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During this past spring break, I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Turkey in an all-expense-paid trip courtesy of the MIT-Sabancı University (SU) Freshman Scholar Program. A total of eight students were invited for a week-long stay at SU in Istanbul, Turkey by merit of their performance in freshman-level classes.

Established in 2004, the Freshman Scholar Program has allowed 8–10 top-performing students from SU to visit MIT for a week in April every year. This is the first year that MIT students were invited to Turkey. Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel Hastings PhD ’80, said that they decided to make the program reciprocal so that MIT students could get a sense of a first-rate Turkish institution of higher education.

A. Nihat Berker ’71, President of SU and Emeritus Professor of Physics at MIT, was chiefly responsible for the program. At Berker’s request, the various departments of MIT selected one to three current sophomores who had the highest grades in their freshman classes last spring as candidates for the program.

Each department selected students independently. Krishna Rajagopal, the Physics Department’s Associate Head of Education, went into the grade-books of 8.02 (Electricity & Magnetism), 8.022 (an advanced version of 8.02), and 8.03 (Vibratios & Waves) last spring and selected those with the top grades. However, there were seven eligible students by that criterion, and he was forced to break the tie using a random lottery.

Once we arrived at Istanbul, Berker greeted us at the airport and immediately gave us a personal tour of historic city, which is located right at the juncture of Europe and Asia. Each one of us was paired up with two “buddies,” one current and one past MIT-SU Freshman Scholar.

“I think what I enjoyed most [during the trip] was how friendly and welcoming everyone was to us,” said Priyanka Saha ’14, who was selected as an MIT-SU Scholar for her performance in 8.02. “President Berker was an amazing host and took such great care of us, and all the students were friendly and willing to spend time out of their schedule to make us feel at home.”

Both Berker and Hastings accompanied us for the majority of our visits to the cultural sites of Istanbul.

“Istanbul was the capital of two empires, and it was very interesting to see all the historical and cultural artifacts,” said Hastings.

“The most interesting thing I saw was the Spice Bazaar with dozens of kinds of Turkish delights. I didn’t even know some of those flavors could be made, let alone cut and eaten in a sweet desert,” said Daniel A. Mokhtari ’14, an MIT-SU Scholar chosen for his performance in 5.12 (Organic Chemistry I).

Amid our excursions in the city, we also witnessed a protest about the Kurdish people in Turkey. Arın Can Ülkü, one of our “buddies” and a current MIT-SU Scholar who came to MIT for the week immediately following our visit, said the Kurds’ cultural identities were suppressed by Turkish political authorities, which caused them to form a terrorist organization in the early 1980s.

“Now, Turkey is making very good progress in terms of cultural freedom, but it’s very hard to recover the traces of 80 years of hatred and greed,” said Ülkü.

In addition to seeing sights in Istanbul, we also learned about the higher education system in Turkey. For instance, we learned that there is a university entrance exam comprised of all multiple-choice questions that about 1.8 million high school students in Turkey take annually, which is the sole determining factor that allows students to get into colleges and obtain merit-based financial aid. There is also hardly any need-based financial aid in Turkish universities.

“Personally, I think it must be pretty stressful to have your entire future depend on one exam that you take on one day of your life. But I also think the [Turkish] system is much more transparent and not as gray as the American system, which seems very subjective and mysterious sometimes,” said Saha.

“Overall, I think the Turkish education system does a great job preparing students to travel outside of Turkey by teaching English and a mix of Islamic and European cultural traditions,” said Mokhtari.

Ülkü said the SU is a unique university in Turkey because it allows students to choose their major after they start studying. For other Turkish universities, one has to retake the college entrance exam again in order to change majors.

“I intended to study industrial engineering in my first year, then I changed my mind; so I took advantage of that system in SU,” said Ülkü, who is currently a electrical engineering major.

We also sat in on approximately 15 hours of classes at SU. In comparison to MIT, SU currently only has 2,713 undergraduate students, and its class sizes are typically much smaller.

“The most memorable class for me was ‘Culture and Cognition,’ a sociology class taught by a professor who did her PhD in the U.S.,” said Fangdi Sun ’14, whose marks in 7.013 (Introductory Biology) earned her a spot in the program, “The small class size fostered a conversational atmosphere with the professor, allowing us to raise examples from our own backgrounds and integrate these with the students’ knowledge of Turkish culture.”