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Monthlong immersion in Turkey empowers and motivates students

RELEASED: Nov. 11, 2011

Turkey - Backgammon

UW-Eau Claire students learning backgammon in a café in the Black Sea Coastal town of Eregli, Turkey, under the watchful tutelage of their local hosts. Casey Metcalfe (foreground, right) takes on Eric Heacox.  Eregli, Turkish for Hercules, is a historic Greek city. The students visited the local caves, known as the Mouth of Hell, where Hercules is said to have accomplished his 12th and final labor — the capture of Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance of Hades. (Photo by Dr. Paul Kaldjian)

EAU CLAIRE — A monthlong academic excursion that immersed 10 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students in daily Middle Eastern life has left the students feeling empowered, confident and motivated to build on their understanding of Turkish culture and language, says a faculty member who helped create the international experience.

"By all measures, the UW-Eau Claire Turkey Summer Immersion Experience was a success," said Dr. Paul Kaldjian, an associate professor of geography who traveled with the students to Istanbul and Anatolia. "From the students' perspective, the experience was worldview- and life-changing. Clearly, the students were enthusiastic, engaged and anxious to experience new things. They enjoyed learning and pushing their own boundaries."

That was certainly true for Casey Metcalfe, a junior social studies education major from Eau Claire who had not previously traveled outside the United States.

"I'm going to be a better teacher and a better person because of the people I met through this program," said Metcalfe, who became interested in the immersion program after a history course piqued his interest in the region and its history. "Everything about this program was positive. I really will never be quite the same."

The opportunities to interact with local people in another part of the world as they were going about their daily lives were especially meaningful, Metcalfe said. Everything from using the public transportation to joining locals for dinner to observing people during their prayers enhanced his understanding of the local culture, he said.

While the region is beautiful and interesting, it was the hospitality and kindness of the Turkish people that was most inspiring, Metcalfe said. People went out of their way to ensure the American students were comfortable, happy and engaged in the local culture during their visit, he said, noting that a three-day homestay with a Turkish family was a highlight of the experience.


Turkey - 4 students

Casey Metcalfe (front) followed by UW-Eau Claire Turkey immersion classmates Lee Bahlmann, Claire Lind and Erik Heacox, at Ephesus. The ancient Greek city of Ephesus is Turkey's most famous excavated ruins. Ephesus is prominent in the New Testament as a place where the Apostle Paul lived, wrote, debated and was imprisoned. Students visited Ephesus as part of their trip to the nearby city of Izmir. (Photo by Dr. Paul Kaldjian)

The generosity of the people and their willingness to reach out to the American visitors has made him more aware of his own actions toward others now that he is home, Metcalfe said.

"The experience made me more confident and more comfortable with the idea of reaching out to people," Metcalfe said. "I don't want to cut myself off from learning by being afraid to talk to someone I don't know or someone who is different from me. A lot of people went out of their way to talk to us, to ask us questions and to take us places. That's made me more aware of my own actions."

Student connections with individuals and groups of people ranging from host families and language instructors to staff at the hotel and worshippers at mosques is what made the pilot program such a success, Kaldjian said.

"These are the people with whom our students interacted with at a personal and meaningful level," Kaldjian said. "They observed them, got to know them, asked question of them, and learned about customs, practices and meanings. From these encounters, students learned about the social meaning of tea and backgammon, the graciousness of hospitality and generosity, the Zen of flexibility and patience, and the kismet of spontaneity and the unplanned."

Kaldjian used his longstanding relationship with people in Istanbul and Anatolia to develop an immersion program that would help students learn by experiencing the daily life routines and practices of people in those regions. Dr. Scott Lowe, chair of the philosophy and religious studies department, and Dr. Kate Lang, chair of the history department, helped plan for the trip. Lowe also accompanied Kaldjian and the students on the international immersion trip.

A required three-credit course during the spring semester helped prepare the students culturally, intellectually, emotionally and practically for the monthlong summer immersion, Kaldjian said. The course helped the students get to know one another and the faculty prior to traveling, and it provided a foundational understanding of Turkish life, history, culture and environment, he said.

Turkey - Ephesus

Casey Metcalfe stands in front of the entrance to the Library of Celsus. One of Ephesus' most glorious structures, it was built in the 2nd century and named after a Roman Senator who loved books. (Photo by Dr. Paul Kaldjian)

"The class was valuable because there were no shocks or surprises when they arrived and no need to waste time talking about rudimentary things," Kaldjian said. "Students arrived in Istanbul with an intellectual foundation that allowed them to actively participate in learning."

Once they arrived in Istanbul, the students began a daily language course to learn the basics of Turkish and the simple words and expressions they needed to get around in Turkey. They also participated in a variety of activities and outings to cultural, religious and historic sites, which helped them become more familiar with the region.

When students returned from the immersion experiences, they wrote reflective essays about their experiences and how these experiences will make a difference in their lives.

"Based on the essays, students widely agree that what they learned through their Turkish immersion can come neither from the classroom nor from tourism," Kaldjian said.

Learning about new foods and religions was a powerful experience for the students, Kaldjian said. Stepping outside their comfort zones was an empowering experience, he said.

"No longer are they intimidated by big cities, foreign travel, strangers, Islam or new ways of doing things," Kaldjian said of the students. "Many of the students were moved by the experience of observing Friday prayers at the Beyazit Mosque, seeing more than 1,200 people worshiping in unison, and seeing how this largely Islamic culture respects its elders, takes care of family and shows kindnesses to each other."

Metcalfe said one of the things that surprised him most was how comfortable he was in a country that is primarily Islam, as well as how similar Istanbul is to other metropolitan areas he's visited in the United States.

Turkey - Cappadocia

UW-Eau Claire students (Casey Metcalfe, with banner) stand in the ruins of Cappadocia in front of structures known as peribacalar (Turkish for fairy chimneys). Cappadocia is a region in central Anatolia in which early peoples lived and hid by taking advantage of the soft sedimentary into which they carved dwellings, monasteries, churches and even entire underground towns. Because of the ability to blend into the landscape, it was a hiding place for early Christians. Students visited Cappadocia as a part of a 10-day travel around Anatolia, which included Eregli, Cappadocia and Izmir. (Photo by Dr. Paul Kaldjian)

"The culture, language and religion are different, yet we felt comfortable and accepted there," Metcalfe said. "It was different, yet it felt surprisingly similar to other cities."

Many of the students have expressed a desire to return to Turkey, to continue their Turkish language studies or to use their experiences to educate others, Kaldjian said.

UW-Eau Claire will offer the immersion program again in 2012. Students who plan to travel to Turkey as part of the program must enroll in the IDIS 355 preparation course for spring 2012.

The project is partially funded with Blugold Commitment dollars, monies all UW-Eau Claire students now pay in addition to regular tuition. Blugold Commitment funds are used to support innovative programs that enhance students' college experiences.

For more information about the Turkish immersion program, contact Dr. Paul Kaldjian at 715-836-2321 or



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