At Harvard, concentration declaration—that is choosing a major—is a significant step in the collegiate experience. For most students, this might be a fairly ordinary event as they join departments with hundreds of peers all studying the same topics. Government, psychology, and economics concentrators display their academic choices to all who will give nominal affirmation, whether it’s Facebook friends, relatives, or onlookers in the dining hall. But, if you study something as “obscure” as Turkish and Middle Eastern history, be sure to brace yourself for the visceral shock of anyone in a five-foot radius. “That’s so niche,” “What will you ever do with that degree,” and “I didn’t even know Turkish was a language,” are all likely comments.
Whenever (inevitably) someone asks me to justify my study of Turkish, NSLI-Y is always part of my answer. Had I not been able to study Turkish in high school, I certainly would have taken a very different path in college. That’s the great thing about study abroad: you never know what you will take away from your experience and how it will change you. My journey with Turkish started with NSLI-Y and has since been incredibly rewarding. I’ve been able to study Turkish literature in an old monastery on the island of Cunda, assist Harvard librarians with the cataloging texts written in Turkish and Ladino, and have analyzed the political implications of modern mosque architecture in Istanbul.
Aside from the academic and professional opportunities that NSLI-Y opened, it was extremely valuable to have met and become friends with a group of people who had a shared interest in foreign affairs. To this day, some of my closest friends are the ones with whom I bonded over endless glasses of çay in the student cafés of Ankara.
Along those lines, I would say to anyone who is thinking about applying, go for it. It’s impossible to quantify the NSLI-Y experience and it definitely will open your eyes to new worlds. Before leaving the U.S. for Turkey, my orientation leader recited a Mevlana (Rumi) quote to us: “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” His words are particularly relevant for all new generations of applicants. NSLI-Y Interactive has plenty of intriguing pieces to read, but, at the end of the day, the most important journey is your own.