The Stories They Told: Cigdem’s America, the Excitement of Freedom

By THO Team Member, Caelan Elliot

The Fourth of July celebrates America’s independence from Great Britain and birth as the “land of the free, and the home of the brave.” While these sentiments can sometimes ring hollow at a time of extreme political divides and restrictive pandemic quarantines, listening to the perspectives of others who have come to America can help us to better appreciate the beauty of our nation and see it in a new light.

Turkish student Cigdem Ozkan, in particular, has such love and enthusiasm for the freedom she enjoys in the U.S., clearly seen from her expressive hands and excited voice.  A PhD candidate in Civil Engineering at the University of Central Florida who will graduate this October, Cigdem has a particular interest in renewable energy, mitigating coastal erosion, and harnessing the power of the waves. “I’ve always been interested in studying the oceans, in understanding them more.” Although she was happy working in Turkey and living with her family, “there was something missing. I wanted to just go out and explore, learn more about the oceans. I’m very passionate about the environment and I wanted to take part in building a better environment; the U.S. was a very good opportunity for that.”

Per the custom for unmarried young women in Turkey, Cigdem lived at home with her parents before coming to the U.S. “I had been like a baby in my household. I wasn’t responsible for winning the bread; paying the bills; getting health insurance of my own.” She wondered to herself,  “Am I going to be able to do that? Am I going to be able to pull this off?” For the first time, Cigdem would be cooking for herself and running her own life, thousands of miles across the ocean from her family. But despite the uncertainty, Cigdem looked forward with anticipation to improving her language skills, starting her PhD program, and making friends.

It is not surprising that some aspects of such an enormous life change came with difficulty. Paying for utilities for the first time, buying her own car, and managing repairs on her own was a challenge. Cigdem also lacked confidence in her language skills, initially so self-conscious that she would not even venture to order a coffee at Starbucks! “I felt so alone in the first 2 years. It was really frustrating. I’m really grateful for the Turkish community in Orlando. They helped me a lot.”

But Cigdem has been in the U.S. for five years, and has come to love the excitement and activity of her city—“There’s a lot to do in Orlando!” Coming from Ankara, Orlando struck Cigdem as “a whole new world.” She enjoys the theme parks; the beaches; the ability to choose what she wants to do; the freedom even just to wear a pair of shorts outside. A lover of all things outdoorsy, she relishes being able to take a scenic walk or bike around the lakes and feel safe doing so. She has even mastered the Starbucks run—“I have a nickname,” she says laughing. “I go by Chee. But it’s cool; people get used to anything.” 

Cigdem loves that the freedom of speech and expression that she imagined about America before she came are a reality for her. She feels that opportunities and possibilities abound, and for the first time, she gets to truly make choices, shoulder responsibility, and build her own life. “Being alone was tough initially, but at the end of the day it really helps me grow, personally and professionally. I have the chance to be with myself and listen to myself and explore my personality. Being able to say ‘this is my life and I’m doing it’ is priceless.” 

No place is perfect, and the U.S. has many issues to work through. In fact, that will probably never change. But as we reflect on our nation and its beginnings, seeing it through the eyes of others might help to remind us of all the good and beautiful parts of it that we take for granted.