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Interview with Ulya, an international student

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The article below was originally published on my international student blog, Study Abroad Survival Guide, as an opportunity to share the experience of a peer and offer another perspective on what it's like to study in a different country. The blog also features guides and advice for international students studing in the US, covering topics that range from visas to the culture of studying.

Student Spotlight: Ulya

Welcome to the first student spotlight on Study Abroad Survival Guide! Each international student has their own story, and these spotlights aim to show how diverse the experience of studying abroad can be.

Ulya, an international student from Turkey

Last week I got together with Ulya, a fellow graduate student at Emerson College in Boston, to talk about the time she has spent here in the US and what it means to be an international student. Ulya is from Turkey and currently earning her MFA in Media Art, but her first experience as a student in America occurred much earlier.

After a two-week-long exchange trip to England at the age of sixteen that offered a taste of the independence that comes from living away from parents, Ulya sought out a long-term opportunity that would offer her more experience living abroad. She found this opportunity in Illinois, where she spent her junior year of high school at an American school in the Chicago area. “I didn’t know my host parents until I got to the airport...but it’s part of the adventure, you know?” Ulya grins, recalling the thrill of the situation.

Being from a different country made Ulya stand out, she says, and she was admired for not following all the same trends as her peers. As well as looking different, she sounded different, too. While she picked up an Illinois accent from her classmates at school, her host family were from Kentucky and provided another influence. “And then there was this Turkish accent, that was really rough at that point,” she adds. After years spent in the US, Ulya’s English now sounds almost wholly American, yet still indicates her Turkish roots; a unique dialect, indicating the range of her experiences.

Following graduation, Ulya continued to pursue foreign education and enrolled in university in the UK, but soon began to realise that the style of teaching in England did not suit her. “I’ll be honest, I hated the system,” she admits, describing the opposition she faced at the University of Surrey when she tried to take Psychology classes despite being a Sociology student. Although she enjoyed the people and culture, this inflexibility was simply not for her. So, for her sophomore year Ulya transferred to the University of Minnesota in the USA, where she was free to pursue the classes that interested her most.

As well as the education itself, another one of Ulya’s motivations to study abroad were the changing politics in her home country. “When I was growing up it was different, it was much more liberal” she explains, and describes the difficulties of returning home to a political system that did not resemble the one she had known. Even while she’s away, the worry for her family persists. Recent bombings in her hometown have resulted in fearful calls home to her mother, father, and brother to check that they’re safe, and Ulya’s voice is tinged with exasperation. “I’m just tired.”

It is clear that this worry is often heavy on her mind, and I ask whether she talks to her American peers about her frustrations. “I do sometimes, but not all the time. It’s not something that people want to relate to...and it’s such a different life here.” People tend to understand that it is hard to live so far away from a troubled home, but without personal experience, they can only sympathise, rather than empathise with the situation. How does it make her feel? “Isolated.”

But despite this apprehension, Ulya’s experience studying abroad has for the most part been a positive one: “It let something really beautiful happen.” Inspired by events that took place at home in Turkey, Ulya began to get involved in activism while studying in Minnesota, and through these events she met her current boyfriend, who has now moved to Boston with her. Dating culture is something that took a little while to get used to, she admits, remembering how they were together for three months before realising they were ‘exclusive’.

Even in non-romantic relationships, there are remarkable differences between Turkish and American culture. Here in the US, people greet you with a wave; in Turkey, it’s a hug and kisses on the cheek. Despite these contrasts, though, Ulya keeps a firm grip on her cultural roots. “I’ve always been a hugger, even here. At first people find it awkward, but then once you keep pushing, they get used to it. That’s my strategy, anyway,” she explains, laughing. “I don’t want to Americanise myself too much. Diversity’s good.”

Ulya’s push to embrace the different cultures she has come into contact with, and break away from the all too common habit of categorising people according to surface observations, is a result of her experiences studying abroad, she says. “I’m so happy to be in Boston...it’s an amazing city, and I get to learn so much.”

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For those of you studying abroad right now: what inspired you to take the plunge? What has your experience been like? We would love to hear about it. You can introduce yourself to like-minded students, leave a comment, or get in touch if you are interested in sharing your story for the next student spotlight!