The Importance of U.S. Exchange Programs in Turkey

By: Danielle Cyr, THO Non-Resident Fellow

In 2010, I embarked on the journey of a lifetime as a recipient of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y)scholarship to travel to Trabzon, Turkey and learn Turkish. The NSLI-Y program provides full summer and academic year scholarships for U.S. high school students to study one of eight critical languages in various countries such as Tajikistan, Russia, China, and Indonesia, to name a few. The program serves as “a U.S. government initiative that prepares American citizens to be leaders in a global world,” and promotes language learning and cultural awareness as a means to encourage meaningful international dialogue and American engagement abroad (About NSLI-Y).

For many students, the NSLI-Y scholarship program, which covers all the costs of the exchange, is one of the best opportunities they can have to study abroad and learn a critical language through intensive language courses and in-country immersion. Other non-scholarship exchange programs can be very costly, and are often not an option for the average high schooler who may be preparing for the financial burden of a higher education. Therefore, international exchange programs, especially those that provide scholarships and commence at the high school level such as NSLI-Y, are essential in providing youth with a unique opportunity to learn a critical language and explore a different culture. These programs directly benefit U.S. public diplomacy initiatives by fostering relationship building with other countries, and promoting the establishment of youth global leaders.

My experience studying abroad in Turkey as a NSLI-Y scholar at the age of seventeen, and my academic and professional career success that has culminated since, is only one example of the immense impact youth exchange programs can have on shaping young minds, and building the next generation of global leaders who are committed to U.S. public diplomacy measures far beyond their exchange. As in most countries, international exchange programs are essential in strengthening U.S. diplomatic relations. Given the current strained relations between the U.S.-Turkey, it is paramount that U.S. international exchange programs are supported and continued across Turkey. However, the dwindling relations between the two countries, as well as rampant security concerns, has resulted in the discontinuation of several U.S. exchange programs in Turkey.

Since 2017, NSLI-Y no longer offers academic year programs in Turkey, and has explored the possibility of carrying out the Turkish year language program in Azerbaijan instead. However, they currently offer a summer program in Turkey. At the university level, the CIEE Arts and Science Academic Exchange Program at Koç Universityin Istanbul, Turkey, which I completed during my 2013–2014 junior year of undergraduate studies, was also discontinued in 2017. How can we promote cultural awareness and enhance U.S. diplomatic relations with Turkey if these important programs are terminated? How will relations improve if today’s youth are not given the opportunity to study in the country for an extended period of time and learn about Turkish affairs and foreign policy? Without U.S. investment in such programming, the sustainment of constructive U.S.-Turkey relations will be hindered for years to come.

If the U.S. wants to generate future global leaders, Turkey is perhaps one of the most pivotal countries to advance that mission. Given its position as a geo-politically complex yet highly strategic region of the world, U.S.-Turkey relations are essential in working together to diminish tensions with Iran and create a balance of power across the Middle East (LeBlanc, 2015). Exchange programs in Turkey undoubtedly provide youth with a unique perspective, the necessary skills, and regional context to help address these global challenges and advance U.S.-Turkey foreign policy goals.

The value of U.S. exchange programs in Turkey are further exemplified by two former exchange students. Ms. Cristina Herrera, one of the other NSLI-Y scholarship recipients who studied with me in Trabzon, decided to pursue a degree in Political Science following her exchange. She returned to Turkey to study abroad at Boğazici University in her junior year of undergraduate studies, and is now completing a Masters of Arts in U.S. Foreign Policy at American University. Ms. Herrera plans to become a foreign service officer one day, ideally in the political affairs track. Reflecting back on her memorable exchange, she notes:

Being placed in the small town of Trabzon at age sixteen, coming from Hawaii, and being a first generation American, many of my Turkish classmates were astounded to learn that the States extend far beyond the stereotypes they had witnessed in U.S. films and television shows. This jolted me to realize how critical it is to promote the reality that the United States is a broad reflection of the world, hosting a multitude of cultures, accents, and lifestyles. What many people don’t realize is that study abroad and exchange programs like NSLI-Y aren’t limited to individual growth through exposure to excitingly new cultures and lifestyles; it’s to build foreign relations and move one step closer to solidarity among us. (Herrera)

Ms. Herrera is not the only former Turkey exchange student with similar sentiments. Mrs. Angelica Rodriguez-Day, currently a Program Assistant at the U.S. Department of Defense, also studied abroad with the 2013–2014 CIEE Academic Arts & Sciences Program in Istanbul. In 2017, she completed a Master of Arts in International Affairs with a focus on Conflict Resolution at The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Mrs. Day affirms:

Studying abroad in Istanbul with CIEE was one of the most formative experiences during my college years and helped me solidify my interest in U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic relations between different countries. Turkey is a wonderful country and an important partner for U.S. exchange programs like the one CIEE previously offered. These programs help people connect with a new culture and its people, while bridging differences and fostering relationships that could be valuable overtime for our country to have. (Rodriguez-Day)

The above examples, in addition to my own valuable experience, clearly demonstrate how paramount these U.S. exchange programs in Turkey can be in providing the next generation with the skills and drive to effectively contribute to contemporary U.S.-Turkey relations and foreign policy objectives far off into the future.