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Say “Merhaba” (Hello) to a Semester in Istanbul

Article and photos by Jamie Balard

The sun is setting over the city of Istanbul, casting an orange haze over the entire city. The call to prayer echoes over the Bosphorus, coming from several different directions all at once, from the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque and the Yeni Cami as they alternate singing parts of the prayer. People spill out from the art galleries in Galata and grab a latte from one of the Brooklyn-esque cafes before rushing to catch the ferry from Karaköy over to the Asian neighborhood of Kadıköy. And this is just one glimpse into one microcosm in this teeming, thriving city that I am calling home for the fall semester.

Studying abroad in Istanbul was the best decision I’ve ever made. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way. Hopefully, it can help other students who are curious about studying in Turkey.

Before You Go

Think about what you hope to gain from the experience. Why do you want to go to Istanbul? You’ll be asked this question many times throughout the process of applying, so take some time at the beginning of your stay to genuinely consider your motives. There are a lot of benefits to studying in an active and rapidly changing city such as Istanbul, especially if you’re pursuing a field like international relations, political science, or journalism. Architecture and history buffs will also find delight here, with ancient structures like the Hagia Sofia, Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque waiting for you to explore.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The Blue Mosque, one of Istanbul’s most notable buildings.

Look into all the options your university offers to determine the best one for you. There are a number of English-speaking universities in Istanbul that have exchange programs with universities across the globe. Bahçeşehir University, where I am studying, hosted students from 182 different countries during fall 2015. There is a strong focus at many of the universities in Turkey to bring global students into the fold and to encourage international exchange. To that end, some of the schools offer perks such as free accommodations to exchange students.

I knew that studying abroad was something I really wanted to do during my time in college at San Diego State University, but like many students, I didn’t think I would be able to afford it. Still, I went to the study abroad office to see if there were any options that would work with my financial aid setup. After exploring my options, it turns out that living in Istanbul instead of San Diego for a semester actually saved me money!

One of the Bahçeşehir University campuses in Istanbul
One of the Bahçeşehir University campuses.

Given the number of global universities in Istanbul, check to see if your home university has relationships with any of them. Talk with your study abroad advisor to figure out which university will best suit your needs financially, academically, and culturally.

Do your research before you go. There are many things I wish I had known before I arrived in terms of culture, language, and politics.

Great resources include:

Some of the most helpful resources are the people at your home university and your destination. I found my home university in San Diego to be extremely helpful in preparing me to study abroad in Turkey. They organized a Q & A session especially for students going to Istanbul. Your school may offer something similar.

Additionally, the school abroad may put you in contact with a coordinator before your departure. At Bahçeşehir University, we were in contact with an international administrator as well as a “Turkish buddy,” a student at the school who was available to answer any questions and who helped guide us around Istanbul our first week.

Make sure you’re ready for a challenge! Istanbul is truly like nowhere else in the world, and that is one of the best parts of studying here…but it’s also one of the most challenging. Very few things are intuitive — even tasks that seem as if they should be simple. Additionally, you may find the culture overall to be much different than what you’re used to, which is both a blessing and a curse. But don’t worry about it — you’ll get the hang of it in time.

Taksim neighborhood, Istanbul
Taksim, one of the more chaotic and challenging neighborhoods, but also one of the most fun!

Once You’re Living in Istanbul

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Turkish people tend to be very considerate when it comes to helping others. Even with a language barrier, I’ve found that most people are willing to help give directions, find you transportation, and provide service.

During my first few days living here, I came down with an awful, stuffy, coughing all-day-and-night type of cold.  I finally caved and went to go find some medicine. I walked into an Ezcane (pharmacy) and quickly realized that I had no idea how to say “sick,” “head cold,” or “sore throat” in Turkish. I smiled hesitantly at the elderly pharmacist and pointed at my nose and sniffled. Then I coughed loudly and pointed at my throat.

It worked. He handed me a box, held up two fingers to indicate that I should take two at a time, and then in a heavy accent said “Eat ice cream for bad throat,” with a smile and wink.

There have been many other times when I’ve needed help to figure out where to find the metro, how to send a postcard, how much it costs to buy food from a street vendor, and a hundred other things. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult, but I always get through it somehow, and so will you. More often than not, it’s a fun, and even funny experience.

Asking for help is something that a lot of people struggle with, but it’s really the best course of action in many instances. I used to hate asking anyone for help, but the reality is that sometimes you have no other option. Turkish hospitality makes it very easy to ask for help to solve your problem.

Respect the culture you’re living in. As mentioned above, the culture of Istanbul is likely different than what you’re any you have encountered. For example, the style of dress for women tends to be more conservative in Istanbul than in the U.S. If you want to avoid uncomfortable attention, you should try and wear clothing that keeps your legs and shoulders covered out of respect for the host country's values and traditions.

Other ways you can show respect to local people is by learning at least a little bit of Turkish. Little things, such as learning how to greet people, say hello and goodbye, say thank you, and ask “how are you?” will go a long way in demonstrating your respect for the country.

Istanbul along rocky shore
If I had to pick one picture to sum up Istanbul, it would be this one.

Above all, keep an open mind. If you don’t understand a certain custom, political issue, or religious practice, ask polite questions and do your own research with the intention of understanding. Do your best not to think of your ideology as “right” and someone else’s as “wrong;” get into the habit of acknowledging them as “different.”

Islamic presence in Istanbul
With such a strong Islamic presence in Istanbul, you’re sure to learn more about Muslim culture.

For example, there is a holiday in September called Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice. It’s an Islamic holiday where people celebrate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as a form of obedience to God, and it can involve sacrificing an animal like a sheep or a cow.

Now, most Americans would object to the idea of slaughtering animals in the street as part of a religious celebration. It’s just not something Americans typically do anywhere in the country. But while speaking to a Turkish friend of mine, he explained that it’s not only a way of worship, but it’s also a happy, celebratory time. Families get together and exchange gifts, people are focused on making sure that the poor are well-fed and clothed, and it’s a festive occasion overall.

“Besides,” he said, “you do eat meat in America all the time, you just don’t watch it get killed.” That resonated with me. So while I’m not necessarily going to bring that particular tradition back to the states with me, it did open my mind to certain religious and cultural customs.

Make time for solo exploration. Istanbul is a very social city, and you’ll no doubt be receiving many invitations to parties, weekend trips, and other excursions. And you should accept them! However, I also found it very beneficial to explore different areas and attend some events on my own.

Going somewhere alone made me more receptive to my surroundings, and forced me out of my comfort zone. It is very freeing! It can also be a nice time to reflect on your experiences. I always bring my travel journal with me when I’m spending the day alone. 

One of my favorite areas is Bebek, a little waterfront area with lots of trees and parks and walking paths just north of the Bosphorus Bridge. I found it by accident one day when I was alone exploring the city, and now it’s a very special, peaceful place for me. I probably would never have found it if I had just kept tagging along with my friends.

Bebek neighborhood in Istanbul
Bebek, a serene waterfront neighborhood in northern Istanbul.

Take a deep breath. Istanbul can be chaotic and overwhelming. As with any study abroad experience, there will be days where nothing goes the way you want, days where people aren’t helpful, days when you feel homesick. That’s okay. Don’t feel guilty for feeling bad every once in awhile, but find a way to cope. Skype your parents, re-read a favorite book, go for a run. Find ways to manage the stress, stay calm, and don’t hesitate to reach out if the feeling becomes too much to handle on your own.

Document the experience. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience — keep track of it! Take pictures of everything, write events and impressions down in a journal, and collect little trinkets and souvenirs along the way. When you look back on this adventure, you’ll be happy to re-discover some of the experiences you had forgotten. No one’s ever returned home from studying abroad and said “I wish I took fewer pictures,” or “I shouldn’t have written that down.”

This is also where social media can come in handy. The world we live in today makes it easier than ever to share your experiences through photography and writing. The added bonus is that you also have a digital record of everything notable that you shared while abroad.

Yeni Cami Mosque in Istanbul
Yeni Cami Mosque, also known as the “New Mosque.”

Be safe. Overall, Istanbul is a very safe place. But just as you would at home, use your common sense and good judgement to avoid potentially dangerous situations. However, there are a couple of things you should be aware of as a foreigner in Turkey at this moment in history.

  1. The country can turn volatile. In October, there was a bombing in the city of Ankara, about five hours from Istanbul. Three national days of mourning were held. During that time, there were a number of both large and small protests held in Istanbul. Our advisors both at BAU and SDSU emailed us to tell us to try and avoid these rallies as “even peaceful demonstrations can quickly turn violent.” While it’s certainly something interesting to witness, it’s generally safer for you to avoid getting caught up in a domestic political demonstration.
  2. Being obviously western can make you a target. Even if you do your best to blend in, there’s still a pretty good chance you’ll stand out in many situations as a foreigner. Be aware, and trust your intuition, steering clear from crowds and individuals if you feel uncomfortable.
Demonsration in Istanbul
A demonstration following the killing of several Turkish soldiers at the Turkey-Syria border in August.

Studying in Istanbul is one of the most life-changing and incredible things I have ever done. Every day brings limitless potential for new adventures. What I have learned and experienced during my time in Istanbul has provided the impetus to return, visit friends, and continue to explore the city that has captured my heart.

Jamie Ballard is a student journalist working and traveling through Turkey. Originally from Sonoma, she attends San Diego State University, where she's a proud member of the waterski team and a dedicated news writer for The Daily Aztec. She has a keen interest in traveling and plans to be a multimedia journalist.

Related Topics
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Living Abroad Articles and Resources for Turkey
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Living and Studying in Istanbul

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