Year of Carnage in Turkey Derails Academic Exchange with U.S.

October 29, 2016

More than two months after Turkey withstood a bloody coup attempt, the Turkish people are still feeling the reverberations.

The carnage came on the heels of a difficult year for Turkey.  A string of bombings killed hundreds across the country, while relations with its oldest and most vital ally, the United States, became increasingly strained.

During this fragile time in a bilateral relationship that stretches back decades, we need more than ever to strengthen – not weaken – the ties that bind us together.  This includes building upon the academic exchange programs that for decades have served as a critical tool of public diplomacy.

After the coup attempt in July, the Fulbright program in Turkey received some difficult news: the 2016-2017 English Teaching Assistant program would be suspended.  While scholars and researchers will still be able to carry out their grant periods in Turkey, nearly 80 ETA awardees will not be so lucky.

Since 1951, Turkey has been sending its top scholars and students to the U.S. each year as part of the Fulbright program.  In the 2000s, the program began taking on American students as ETAs.  It quickly took off, and by 2011, Turkey was offering the fourth largest number of ETA positions to potential Fulbrighters, and it received the sixth largest number of applications.

While the importance of academic exchange in fostering positive interactions between countries is a constant, it becomes more acute in times of tension between governments.  Since the start of the Cold War, the U.S. and Turkey have been strong allies.  Turkey joined NATO in 1952, and since that time it has been a crucial security partner.  While it was once a bulwark against communism, in the present day it serves as the front line against the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and as one of the most important players in remedying the refugee crisis.

However, in recent years, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has experienced greater tension over security concerns.  When government-to-government relations founder, the connections between the people of each country keep the relationship humming.  At the heart of people-to-people relations are the various exchange programs that allow American and Turkish citizens to improve upon their education while building strong bonds with newfound friends and colleagues.

The Fulbright program is just one way thousands of American and Turkish students and scholars can engage in U.S.-Turkey academic exchange each year.  The impact of these programs is significant: in the 2014-2015 academic year, 10,724 Turkish students studied in the U.S. – the second highest number among European countries and the 13th highest among countries worldwide.  In 2014, the economic impact of Turkish students studying in the U.S. was 368 million USD.

It is undoubtable that Turkey is experiencing considerable instability, and it is understandable that government programs and academic institutions are erring on the side of caution when considering sending students to Turkey.  Yet there are students – including some of those who had received the now suspended Fulbright ETA grants – who may still like the opportunity to travel to and live in Turkey.

Academic exchange remains one of the best vehicles for Americans to experience Turkey in an immersive experience.  Some programs – such as SUNY Binghamton's Dual Diploma Program – remain open, but the vast majority are closed for the time being.  In the coming year, the lack of academic exchange opportunities may prevent as many as 2,000 American students from experiencing the unique benefits of studying abroad in Turkey.

The first priority of government agencies and academic institutions with exchange programs to Turkey should be to get these programs back online as soon as possible.  This means evaluating the security situation honestly and understanding its true projected impact on American students abroad.  Universities should consider the possibility of allowing students to study abroad in Turkey in exceptional cases – perhaps, for example, requiring that students wishing to study abroad in Turkey attain a certain level of Turkish before they do so, or implementing an orientation that prepares students for the political and security situation in the country.

In the absence of exchange opportunities in Turkey, the U.S. government, academic institutions, and even the private sector should consider investing in programs that will allow for immersive Turkish language study on U.S. soil.  The Turkish Flagship Center at Indiana University is one such program that can be expanded and replicated, while the Middlebury Language Schools can serve as additional inspiration.  Additionally, a greater number of dedicated Turkey studies programs should be established or expanded in political science, history, and international relations departments across the country.  Such U.S.-based programs will not only serve as a fallback when exchange programs to Turkey are suspended, but will also increase the number of American students with the knowledge necessary to strengthening the U.S.-Turkey partnership in the years to come.

Audrey Williams is a former Fulbright scholar and program coordinator at the Turkish Heritage Organization, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

Photograph source: Created by Maria Jonafe Aguila for THO. Photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge (left) taken by Roystone Kane, (c)2013. Photograph of the Bosphorus Bridge (right) taken by Audrey Williams, (c)2012.