As a third year PhD student, I am starting my language learning late, but it is a critical component to my research and therefore to my future. My University of Illinois campus in Chicago does not offer Turkish courses. In 2016-2017, I took a full year of Turkish at Northwestern through campus reciprocity agreements, but when I finished those courses, there were no others available. My only option was to travel for Turkish. In the Spring of 2018, I was frantically trying to figure out how I would be able to continue my language training in Turkey over the summer when I received my letter from the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center on the Urbana-Champaign campus, that they were offering me funding through their Foreign Language and Area Studies grant. Not only was this grant sufficient to cover my living expenses over the summer, but the tuition funding was substantial enough to allow me to take what is known to be the best Turkish language program in Istanbul, at Bogazici University. In that moment I went from being a poor graduate student trying to piece things together just well enough to get the training I need to having institutional support and their vote of confidence. I took that night off and celebrated, but it took several days for the relief to fully sink in.
I had been to Istanbul in the summer of 2017 as well, but my language skills were still marginal and I had not been able to push past my anxiety well enough to engage native speakers. This summer was different. I woke up every morning at 7am in an apartment that I shared with local Turkish college students, and I took the bus to the Bogazici campus. Once there, we were expected to speak exclusively in Turkish, at least as best as we could, and out of necessity but in this environment of support I gradually became comfortable communicating in Turkish. We had four lessons every day and then visiting speakers or cultural activities, and in these full days of study, I made friends that I hope will be a part of my life for the rest of my life. I went to Turkish folk music shows, traveled on the weekends to the coast or to Ankara, and I became really familiar and comfortable with Istanbul and with Turkish culture.
Most importantly, my language skills have improved to the point where I can now begin my research. Over the summer I spent some time in the official state archives and was able to understand content well enough to utilize the sources as references. This year I will defend my dissertation proposal and begin my formal research. I am studying heritage politics and how historic agricultural landscapes of Turkey inform its national identity. Next summer I will continue my language instruction and begin ethnographic research in some of Turkey’s most ancient agricultural communities. I hope that my research will lead to popular and political recognition of agricultural heritage landscapes as valuable assets. In the future I would like to continue to do research in this field, but I would also like to engage directly in heritage politics and work with organizations advocating for the preservation of important cultural memories. In all of these ambitions, the funding I received from REEEC has given me a critical stepping stone in a place where before there were none.
Rebecca Clendenen is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.