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Semester Abroad at Sabanci University, Turkey

Hugo Paquin

Among the reasons why I chose the International and Diplomatic Studies (IDS) program, the fact that it featured a semester abroad was an important one. As a graduate student, especially in a field such as International Relations (IR), the geographical location and social setting in which you choose to complete your education is as much part of the learning experience as the courses you take up. The intent behind this article is to underline the motivations behind the choice of Sabanci Universitesi (Istanbul) as my Erasmus destination.

2014-09-10 15.35.57First and foremost, I must confess that it was Istanbul more than the actual partner university that brought me to Turkey. While Sabanci has a reputation for being a prestigious institution with world class facilities and an extremely qualified staff, what particularly enticed me was the exoticism of the city formerly known as Constantinople. Hundreds of thousands of tourists incessantly visit it every year, but I wanted more than to catch a quick glimpse of the Blue Mosque, snap a few pictures of the Bosphorus and eat a couple of baklavas near Taksim Square. I wanted to live in Istanbul, experience it in all its forms, discover its hidden alleyways, explore its less-frequented markets and its more remote neighborhoods, and at the same time use it to understand modern Turkey and its people.

I was particularly interested in the political climate in the city, considering my Erasmus would take place only one year after the Gezi park protests. (As my roommate in Istanbul accurately pointed out: “Protesting is actually the national sport in Turkey, not football.”) Having borders with the EU, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the country itself is sort of an geopolitical nexus, located at the intersection of incredibly rich political theaters. To put it mildly, it seemed like a stimulating environment. As my 5-months exchange unfolded, it did not disappoint in that regard.

I first landed at Ataturk Airport, which hints you at the first historical lesson and cultural requirement you need to know about regarding Turkey. (Hint: Ataturk took over after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and is known as the father of modern Turkey. His face is everywhere.) Within half an hour after landing, I was treated with an healthy dose of the world-famous Istanbul traffic (ranked #2 in the world after Jakarta). My Turkish friends had told me about the craziness of Istanbul traffic, but until you experience it at the first degree, you never fully grasp how soul-crushing it really is. I was stuck there in a bus for one hour on my way to Taksim square, which is pretty much the heart of the city. From there I ventured onto Istiklal street, one of most crowded area of Istanbul that is lined by kebab and sweet shops, clubs, street food vendors and musicians, clothing stores, souvenir shops, etc. This offers a glimpse into life on the ‘European’ side, where there are more tourists than on the ‘Asian’ or Anatolian side.

This is where Sabanci University is located, which means that most of the Erasmus stay on that side as well, mostly in the Kadıköy neighbourhood. The reason being, it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours to go by shuttle to the school campus from Kadıköy, which would make it almost suicidal to stay across the Bosphorus. I cannot emphasize this enough: Istanbul traffic is no joke. There are several ways to get around, whether its taxi, bus, minibus (also known as dolmuṣ), metro, tram, boat, etc. Whatever the mode of transportation, it remains constantly difficult to avoid either crowds or gridlocks, even in the most unsuspecting hours of the night. Kadıköy is a very nice area to stay in for its location (right on the sea side, superbly connected to the rest of the city) but also because of its fish market full of fruit and fish vendors, its restaurants, great coffee shops and various cool bars. It also offers several accommodation options. I personally found a flat with 7 other Erasmus students through Facebook, which I thought was a nice setting for an exchange, but I encourage anyone to shop around for their temporary home as you can truly find god-awful apartments as well as very charming, comfortable ones. Whether on Facebook, Craig’s list or Airbnb, there is a lot of choice as Erasmus students come and go – so look around! (Note that the dorms at Sabanci are as expensive, if not more, than a flat in the city.)

IMG_0221Regarding school, Sabanci University was truly one of the great surprises of my exchange. First of all, the campus is amazing – huge library, great coffee shops and restaurants on campus, state-of-the-art gym and sports facilities, large and modern classrooms, etc. It must be said that the name of Sabanci is very well known through Istanbul and Turkey, being one of the wealthiest and most successful families in the country. The university is aimed at the elite, is accompanied by a reputation of prestige, and its reputation precedes it throughout the Middle East and South Asia.

IMG_0232As for the curriculum, it offers various elective courses that complement well what IDS offers. There is a lot of choice regarding the topic of the classes, ranging from conflict resolution, political science, negotiation, Turkish politics and foreign policy, etc. Personally, I also found the teachers excellent and had impressive backgrounds. Many of them are actual practitioners of what they teach, have done lots of research, published their work, studied at several prestigious institutions in the U.S and U.K. There are also many academic and social clubs at school which you can take advantage of. The classes were well-structured, participative and had lots of quality material. I have nothing but positive comments about the quality of the academic body at Sabanci, and thought it was extremely motivating.

The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) at Sabanci is also fairly well organized. They will take you in charge from day one, will make sure you discover the best of the city, will organize road trips and expeditions outside of Istanbul, will help you with all the administrative paperwork and bureaucratic requirements of the Turkish state (the worst part of my exchange, for full disclosure) and will throw several parties every week. You are in good hands with them.

IMG_0156In retrospect, I very much enjoyed exchange experience. Graduate studies at Sabanci offer a substantial workload which on one hand should not be taken lightly, but on the other is reasonable enough to allow for travel (and party) time. As for Istanbul, it is hard to put into words how unique the city is. At times you hate how crowded, noisy, intense and relentless it can be. The bureaucratic nightmare you have to go through to get your residence permit is infuriating. But most of the time, it feels unique and magical. The ferry rides from one side of the Bosphorus to the other while eating a simit or drinking a çay (Turkish tea), playing tavla (backgammon) while smoking narguile in a coffeeshop, watching football or basketball with some of the most enthusiastic fans in the world, travelling to ancient ruins or going to the beach, relaxing in the harbor to the sound of the call to prayer and the seagulls… When I left, it felt like I had barely scratched the surface of this incredible, historical place. If you are looking for a stimulating environment to study in, a city full of contrasts and constantly changing and evolving, Istanbul might just be the perfect place.

(They say an image is worth a thousand words; I found this video to be a perfect example of the sometimes overwhelming ”whirlwind” feeling you get from living in Turkey.)