It (was) a Tuesday. I happened to have a few free hours in my schedule, and I really wanted to sit down and just write down some of my thoughts. The last few months have been busy and hectic, and I haven’t had time to write for myself — one of the things that gives me great joy. So I wrote.
The story starts all the way back in 1959, or maybe it’s 1960 — we can’t quite be sure. The one thing my grandmother recalls is that it was a good wheat harvest the fall before my father was born. He arrived in the springtime. My mother was born about two years later in the same village, but again, we can’t know this with any certainty. She was also the first of what would be five devious, feisty children who caused their mother no shortage of grief and headaches. My parents were born and raised in the same small farming community in southern Turkey; a mountain valley deep in the Taurus Mountains. There was no electricity, no running water, and life was simple but hard. Spending time with my family, I get to hear stories of how life used to be before it was complicated by debt, technology, and the dissolution of the multi-generational family home. My mother used to ride a donkey up to the mountain to find ice in the summers, and the best treat was shaved ice drizzled with a sugary honey syrup. My father was a bit of a rebel, stealing melons from neighbors’ yards and getting chased through the fields. Although they lived two different lives, my parents had one thing in common. They were dreamers. They dreamed of a better life, and they recognized they would have to work their asses off and take serious risks to get it. So they did.
Fast forward to 1978, when my father and mother were young and idealistic, engaged in a protracted ideological conflict between the right-wing Islamists and the left-wing intellectuals that has since defined the social and political landscape in Turkey. My father left to study in the UK, thanks to his own brilliance and the generosity of a Turkish conglomerate. My mother stayed behind and witnesses first-hand the ravages of the Turkish coup, watching friends and classmates disappear or even worse, get killed in the conflict. Somehow, my father, at that point a PhD candidate at the Manchester Institute of Technology, convinced my mother, a beautiful, feisty accounting major from the Aegean University, to marry him and move to England. The photo albums and stories of their early years are as hilarious and they are heartbreaking. My father wore leather jackets and aviators, my mom in bell-bottoms and leather skirts. Whatever it was, that all changed in 1984 when my older brother arrived, 8 lbs of mischief behind a cute little smile. When my mom got pregnant with me a year later, my parents decided not to go back to Turkey, although it meant my father would have to pay a crushing amount of student debt, and we relocated to the Netherlands where my father began working for a chemical company as a young researcher.
I arrived in 1987, a fat baby with a full head of hair. Together with my brother, we were two adorable but mischievous toddlers. We had a wonderful childhood, and although our family didn’t own anything extravagant, we had a wealth of experience and stories. The Easter morning my brother and I stood outside our RV in the snow in the Alps, thinking we were in trouble while my parents were secretly hiding candy for an easter egg hunt. Our summers of sailing in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Southern France, jumping in and out of the water like little suntanned fish. Although we lived happy, content lives, the story was much different for my parents. They worked incredibly hard and faced many challenges trying to assimilate into a new culture, learning a new language, and trying to adapt to a new life with two crazy energetic children to boot. The world changed again in 1996, when I was ten, and we heard we were going to move to the US. I had visions of New York City, big buildings — a bustling city — and was surprised and relieved when we ended up in a quiet, sleepy town in Michigan. As a teenager, I was gangly and awkward. I loved reading and playing the piano, and I was always cooking up schemes to make some pocket money. Whether it was baking cookies for neighbors, mowing lawns, or teaching piano lessons, I was always up to something.
I first visited MIT in 2004, when I was a senior in high school. I was a good student, a decent athlete, and most importantly, a HUGE nerd. Although I didn’t look the part, I had my heart set on studying biochemistry and someday becoming a doctor. MIT seemed like a great school, and I was shocked when I visited on a drab, grey fall day. I took one look at Kendall Square and decided right then and there that I would never go to MIT. I ended up at Rice University, a small school in Houston, Texas, where it was always warm and sunny and the campus was full of green space and huge oak trees. I ended up studying mathematical economics but never lost my sense of curiosity and my annoying need to know everything. It’s highly likely that I’m a little bit of a smart-ass, and definitely true that I’m an over-achiever, and Rice instilled in me the curiosity and ability to view the world through a broader lens — one of understanding, empathy, and opportunity. Like my parents, I became a dreamer too.
I graduated from Rice in 2009, and I started my career right in the middle of one of the worst recessions in recent history. I was fortunate to have several job offers to choose from, and while I had my heart set on joining a trading desk at BP or Vitol, I somehow ended up in management consulting. I recall being in the interview, thinking it was for a finance position, and asking — “Is this a case interview?” It was. Consulting was a very fast-paced and challenging career for a young undergraduate, but it fueled my hunger for knowledge and rewarded my intense need to find answers to complex questions. The travel was familiar and easy, but the hours were difficult and the work ranged from transformative at best to insanely dull at worst, especially when processing large data sets or placing complex lunch orders. I was starting to progress through my career, working on highly visible, highly challenging projects and spending more time helping clients understand their challenges and building solutions for them. It was around 2012 that I got the itch to take try something different. I felt tired and uninspired, and I needed a change of environment to push me out of my apathy. Fortunately, my consulting firm offered a very generous sponsorship program for consultants who wanted to get an MBA, so I jumped at the opportunity.
I spent a few months visiting campuses and chatting with friends and colleagues in business school, and I took the GMAT immediately before a flight to China, managing to somehow get a enough decent score to encourage me to apply to top schools. I wrote my first essay in a hotel room in Tianjin, China, throwing up with food poisoning while trying to write a compelling essay that would convince the Harvard Admissions Committee I was an excellent candidate. My MIT Sloan applications went a bit better — no vomiting this time — and apparently I did something right! I was thrilled to learn that I had been offered a spot in the MIT Sloan Class of 2015. I decided to leave my job in early May, and travel for several months before starting school. While I was sad to leave my consulting firm, I was excited to experience new things and meet new people. Still a dreamer at heart, I started at MIT in 2013 with a head full of ideas and perspective on the world that would change and evolve over the next two years.
I am about to graduate from MIT. Like my father did all those years ago, I gave up my consulting sponsorship and am facing a crushing mountain of MBA debt. And that’s perfectly ok. As I look back on the two years I’ve spent at MIT, the one theme that keeps emerging is how much my perspective evolved and how much my thinking has changed. I haven’t stopped pushing and challenging myself, and I haven’t stopped dreaming. If anything, my world has expanded dramatically, and through my interactions with my classmates, friends, and colleagues, my belief in the ability of divergent thinking and a resilient, unbreakable work ethic has been confirmed time and time again.
I’ve met classmates who have done incredible things — things I would never have dreamed possible. I’ve worked with professors who have invented or created new fields of study, and applied their intelligence and expertise to solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
I feel excited about the journey ahead, but am also sad to leave a place that has been a source of inspiration, of self-doubt, and the knowledge that regardless of what happens over the course of a career or a lifetime, I will be just fine. I don’t know what’s next for me, or what the future holds (still unemployed!) but I do know that wherever I go and whatever I do, I have an amazing group of people in my life — my family, friends, classmates, and colleagues — to share it with.
It’s incredible to think my parents started their lives over 50 years ago in a small, rural village in Turkey with no electricity and no means to break the cycle of poverty. One generation later, in 50 short years lived across four intertwined lives, my parents and my brother will join me in early June to watch me walk in front of the icononic MIT dome to accept my diploma from one of the most prestigious MBA programs in the world. It’s almost unfathomable to imagine how quickly the world has changed. What hasn’t changed — we’re all still dreamers, and the dreams only keep getting bigger!