It was a dreary December evening in Istanbul just before New Year’s of 2013. I was weary and slightly cranky due to the strenuous bus ride from Ankara. I prodded my two travel companions, a German and a Brit, from their lethargy as the bus lolled into a station’s parking lot on the outskirts of the city. Somehow we knew we had to get off at this stop and transfer to a bus that would take us to Taksim Square. After some confusion and attempts to communicate in broken Turkish, we managed to shift our bodies and belongings to what looked like a retired school bus.
“So, is this the bus that will take us to Taksim?” One of my friends asked as we settled awkwardly onto a seat.
I laughed, we hardly knew where our hostel was located let alone which direction Taksim lay. “Hopefully….if not, we’ll figure it out–we’ve learned how to do that pretty well by now!”
I barely finished my remark before I heard a pleasant voice call to me in English, “Oh my–are you from America too?”
YES I AM!!! I wanted to scream, but held back. I peered across the aisle, past a few inquisitive Turkish gazes, and saw a friendly, smiling face.
We swapped info, and continued our conversation as we got off the bus and navigated through Taksim park (the same park that would hold thousands of protesters a few months later). Her name was Elizabeth. I liked her right away because one of my best friends is an Elizabeth. It turns out she was from Michigan as well. What a freaking small world.
We explained the reasons for our time in Turkey: I was studying abroad for the Fall 2012 semester, Elizabeth was serving as a Fulbright ETA in the northern region, near Trabzon (basically, in the middle of nowhere). She was meeting some fellow “Fulbrighters” for New Year’s weekend in Istanbul, I was essentially doing the same thing with my core group of international friends from Ankara. Elizabeth asked if I had heard of Fulbright. Indeed, I had, but didn’t think I was good enough “for something like that.”
She told me not to rule it out. Fulbright is more than academics, she explained, it’s about community. You plug yourself in somewhere locally, form wonderful relationships, and have other ETAs throughout the country for support. “We’re everywhere!” she said. Fulbright suddenly had a new appeal for me.
Yet I didn’t think about it too much then. We still had a long night ahead of us to find our hostel. Plus, my heart was beginning to break at the prospect of leaving Turkey about a week later. Elizabeth and I parted ways in front of Taksim’s large monument after she assured me that her friends were just down the road.
But the memory of that brief, seemingly unimportant conversation eventually came back during the final semester of my undergraduate education. From then on, Fulbright was implanted in my mind…
And now look where I am.
So, thank you, Elizabeth from Michigan, for being a quiet, unexpected inspiration for me.