Highlights from an interview with alumna Maggie, NSLI-Y Turkey, Summer 2015
As an applicant, from her home in Southern California, Maggie was drawn to Turkey, due to its position as a crossroads between the East and the West and due to its modern government within the Middle East. “I thought it would be really interesting to live in that culture.”
Fast forwarding to the end of her NSLI-Y program in Turkey and her cohort’s excursion to Cappadocia, Maggie reflected on the integrated nature of her life back “home” in Ankara, attending school and living with her host family. “During the Cappadocia excursion,” she recounts, “we really bonded. We saw the fairy chimneys, rode an elephant, and witnessed paintings and churches, thousands of years old, but it contrasted with our life in Ankara, where we were really immersed in everyday life.”
Maggie credits her host family, including her 12 year old host brother and 16 year old host sister, as the main catalyst for her language acquisition. Like other participants in her NSLI-Y cohort, Maggie started the program with little to no Turkish language experience. In the beginning, participants were able to “throw in a vocabulary word and try to act out the rest of the sentence;” but Maggie wanted to join the family’s living room and dinner table conversations. “My host mother did not speak English, so that really motivated me.” Due to Maggie’s commute to class, she needed to get up very early and usually spent mornings with her host mother. In the beginning, they sat in silence over breakfast, but by the end, Maggie really enjoyed morning conversations with her host mother.
Daily interactions with food vendors furthered her language abilities. Maggie and fellow participants applied phrases learned in the classroom to buy food and, when buying their lunch, they had no choice but to communicate in Turkish! The vendors were curious about the ethnic diversity within the group of American students and had plenty of questions for Maggie and her NSLI-Y friends. Eventually, their language skills improved. Turkish didn’t always come easily to Maggie. Although a typically quick learner, Maggie’s acquisition of Turkish felt slow; “That was difficult.” But she persevered and decided that to make maximum progress in Turkish, she’d need to study and practice on her own a lot.
Prior to arriving in Turkey, plenty of people warned Maggie to be careful, due to the fluctuating political climate. While Maggie acknowledges the importance of being cautious, she was relieved to feel very safe on program. Maggie advises future participants: “Don’t be afraid of the country… that you have a perceived notion that they’re going to treat you a certain way because of your skin color or the way that you look. A lot of times, maybe people will react initially to the way that you look, but once they get to know you, they like you as their friend.” She adds, “and always be safe.” In light of her own challenges with Turkish language learning, she advises, “You have to understand—you only get what you put into it. You have to put yourself out there! You have to speak as much Turkish as you can.” Maggie is now a freshman at the University of Southern California, seeking a degree in Health Promotion & Disease Prevention. She does not currently have access to Turkish classes on her campus, but plans to use online language resources to maintain her Turkish skills and to stay in touch with her host family. She still misses her favorite Turkish foods and fellow participants, but is grateful for the cultural and linguistic immersion experience that NSLI-Y provided.