Friday, March 6, 2015

Midshipmen Share Adventures From Semester in Turkey

The city of Istanbul, Turkey, brings to mind images of flowing Ottoman clothing, mosques and bazaars, or perhaps even a fez. As a bustling city of 19 million people however, Istanbul is in many respects similar to any other modern city. Since it is uniquely located on both the European and Asian continents, Istanbul is a dynamic place where there is a confluence of Eastern and Western culture. Midshipmen 2nd Class Molly Chandler, Joe Chilbert, Venus Molony, Megan Musilli, Bobby Nolan, Will Parker, and Charisse Villareal all had the opportunity to spend the semester studying at Koç (pronounced “coach”) University in Istanbul.

One of the aspects of the culture that the midshipmen quickly learned to appreciate is what they dubbed “Turkish time.” In Turkey, being punctual is not valued nearly as much as in America. Instead, people have a laid back attitude and are more concerned with spending quality time building relationships than sticking to a schedule.

The Turkish people proved to be very hospitable and welcoming to the midshipmen. The Turkish students in particular were always more than happy to speak and befriend the exchange students. Consequently, many close friendships developed. The Turkish students’ general philosophy of living in the moment created many interesting adventures, such as spontaneous Friday morning trips to the Grand Bazaar.

For three of the midshipmen, the end of the school day didn’t mean going back to the dorm to relax and do homework; it meant sitting on public transportation for an hour to go home to their host family. For Parker, the fresh, home-cooked meals that his host mother cooked each night made the commute well worth it. For Villareal, the best part was trying to communicate with her 10-year-old Turkish host sister who did not know any English. After a few weeks of broken, awkward interaction, she finally got her sister to laugh and have fun through learning how to play the ukulele and computer games. Getting to go home to a Turkish family each night not only provided delicious food and friendships that will last a lifetime, but also really helped with improving Turkish language skills and gave insight into the Turkish family dynamic.

This family dynamic was not always strictly Turkish, but definitely rewarding and showed Istanbul’s mix of cultures. Molony had the opportunity of practicing both her French and Turkish with her host family because her host mother, Dilek, grew up in France and her host brothers went to French schools.

For all of the midshipmen, going to Koç provided the opportunity to interact with students from a number of countries other than Turkey. Other exchange students came from, Germany, France, Australia, Mexico, Pakistan, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal, South Korea, UK, Canada, Lebanon, and China. The international dynamic proved to be one of the best parts about Koç and often the midshipmen would spend their weekends with students of varying nationalities.

As soon as the weekend came, the mids were no longer to be seen on campus, instead they were out either exploring Istanbul or some of Turkey’s most famous places. Chilbert, Villareal, Molony, and Parker all went on an inexpensive cruise over the four day Bayram weekend. They boarded the boat in Fethiye, and went along the Mediterranean coast, exploring ruins, snorkeling with fish and around coral, as well as eating delicious Turkish cuisine the entire time. On the second day of the cruise, they pulled into St. Nicholas Island, where Santa Claus was born. The group spent the afternoon exploring the island that was littered with ruins dating back to the 4th century A.D. At this same time, Chandler and Musilli explored the Mediterranean town of Bodrum and the ancient ruins of Ephesus. On another trip to Trabzon, a region located on the Black Sea near the country of Georgia, the midshipmen had the opportunity to witness some of Turkey’s natural beauty.

Amidst all the exploring, one theme that could be readily attributed to Istanbul and the country of Turkey as a whole was hospitality. Not only are locals gracious to exchange students and tourists, but they also often go very out of their way to ensure these men and women are able to enjoy their stay and explore their beloved country. In one example of this hospitality, Molony, Nolan, and Chilbert visited Edirne, a Turkish city located west of Istanbul, and a city well known for its incredible displays of mosques as well as a unique museum that covered the development of medicine in this part of Turkey. Because this was one of their first trips, finding their way to each site was difficult until two boys asked if they could help.

"These two boys brought us to every mosque, every site that we asked them to see," said Nolan. "At the end of the night, as we invited the two to join us for dinner. Throughout dinner they laughed as we attempted to order in Turkish, and they yet again made sure we were taken care of."

At the end of the night, the young men took the mids to the bus stop and wished them a safe trip home.

"Never once did they ask for anything from us," said Nolan. "They simply enjoyed both meeting us and helping to give us just a small view of an incredibly unique and beautiful country.”

When the midshipmen first chose to study abroad in Istanbul, they knew that they were going to have a good time and learn more about Turkey and themselves. What they did not expect was the extent to which they would learn about themselves and the humanity that unites us all. From living in a homestay to traveling across a new and dynamic country, they saw more and learned more than they thought possible. But it was in the small moments, the conversations in between classes or over dinner that the students really felt the true nature of Turkey shine through.

As future officers, it is imperative to understand that learning the nuances in different cultures is important. Part of being a better leader is developing a deeper, more worldly understanding and applying this understanding by participating in different cultures, learning new leadership tools from as many sources, and applying them as you go. This past semester, the midshipmen did just that by interacting and participating in an entirely new culture, expanding their knowledge of a new region, and by expanding themselves.

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