Turkish students find American education appealing

Alper Mirmahmutogullari, left, and Ipek Demirgezer, right, have both been in America for about five years. (MEHMET TEMEL/ THE STATESMAN)

Alper Mirmahmutogullari, left, and Ipek Demirgezer, right, have both been in America for about five years. (MEHMET TEMEL/ THE STATESMAN)

Instead of an hour drive or a two-hour train ride to get home at the end of this semester, sophomore psychology major Ipek Demirgezer will have to endure a longer journey to see her family: a 12-hour flight to Istanbul, Turkey.

This is not the first time Demirgezer will be going home.  She has been making the trip three times a year—for winter, spring and summer breaks—for the last six years. And she has not been the only one.

According to a census by Open Doors, which tracks international student movement, in the 2011-2012 school year, 11,973 students from Turkey came to the United States to study at a primary, secondary, undergraduate, graduate or Optional Practical Training level, making Turkey “the 10th leading place of origin for students coming to the United States.” The west Asian country obtained that position in 2000 and has kept it since.

In New York, Turkish students make up roughly 2.8 percent of the state’s international student population. Stony Brook University ranks as the institution with the fifth highest number of foreign students with 3,726 students, based on Open Doors’ state census from 2012.

While graduate students make up a little more than 50 percent of the Turkish student population in the United States, Demirgezer and many of her friends arrived in the United States alone at age 14.

“I always wanted to go outside of Turkey and live without my parents,” Demirgezer said.  “Then my dad found out about an opportunity to go to the United States so I [said] ‘I want to go,’ and I came here.”

The appeal in coming to the United States at such a young age, she said, is much more than just the educational opportunities.  “We thought it would be easier to learn English when we were younger,” she said.

Although senior computer science major and president of Stony Brook’s Turkish-American Student Association Zeynep Doğanata was born and raised in the United States, she says that fluency in English for Turkish internationals can take them a long way.

“When you come here, it’s a cultural experience, and really English is a huge thing,” Doğanata said. “In Turkey, even if you study really hard and everything and do well in your English classes, it’s not the same as living in [an English speaking] country. Even if you don’t get as much out of your education, to go back with perfect English, you can get very far in Turkey.”

But at 14, the adjustment to life in the United States was not easy for Demirgezer. “It was so hard because I was so little and my family was so important for me,” she said. “I didn’t know that it would be this hard and for a couple months, a couple years actually, I wanted to go back to Turkey [but] it was my decision to come to the United States so I tried to get used to it.”

But now that she goes to Stony Brook, she feels more at home at her off-campus residence.

“I have some Turkish friends here and they go to the same school,” Demirgezer said. “It’s easier to share a house with people from your country because of the food and the cleaning and like we know each other and we grew up in the same culture. It’s easier for me.”

Academics in the United States also came as a surprise to some Turks. The Turkish education system requires high school students to take a national exam in order to gain admission to a university in Turkey, and therefore, college entrance is much more competitive. Students can only get into top universities for their desired programs of study if they achieve a certain score on the exam.

“It’s very difficult to switch majors,” Doğanata said, whose parents went through the Turkish education system. “Here, you can change your mind. There, it’s kind of more predetermined by your scores and they don’t look at you being well-rounded as a student, as much as the U.S.”

Freshman business major Furkan Kınaş, who came from the Anatolia area of Turkey to the United States alone when he was 13, was taken aback by the stark difference between the two systems.

“I actually didn’t know that the education was easier than in Turkey in America,” Kınaş said. “I believe the government set this up very good for students, not to push them for something they are not going to use in their life.”

But while education and immersion are important to Turks, they very much retain their national identities while they are here.

“Turks have a very strong connection to their cultures,” Doğanata said. “There’s an effort to live and share that culture and that’s what we do here [at the Turkish-American Student Organization]. We love certain things about Turkish culture that we want to live it, gather around together and we want to share that with the [Stony Brook] community.”

However, Demirgezer’s plan has not changed in the six years that she has been here. “I just want to go back after I finish college,” she said. “It’s not easy to go to the United States at the age of 14 [and] it’s an experience that not everyone can have so I want to use this experience and the education that I get here to serve for my country when I go back.”

This article was originally published in the Apr. 22, 2013 issue of The Statesman.

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