Türkiye, One Çay at a Time

Vondracek on the Istanbul bridge

Hugh Vondracek on the Istanbul Bridge.

A mentor once gave me an exercise where I had to identify the three most important things in my life. To no one’s surprise, my passport made it into the top three. Travel has always been my favorite thing to do. I studied in Spain for a year in high school, and ever since then I’ve known that whatever career I chose, it had to include travel and international relations. Until I was in LAS, however, I could never put a name to exactly what I wanted to do.

In the spring of freshman year I took a class that would shape the course of my entire experience at UIC—and hopefully beyond. It was in the Introduction to International Relations course that I first came across the term foreign service officer; I knew that this was what I had been searching for. This class proved to be just the beginning. Introduction to International Relations was followed by classes on the analysis of the causes of war, Latino immigration, and finally a PhD core course in international relations theory. As an undergraduate, I was pushed and encouraged to find my passion, and for that I am thankful.

Professor Brandon Valeriano taught the Introduction to International Relations course and his mentorship was crucial to my winning a U.S. Department of State Critical Languages Scholarship to study for a summer in Turkey. This is a wonderful scholarship that few know about—I didn't until I spoke about internship opportunities abroad with UIC’s Diplomat in Residence on the sixth floor of University Hall.

The CLS program sends American students abroad for eight weeks of intensive, immersive study in languages that are critical to U.S. national interests but are under-taught in the United States. CLS students live with a host family and each week receive 20 hours of classroom instruction, three to five hours with a native-speaker tutor, and between five and 10 hours of homework. Students are also immersed in the country and its culture.

Vondracek in front of mosque

Vondracek in front of the Hagia Sofia Museum.

This immersion is the most incredible aspect of the program because there is so much that cannot be taught in a classroom. Nuances of culture are what make travel so rewarding and because I was not just a visitor to Turkey, but living day-to-day within the culture, I had a far richer experience. From having a carpet salesman in Istanbul invite me to have tea, to going with my host father to worship in the neighborhood mosque, talking and living with people made a lasting impression on me and reinforced my desire to effect change in foreign policy.

Few Americans realize the position that the U.S. holds in the popular imagination around the world, and even fewer avidly follow U.S. foreign policy. Even in the presidential elections, almost all the attention is on domestic policy despite the fact that the President’s most impactful role is abroad. American foreign policy has real effects on real people. Most Americans will never be impacted by America’s foreign policy towards Syria, but it will have a direct impact on Mehmet, my host brother from Turkey, and it will have an impact on my teachers, and on that hospitable carpet salesman in Istanbul’s grand bazaar. Every day, decisions are made in Washington D.C. that affect millions of people around the world, and in all the commotion, the implications can be lost. At LAS, I discovered that my passion is American foreign policy and that I care deeply about the impact that international conflicts have on people, even those whom I have never met. I learned that I need to be a part of this process.

My summer in Turkey proved to be an incredibly rewarding experience for me. It was challenging—I knew exactly four words in Turkish when I arrived, and none of them meant “bathroom”—but if given the chance, I would do it again. I not only saw but experienced a culture that was far outside anything I had experienced before: a culture full of contradictions; a culture where pervasive secular nationalism exists not side by side but as a part of passionate religious faith.

Two men inside mosque

Vondracek and Matthew Zambito prepare to enter a mosque.

In the West, we often get the impression that Islam is a religion of violence, repression and intolerance; I saw nothing but the opposite. I was invited to join kandil prayers; I listened daily to the music of the calls to prayer; I was awed by the design and simple beauty of mosques; and I was surprised by the willingness of Muslims to talk with me about my faith and Christianity’s and Islam’s shared heritage. This is not the Islam of intolerance that often springs to mind and jumps from the television and the pages of newspapers. This is the Islam of knowledge, peace and compassion that at one point made the Islamic world the center of science, technology and literature. This is also the Islam that has made a permanent impression on me and that I plan to carry with me on my career path.

Graphic on a mosque wall

CLS students Matthew Zambito and Graham Griffiths at Edirne mosque.

As I flip back through my passport—which is rapidly filling with the stamps of many nations—I realize that I have adopted each country and culture of which I have been a part. When I watched the final of this year’s European soccer championships with my Turkish host family, I celebrated with the host sisters from my time in Spain. As I read about Kurdish separatists from Iraq killing Turkish soldiers, my heart is saddened, just as I know my Turkish host family’s hearts are saddened.

I’ve tried to take all the opportunities I can to realize my goals. In high school, I studied for a year in Spain. In college, I added to my Spanish and completed a year of German. At UIC I have taken truly inspiring courses. Through LAS I applied to work abroad over the summer and had the enviable choice between serving as an intern in the U.S. Embassy in Madrid or studying in Turkey. I chose to study in Turkey and I plan to reapply for the internship, but in Istanbul. This year, through a LASURI grant, I am researching the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan and am close to presenting my findings to scholarly journals for publication. After completing my degree at UIC, I plan to pursue a graduate degree in international relations and diplomacy—most likely in the United Kingdom—and to ultimately serve as a Foreign Service Officer.

Read Hugh’s Turkey blog, Merhaba2012!

All photos courtesy of Hugh Vondracek