Audrey Williams

Academic exchanges are a major driver of positive people-to-people relations in the age of globalization. In the field of international education, they facilitate the spread of knowledge and foster collaboration and innovation. In the field of international relations, they are a key public diplomacy tool that cultivates mutual understanding.

While students and scholars on exchange often stay for short periods in their host countries – ranging from a few weeks and months to the length of time required for the completion of a degree – they are often fundamentally changed by their experiences, and many of them maintain the connections they made during their exchanges. [1] They also often report a broadened worldview and a better understanding of cultures different from their own. [2] 

Students and scholars participating academic exchange and study abroad often become citizen diplomats, demystifying misperceptions of their countries abroad even as their own perceptions of their host countries are being broadened and deepened. They are also the best fit to become future diplomats, military officials, business leaders, and academics who can use their unique experiences abroad – including crucial language skills – to further constructive relations between their own countries and their host countries. 

The U.S. and Turkey have a long history of collaboration on academic exchange and study abroad. However, the recent security situation in Turkey has drastically reduced the opportunities for American students to study in Turkey.

The Case of the U.S. and Turkey

While the importance of academic exchanges 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 flounder, it is the connections between the peoples of each country that keep the relationship going. 

Study Abroad and Academic Exchanges

At the heart of people-to-people relations are the various academic exchange and study abroad programs that allow American and Turkish citizens to improve upon their education while building strong bonds with newfound friends and colleagues.

In the 2014/15 academic year, 10,724 Turkish students studied in the U.S., the 2nd highest number among European countries and the 13th highest among countries worldwide. [3] In 2014, the economic impact of Turkish students studying in the U.S. was 368 million USD. [4]

Americans tend to study in Turkey in smaller numbers compared to their Turkish counterparts. 2,163 Americans studied in Turkey in the 2013/14 academic year, a low number compared to the Turkish students studying in the U.S., but still the highest recorded by the Institute of International Education (IIE). However, in 2014/15, only 1,889 American students studied abroad in Turkey, a 12.7% decrease from the year before and the lowest number since 2009/10. [5]

Turkey’s security situation likely played a role in the decrease as terror attacks became more frequent. However, events in 2016 in Turkey precipitated not just a drop in American students studying in Turkey but a full suspension of a majority of study abroad and exchange programs to Turkey for U.S. students.

On July 15, 2016, a faction in the Turkish Armed Forces attempted to topple Turkey’s democratically elected government. Though the coup attempt was eventually thwarted, 238 people lost their lives standing up against the putsch, and the country has since been under a state of emergency. [6]

The coup attempt came on the heels of a difficult year in Turkey. In 2016 alone, at least 12 major terror attacks carried out by ISIS, the PKK, and TAK killed more than 200 people and wounded almost 900. [7]

As the Turkish people grapple with increased instability, the recent spate of attacks has also affected a core driver of the U.S.-Turkey relationship: academic exchanges and study abroad. Since 1950, Turkey has been sending its top scholars and students to the U.S. each year as part of the Fulbright program. Not long after the launch of the program for Turkish citizens, American scholars and researchers were also visiting Turkey under Fulbright. In the 2000s, the program began bringing American students to Turkey as English Teaching Assistants (ETAs). Between 2011 and 2015, Turkey offered the fourth highest number of ETA positions, and it received the sixth highest number of applications. [8]

But after July 15, the 2016/17 ETA program was suspended. While researchers were still able to carry out their grant periods in Turkey, nearly 80 ETA awardees were not so lucky. [9] The ETA program is scheduled to be reinstated in the 2018/19 academic year – but only 20 grants will be given, and grantees will largely be placed in Ankara. [10]

Many other U.S. academic exchange and study abroad programs in Turkey, both governmental and non-governmental, have been suspended or relocated for the time being. Some programs were suspended or otherwise altered before July 15, 2016. For example, during the summer of 2016, the students studying Turkish with the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program were taken to Baku, Azerbaijan. The program will also take place in Baku during the summer 2017 term. [11] Many academic institutions with study abroad programs and exchanges in Turkey have also suspended their programs for the foreseeable future, often citing security concerns. [12] 

In such an environment, common sense would dictate that fewer American students would choose to enroll in Turkish academic institutions. However, according to Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (known by its Turkish acronym, YOK), in the 2016/17 school year, there were 472 American students enrolled in Turkish higher education institutions as full-time students. [13] This number includes students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral studies as well as vocational training, but it does not reflect the number of students studying abroad in Turkey.

Interestingly, this number is higher than in previous years. In the 2015/16 academic year, there were 334 American students enrolled in Turkish higher education institutions. [14] In 2014/15, the number was 345, and in 2013/14, the number was 246. [15]

The 2016/17 figure would suggest that the security situation in Turkey has not had a negative impact on the number of American students seeking to fully enroll in Turkish higher education institutions.

IIE’s figures for American students studying abroad in Turkey in 2015/16 and 2016/17 are not yet available. However, with very limited opportunities for American students to study abroad in Turkey as part of their U.S.-based degrees, it is likely these figures will be much lower than in previous years. 

The State of American Studies in Turkey and Turkish Studies in the U.S.

Beyond study abroad and academic exchanges, both American and Turkish students can receive exposure to the history, politics, literature, and culture of both countries through domestic academic programs focused on American and Turkish studies. 

In Turkey, American studies programs began to emerge at universities following World War II as part of a broader effort by the U.S. government, as well as foundations like the Carnegie Corporation, to promote greater understanding of American culture and history worldwide. These efforts were part of America’s growing public diplomacy effort against communism during the Cold War. [16]

The Fulbright Act of 1946 as well as the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 helped lay the groundwork for the spread of American studies abroad in general as well as its growth as a discipline in Turkey. [17] In 1949, the U.S. and Turkey signed a binational agreement to establish the Turkish Fulbright Commission, which officially began operating in 1950. [18]

In addition to facilitating student and faculty exchanges between the U.S. and Turkey, the Fulbright program supported the development of American Studies programs at Turkish universities. Ankara University was one of the first institutions to begin offering courses on American literature, first under the department of English Language and Literature and eventually under its own separate American Language and Literature program. American scholars, often as part of the Fulbright program or with its assistance, played a key role in developing further programs. [19]

Today, American studies in Turkey still largely takes the form of American Language and Literature departments and programs. Eight universities have such departments, into which students are able to place as part of the nationwide YGS-LYS test system. All Turkish student must take the YGS and LYS tests in order to place into departments at specific universities. The department in which a student can study, as well as the university where a student can enroll, depends upon the scores that the student receives on these tests.

Many additional Turkish universities have incorporated American studies courses into their existing departments for English Language and Literature. Some universities also offer American history, politics, and foreign policy courses as well. 

Turkish studies in the U.S. is also often subsumed into wider programs, especially those that focus on Middle Eastern or Near Eastern studies. The courses on offer include studies of literature, culture, history, politics, and foreign policy.  

According to research done by the Institute of Turkish Studies as well as Harvard University’s program on Ottoman and Turkish Studies, approximately 18 universities in the U.S. offer comprehensive coursework on Turkish studies, which can include language study, history, politics, culture, and literature. Some of these universities have centers or institutes focusing on Turkish studies. [20]

According to the American Association of Teachers of Turkic Languages, 44 higher education institutions in the U.S. traditionally offer Turkish-language programs, though two (Brigham Young University and the University of Utah) were not offering Turkish as of January 2016. [21] These institutions represent 22 states and the District of Columbia. Of the four regions of the U.S. (as divided by the Census Bureau), the Northeast boasts 18 of the total 44 higher education institutions on this list; four of these are part of the Five College Consortium, which allows students from separate colleges to partake in the same course offerings of Turkish. 

This list is not exhaustive of all Turkish language offerings at American higher education institutions. Other higher education institutions in the U.S. may be able to occasionally offer Turkish. For example, each year the Turkish Fulbright Commission offers Foreign Language Teaching Assistantship (FLTA) grants to Turkish citizens to teach basic Turkish language courses at American colleges and universities. Some universities that normally do not have Turkish courses may occasionally have a Turkish FLTA in residence.

Quality resources for Turkish language education in the U.S. are still limited. More than half of U.S. states do not have any universities with sustained Turkish language instruction, much less Turkish studies programs in general. For American students who wish to pursue Turkish studies, and especially Turkish language instruction, the U.S.-based options are few, while the majority of Turkey-based options as part of study abroad and exchange programs are now no longer available.


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 as part of study abroad and academic exchange programs. Yet there are students – including some of those who had received the suspended 2016/17 Fulbright ETA grants – who may still like the opportunity to travel to and live in Turkey.

Study abroad and exchange programs remain some of the best vehicles for Americans to experience Turkey in an immersive environment. In the coming years, the lack of academic exchange opportunities may prevent as many as 2,000 American students per year from experiencing the unique benefits of study abroad in Turkey. Additionally, immersive experiences are essential to language-learning; without Turkish programs that take place in Turkey, the number of Americans who attain fluency in Turkish will shrink. As a result, the U.S. may find itself with a paucity of citizens who have the language skills and in-country experience necessary to become the next generation of quality Turkey specialists. As a result, U.S.-Turkey relations will suffer.

The suspension of these programs also limits the opportunities for American and Turkish citizens to interact with each other in a way that fosters understanding of their countries beyond newspaper headlines and pop culture. In a time when the publics of both countries are exposed to increasingly negative narratives about their allies across the Atlantic, positive and genuine people-to-people relations are more important than ever to maintain a constructive U.S.-Turkey partnership.

Given Turkey’s security environment and a current State Department travel warning that cautions Americans to “[c]arefully consider the need to travel to Turkey at this time” – a warning that many schools have cited in their decision to suspend their Turkey-based programs – it is likely that many study abroad and exchange programs may be shuttered for the near future. [22]

However, there are a number of actions that can be taken and initiatives that can be explored to ensure that American and Turkish students can still engage with each other in environments that support their academic training while fostering cultural understanding.

1.   Bring more Turkish students to the U.S. If American and Turkish students are less able to interact in Turkey, then more Turkish students can be supported to study in the U.S. on exchange programs and allow for those connections to be made on U.S. campuses. Supporting Turkish cultural programs facilitated by Turkish student associations and Turkish studies programs – especially at campuses where a smaller Turkish community means less exposure to these types of programs – can also help foster understanding of Turkish culture, even if such activities are no substitute for traveling to and living in Turkey.

2.   Build non-traditional exchange programs. During times when physical exchanges are untenable, virtual exchanges can offer an alternative. Online courses have become a staple of American universities in the Internet age, and advances in video communications technology can allow for virtual discussions between American and Turkish students. These programs can also allow American and Turkish students who may not be able to participate in physical study abroad or exchange programs even in the best of times to connect with each other in an academic setting.

3.   Improve U.S.-based Turkish studies programs. Despite government campaigns that define Turkish as a language that is “critical” to U.S. national security, American students still have few options for studying Turkish in the U.S. Many universities lack dedicated Turkish language programs; far fewer have anything resembling Turkish studies. For many students seeking to learn more about Turkey and even specialize in Turkish studies, exchange programs provide one of the only viable methods to learn Turkish and take classes examining modern Turkey. A comprehensive, multi-sector push to develop Turkish studies in the U.S. is needed if U.S.-Turkey relations are to grow stronger in the coming decades. Such a strategy is even more crucial if academic exchanges and study abroad remain limited due to the security situation in Turkey. U.S.-based immersive Turkish language programs where English language use is restricted are especially crucial at a time when even government programs like the Critical Language Scholarship are no longer taking place in Turkey. [23]

The above recommendations would be best brought about through robust public-private partnerships. While the U.S. government has played a crucial role in developing American studies in Turkey as well as U.S.-Turkey exchange programs, it is not guaranteed that this funding can be diverted to new, innovative programs. In fact, the continuation of existing funding may be in peril. If passed, the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal would cut State Department funding by 30%, a blow that would be felt across all of the institution’s programming, including its work on academic, professional, and cultural exchanges. [24]

The business community can step in where government funding leaves off. The business community can establish scholarships that help under-represented students or students at universities without Turkish studies and language programs to attend universities that do have these resources, such as Indiana University, which is home to the Turkish Flagship Center. [25] Scholarships can also be provided to bring Turkish students to the U.S. The business community can also support the establishment of new Turkish studies programs and initiatives, just as the Sabanci family did with the recent establishment of a Center for Turkish Studies at Columbia University. [26]

The U.S. and Turkey remain close allies with a long history of collaboration, especially in the academic sector. The current downturn in academic exchanges and study abroad may be temporary, but even if it lasts only four years, a whole class of American undergraduate students will likely not have the opportunity to study in Turkey. 

As long as the security environment prevents American higher education institutions from sending students to Turkey, it is imperative for stakeholders from both the public and private sectors to explore alternatives that will ensure that the academic ties between the U.S. and Turkey remain strong. In the long term, investments in non-traditional exchange initiatives and U.S.-based Turkish studies programs will also go a long way toward ensuring that American students can become Turkey specialists that have the training and experience they need to contribute to a strong, constructive U.S.-Turkey relationship in the decades to come.


[1] SRI International. (2005, June). Outcome assessment of the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Program. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State. Retrieved from
[2] Ungar, S. F. (2016). The study abroad solution. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from
[3] Institute of International Education. (2016). Leading places of origin. In Open doors report on international educational exchange. Retrieved from
[4] Institute of International Education. (2016). Open doors fact sheet: Turkey. Retrieved from
[5] Ibid.
[6] Anadolu Agency. (2016). Democracy triumphs in Turkey: FETO’s coup attempt in Turkey, a timeline. Ankara: Mega Basim Yayin San. ve Tic. A.S. Retrieved from
[7] Turkish Heritage Organization. (2017, January). A review of U.S.-Turkey relations in 2016 and looking ahead in 2017. Washington, D.C.: Turkish Heritage Organization.
[8] 8 must know Fulbright ETA statistics for 2017-2018. (2016, April 14). ProFellow. Retrieved from
[9] Hartocollis, A. (2016, August 5). State Department, citing security, suspends teaching program in Turkey. The New York Times. Retrieved from
[10] Turkey. (n.d.). Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Accessed May 22, 2017. Retrieved from
[11] CLS Turkish. (n.d.). Critical Language Scholarship. Accessed May 22, 2017. Retrieved from
[12] Lynn, K. (27 July 2016). Boren suspends study abroad programs in Turkey. OU Daily. Retrieved from
[13] Number of foreign students by nationality, 2016-2017. (2017). Council of Higher Education of Turkey. Retrieved from
[14] Number of foreign students by nationality, 2015-2016. (2016). Council of Higher Education of Turkey. Retrieved from
[15] See: Number of foreign students by nationality, 2014-2015. (2015). Council of Higher Education of Turkey. Retrieved from; Number of foreign students by nationality, 2013-2014. (2014). Council of Higher Education of Turkey. Retrieved from
[16] Pakin, E. (2008). American studies in Turkey during the “Cultural Cold War.” Turkish Studies, 9(3), 507-524. DOI: 10.1080/14683840802267520
[17] Ibid.
[18] Turkiye Fulbright Egitim Komisyonu Tarihcesi [History of the Turkish Fulbright Commission]. (n.d.). Turkish Fulbright Commission. Accessed May 22, 2017. Retrieved from
[19] Esra Pakin (2008).
[20] See: Other Ottoman and Turkish studies programs. (n.d.). Harvard University Ottoman and Turkish Studies Program. Accessed on May 22, 2017. Retrieved from; Turkish studies programs in the United States. (n.d.). Institute of Turkish Studies. Accessed May 22, 2017. Retrieved from
[21] Turkish language instruction at academic institutions in the U.S. and Canada. (2016, January). American Association of Teachers of Turkic Languages. Retrieved from
[22] Turkey travel warning. (2017, March 28). U.S. Department of State. Retrieved from
[23] One such program is the Arabic, Persian, Turkish Language Immersion Institute (APTLII) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which is a summer program at which students must use their target language almost exclusively throughout the entire program. Students are allowed to use the English language only in emergencies and during pre-determined blocks of time. Even English-language consumption – such as through books, television, and social media – is restricted. There are also intensive summer Turkish programs at universities like Arizona State University (Critical Languages Institute) and the University of Chicago (Summer Language Institute), but though intensive language programs are a good start, immersion programs are especially important when students are unable to go to Turkey for the immersion experience.
[24] Wilkinson, T. (2017, May 23). Proposed budget would deeply cut State Department and its programs. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from
[25] Turkish Flagship Program. (n.d.). Indiana University Bloomington. Accessed May 22, 2017. Retrieved from
[26] New chair and Center for Turkish Studies created at Columbia. (2016, June 14). Columbia News. Retrieved from