It was regarded by the ancient Greeks as the edge of the world due to its proximity to the Bosporus Strait, famous for the mythological “clashing rocks” that guarded the Black Sea. Later, it was known as Constantinople, the third capital of the Ottoman Empire. But to the students whose chatter provides a dull roar in the small conference room at Colorado Academy, Istanbul is just home.
“For most of us,” says 17-year old Can Sarioz, “it’s our first time abroad.”
Sarioz is one of eight Turkish students visiting Colorado Academy in an exchange that began this year with Üsküdar American Academy (ÜAA) in Istanbul, Turkey. The others sit around the conference table, chiming in with opinions of their first experiences in the U.S. “American school is more free and more creative,” says 16 year-old Aysenur Camci, about the lack of school uniforms and freedom between classes. As others laugh and nod in agreement or say otherwise, it’s clear this group can agree on only one thing — whether or not they’re enjoying their stay. They say almost in unison, “Yes.”
This marks the first year of the Turkey exchange, which was launched in 2014 when Upper School English teachers Tom Thorpe, the coordinator of this exchange, and Betsey Coleman received a grant to develop curriculum that incorporated Turkish literature, art, and culture in the ninth-grade English curriculum. The synergy between the two schools was undeniable, and so discussion about an exchange framed much of their visit.
“Both schools value innovation, strong student-teacher relationships, and prioritize student learning above all else,” says Thorpe. “ÜAA has to adhere to strong, Turkish Ministry of Education demands. One takeaway for CA students and teachers is how to meet these demands while at the same time promoting innovative excellence in the classroom.”
“We want CA students to get to know a Middle Eastern culture that is making significant contributions to the world economy and politics. The students who travel to Istanbul will get to know a predominately Muslim country that does not fit the stereotypes that fill our news cycles.”
Murat Barlas, a 15-year-old freshman, comments on the type of excellence he’s seen at CA through project-based learning. “Courses like Innovations: Electronics and Robotics,” he says, “actually make you better at things you are interested in. If you want to be engineer, I think having a lesson like Innovations is better than a math course.”
While the students are here to understand American culture and education, they are also trying to decide whether or not they want to apply to colleges in the U.S. During their stay, they visited the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Denver.
“It’s a way to see if I’m able to or not,” says Ayse. “I wanted to see what American life is like, schoolwise and outside of school.”
Their visit is the second in a three-part exchange between the two schools. The first took place in October 2014 when four high school teachers from ÜAA visited CA. The final part will take place in late March when six CA students will travel with Thorpe and Upper School Principal Dr. Jon Vogels to Istanbul.
“Ultimately,” says Thorpe, “we want CA students to get to know a Middle Eastern culture that is making significant contributions to the world economy and politics. The students who travel to Istanbul will get to know a predominately Muslim country that does not fit the stereotypes that fill our news cycles.”
It’s a topic that hangs in the conference room, and one Murat doesn’t shy away from. “Sometimes I’m surprised by the questions I get,” he says. “I thought people might know more about Turkey because of our location.”
Bridging Europe and Asia and once regarded as the most multicultural city in the world, Istanbul resides in a country whose geography has shaped both its past and present. Notably, Turkey borders Iraq and Syria — both countries where territory is controlled by militants of the Islamic State, known as ISIS.
CA sophomore Sophia Schlager, who hosted exchange student Asra Polat, and will visit Turkey in March, says she’s most looking forward to getting to understand a culture that’s completely foreign to her. “Because, when you travel abroad,” she says, “you gain more knowledge about the world as a whole, which breaks our ignorance. It breaks the stereotypes people set upon cultures, societies, and countries, and creates a better community overall.”