I first considered studying abroad in Istanbul two years ago. I was assured by my university in Istanbul that I would get a place without a problem, as absolutely no-one wanted to come to Istanbul. Fear of terrorist attacks, the Kurdish conflict and the geographical proximity of Iraq were often mentioned as reasons. But a year later when I applied for one of the three erasmus places at my faculty, eleven other students had already had the same idea. According to a study by the deutsche akademische austauschdienst (DAAD, or the German academic exchange service), Germany lies in first place ahead of France and Spain when it comes to promoting study abroad. My exchange university in Istanbul welcomed its first erasmus students in the winter semester of 2004. Three years later, when I came to study for two semesters, there were 94.
Germany lies in first place ahead of France and Spain when it comes to promoting study abroad
The complex bureaucracy with which I had to deal at the university in Istanbul certainly wasn't insignificant but was petty compared with the hurdles faced by Turkish pupils who want to study at a university in Istanbul. That is only possible when they have one of the best marks in the entrance exams which have to be completed after finishing high school. If they belong to the top few they are allowed to go to the elite universities in Ankara and Istanbul; the rest get divided between second and third rate universities throughout the country.
Turkish elite wears its hair straight
The Turkish college system is split into private and state universities. These mainly differ by the purses of their students, or rather of their parents. While studying at a state college is still free, you have to pay for private ones – and that certainly isn't insubstantial. At Yeditepe university where I have been studying for two semesters, the cost is around 15, 000 US dollars (£9. 160) a year for students who are not enrolled in the erasmus student exchange programme or any other scholarship.
You can use hair-straighteners in the ladies toilets for a fee of 25 cents
The result: the students thronging on the showy marble and glass campus are mainly Gucci-bag swinging and Prada-shoe wearing, lathered in so much make-up that they look more like dolls than people. Should their elaborate 'bed hair' hairdo slip just slightly, they can use hair-straighteners in the ladies toilets for a fee of 25 cents. When it comes to vanity and showing off, the male students are in no way inferior to their fellow female students, as they wear sun glasses which are at least as big, preferably with adidas tracksuit trousers.
In a seminar recently, one of my Turkish professors recently told us that her hairdresser had explained to her that there is now a shade of blonde known by the name of my university, because it is principally seen on student customers from this college. Appearance and demeanour have precedence; most people study simply in order to get a respectable degree under their belt. A small anecdote about that; an erasmus student, who studies at the economic faculty of my university here in Istanbul, was kindly told by his professor when she returned a piece of homework that he had invested too much work in his essay. It would have perfectly satisfied her if he had handed in some googled information using the tried and tested copy and paste method. The thought that her students will at some point in the future occupy top-class economic positions makes me queasy. This feeling is strengthened by the fact that a substantial number of arms were recently found in the office for the founder and rector of the university, a former mayor of Istanbul known for his rigorous nationalism. Since this incident the director left the country for the west and for the time being will not come back until the matter is sorted.
I have probably written, read and learnt more in my two semesters here than in three years of studying in Germany
But the universities of Istanbul are as different as the people who live in the town. An example is Boğazıcı university which is one of the best but also one of the most political colleges in the near east. It has a wonderful green campus which is warmly recommended to every potential erasmus student who wants to come to Istanbul. Another example is my institute where at least a few teachers encourage students to think critically. Even if this does not always work and disenchantment with politics and plagiarism appear to be extremely prevalant diseases, it is recognised and valued in principle. This has led to the fact that I have probably written, read and learnt more in my two semesters here than in three years of studying in Germany. I already have the assured status of a swot amongst my fellow students as a result.
Living in another culture does not just mean getting to know 'other' people but above all experiencing and discovering oneself in a new way. This is above all due to one fundamental fact: all of a sudden you yourself are the 'other' - the stranger before the door...
Read part two of Harika's erasmus account on 24 July