Growing up in Minnesota, Samantha Stocker never imagined she would one day be conversing comfortably in Turkish with a group of friends in Turkey. But that's exactly what happened during her academic year abroad as part of the NSLI-Y program.
"I was leaving school and two boys from my class were eating across the street. In Turkish, we say 'afiyet olsun' when someone is eating; it is the equivalent of the French 'bon appétit'. Of course I said it to them," recalled Stocker, who recently returned home to Minnesota after spending her junior year abroad in Samsun, Turkey. "They responded 'Sağol kardeşim!' 'Thanks, my sister.' The fact they said 'my sister' does not mean they consider me a sister. Turks call each other names other than their given names all the time. But the fact remains that he said that to me without thinking. Therefore he doesn't think of me any differently than Feyza or Elif (other Turkish girls in our class)."
Stocker credits her Turkish friends and classmates with helping her master a completely new language.
"Lots of people are patient when they realized that you are learning Turkish. They talk slowly and use basic vocabulary," she said. "Many of my classmates would ask me if I understood what was going on or if I needed help. My classmates were very good at helping me understand Turkish."
Stocker traveled to the city along the coast of the Black Sea after only once previously leaving the United States.
"I had only left the United States once before this year. I was in Canada for about 24 hours," she said. "Being an exchange student doesn't mean you are a great world traveler.
"I wanted to see the world outside my small town in Minnesota. Then I wanted to bring back what I saw and share it with everyone who would listen," Stocker said, adding: "Once the 'exchange bug' bites someone, it is hard to get rid of."
She lived with a Turkish family, which included a mother, father, grandmother and three host sisters.
"I chose Turkish as my first choice on the NSLI-Y application," Stocker explained. "Turkey is such a complex country that very few Americans know about. Before I left, I heard a lot of conflicting views on what life is like in Turkey. Turns out, almost everything I heard is true. Someone's life in Istanbul or Izmir is totally different from Samsun or Ordu, which is totally different from someone in Van or Diyarbakir, cities in the Southeast part of the country. This sometimes added difficulty to understanding the culture, but also was very interesting."
Facing her fears about leaving her family and friends for 10 months, Stocker said she still felt overwhelmed upon her arrival. But beginning language classes, getting to know her family and meeting up with the other American students participating in the program helped her acclimate.
Stocker said she hopes to return to Turkey at some point in the future. "If anything, this program has given me the confidence to pursue whatever I wish."
She strongly recommended the program, particularly for those interested in learning a new language.
"Anyone who participates in a program like this will grow and learn so much, both about yourself and the world. Seeing the world from a new mindset, even if you don't accept this as your own, is so valuable," she said. "NSLI-Y is great especially if you have a strong desire to learn the language. There are a lot of really hard parts of being an exchange student, but it is all worth it. I would never give up all I learned and experienced in this past year."