m an elementary student). One time when a student couldn’t remember how to express emotions he called her up, grabbed her cheeks and shifted her face to fit the vocabulary term. It worked. I’ll tell you, anyone who can survive that class isn’t just ready for French 102, he’s ready for the French Foreign Legion. I will say, one advantage I believe many Turkish students have over us is that they lack the sense of entitlement many American students possess. There’s no whining, no attempt to negotiate for more lenient treatment, and can deal with tyrants like that French teacher with good humor. Overall, they seem to be more mature, though I’ve admittedly found a good number of exceptions.

One last thing. Did you know that students abroad are often less efficient than they normally would be? It’s a symptom of culture shock, I’m told. I suppose while being in a new country isn’t all that “shocking” in the visceral sense, the little things add up. You need more sleep, and your productivity falls. For me this is welcoming news. At UW all I needed was six hours of sleep and twelve cups of coffee and I could work all day…here, not so much. Anyway, keep in mind that you may not be able to operate at your full potential, and to plan accordingly.

But at least my school has a nice view. Seriously, every day I go to school I catch a panorama of the Bosporus. It’s like watching Barry Lyndon, except I don’t usually have to duel anyone.

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Anyway, I plan to do some traveling over the vacation. Well, my vacation. Have fun in class, Huskies! (Sorry.) Heading east to Konya, Ankara, Hattusa (the Hittite ruin) Mardin, Diyarbakir, Van and hopefully Kars…y’know, all the places the US embassy tells us not to go to. Not to be irreverent, but as I said before, they once advised us to keep out of two-thirds of Istanbul once. And it usually isn’t the people that are dangerous, out there it’s the elements. So, unless they find me enclosed in a block of ice somewhere in the vicinity of Sarikamis, maybe I’ll write about what I see abroad.