Students get a taste of Turkey during break
Some professors use Los Angeles as a classroom, others the world. Some take
their students to the Hollywood sign or the Getty. Others choose to
expand their classroom to the global stage, showing their students the
towering minarets of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the fairy chimneys of
Cappadocia and the ruins of Ephesus.
Professor Kristi Upson-Saia of the Religion Department did just that when she
took 16 students to Turkey this past winter break. The trip served as
the finale to her fall class, “Turkey: Then and Now,” which delved into
the country’s historically rich past and remarkable fusion of Eastern
and Western cultures.
“I want to give my students an awareness of different periods [of history]
so [they] understand the layers of culture over the years, and Turkey
is a good place to see the remnants of this history,” Upson-Saia said.
In order to most effectively carry out this intention, Upson-Saia used the
the trip to some of Turkey’s most notable landmarks, monuments and
natural formations as a way for students to fully grasp the material
they studied in the classroom.
“The traveling component of the program definitely made the material
resonate more with me,” DWA major Evelyn Critton (sophomore) said. “We
were finally able to see the places that we had learned so much about
and experience the culture that we had been studying. It was very
interesting to observe themes that we had discussed, such as
Westernization, in practice.”
The trip was a rare opportunity for students to contextualize what they had
studied during class by learning in the field. While study abroad
programs are popular among the student body, they typically last an
entire semester, a departure not every student is willing or able to do.
Students who have multiple obligations on campus might think they do not have
the opportunity to go abroad during their tenure at Occidental, but the
International Programs Office (IPO) is working to change that
perception. Winter and summer breaks, for example, provide excellent
opportunities to travel for students who cannot make the semester-long
“Because I don’t get to study abroad I used this trip as a reason to travel
before and after [the class trip],” said history and sociology
double-major Hailey Jures (junior). “I actually traveled for an entire
month over break.”
For students like Jures, who cannot study abroad because of her responsibilities as an MRA,IPO
offers the chance to study overseas through IPO’s faculty-led
short-term study abroad program. Upson-Saia’s class is one of the first of this
program, which combines on-campus courses and field study trips over
winter and summer breaks to the places students will have studied in
Robin Craggs, Executive Director of the IPO, explains how this new class
model benefits not only the students but the participating professors as
“In a carefully organized and intentionally designed course, faculty
directors frequently find teaching ‘in-situ’ to be some of their most
stimulating and deeply rewarding teaching and learning experiences,” said Craggs.
These classes can also be the beginning of a student’s international affair.
For some students who participated in Upson-Saia’s Fall 2012 class, the
winter trek to Turkey kicked off a more involved journey abroad. Momo
Matsuda (junior) is currently studying in Rome while her friend Grace
O’Hara (junior) went across the Mediterranean to study in Granada,
Spain. Faryn Borella (junior) decided to venture to the Middle East in
Israel for the spring.
The students and professors began their trek by flying into Istanbul. A
brief look at the itinerary suggests that Upson-Saia and her students
packed as many destinations in as possible into the two-week time period
they were allotted. They started in the former capital of the Ottoman
Empire on the European side of Turkey and made it all the way to
Cappadocia in central Turkey. They toured the majestic Anatolian
mountains of the interior and stopped at historic sites such as the the
Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient
Although each location that the group visited had its own historical and
aesthetic value, each venue resonated differently among students. For
Critton, the ancient city of Hierapolis was particularly astonishing.
“Our experience there was utterly amazing,” Critton said. “We were, more or
less, the only ones there (whereas normally the place is teeming with
tourists) and able to explore the area as much as we wanted. The hot
springs and landscapes there were beyond gorgeous and the ruins were
As Critton mentioned, Hierapolis is an ancient Greek city situated in a
southwestern region of Turkey known as Pamukkale, also famous for its
naturally occurring thermal baths, where the ancients undoubtedly
enjoyed the glimmering sunsets over warm waters that still attracts
The extensive travelling did, however, present the group with a few
difficulties. The changes in elevation and temperature in the Turkish
January was a significant challenge for students, who had to pack
accordingly despite limited space for baggage.
“I had to pack for a month in a bag smaller than [a] carry-on. Obviously
people do it all the time but it was a fun challenge for me,” Jures said
while discussing what she found was the hardest part of the trip.
Some found the language barrier to be challenging as well. Professor Claire
Morrissey of the Philosophy department was a chaperone and the trip’s
designated crisis person. On one occasion, she experienced the
challenges of having a language barrier when she had to take a student
to the emergency room.
“Many of the physicians spoke English, but we had to get to them first. So
prior to seeing them [we] would have to point and go, ‘oww,’” Morrissey
This minor incident was reflective of the trip as a whole, as the group
travelled without a translator and thus had to make to with only a basic
grasp of the Turkish language.
Although trekking across Turkey constituted the most transformative aspect of
the course, it was most useful as a visual and experiential aid to the
classroom incentive to deepen students’ understanding and appreciation
of Turkey’s situation in the global context over time. Upson-Saia
strategically structured the class so that the students could understand
the complex and unique history of Turkey.
To help her students comprehend the blend of East and West characteristic
of Turkey, Professor Upson-Saia centered her class around three central
themes. Its unique location between Europe and Asia created over the
course of thousands of centuries an uncanny blend of cultures,
languages, traditions and history..Turkey’s landscape, situated in
between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, facilitated this development
and serves as Upson-Saia’s first theme.
“What’s really important about a lot of Turkish history is the landscape: the
mountains, the hot springs, the volcanic ash that allows them to carve
underground cities, the silk road, there’s all these in which the
landscape itself facilitates culture,” Upson-Saia said.
The country’s landscape and essential location in the middle of European
and Asian trade routes helped shape Turkey’s long, complex history.
Upson-Saia explained taht its physical geography enabled the
construction of diverse albeit interrelated cultures, finely attuned to
necessities of their environment. Ephesus along with numerous other
sites in Turkey include ruins of former ancient Greco-Roman cities as
well as former urban centers of the Ottoman Empire, which integrate
their Greco-Roman heritage into contemporary city planning.
The importance of Turkey’s landscape acts as the basis for Upson-Saia’s
second theme for the class, layers. Turkey’s geographic location led to
the interaction of various cultures, which in turn formed the basis of
the multiethnic, multilingual and multi-religious Ottoman Empire. The
accumulation of societies intrinsic to Turkey is an ideal model of the
layers of culture and history to which Upson-Saia refers.
Professor Upson-Saia’s final theme dealt with the concepts of representation and
memorialization of Turkey’s past societies and modern republic.
“This theme paid attention to how cultures of antiquity represented
themselves, the remnants of their identity—whether what is left behind
offers a true articulation of who they were, as well as media
representation—how we see [modern] Turkey versus how they see
themselves,” Upson-Saia said.
Her class was not just focused on Turkey’s historical import. It was an
interdisciplinary course that focused on every aspect of Turkish
society. She brought in speakers from various fields—from philosophy to
biology—to construct a holistic picture of the country that was
eventually augmented by the students through individual research
projects that explored the country from different disciplines.
The students themselves had a direct role in the organization of the class
and the dissemination of ideas. They were required to keep journals, and
reflection time was allotted regularly to compile notes. At each major
site, a different student was to give an academic briefing covering the
history and cultural significance of landmarks such as the Hagia Sophia,
which was a church before it was a mosque and a mosque before it was a
museum, or the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
Religious Studies major Natalie Malter’s (senior) research project was about the
1925 national bans of the Sufi traditions of Islam and how Sufism still
exists in the form of numerous sects, including the Mevlevi sect made
famous by its Whirling Dervishes. Sophomore DWA major Katy Waddell’s
research project covered the impact of the 1923 reforms on women’s
rights and how they laid the foundations for the women’s movements of
By all accounts, Upson-Saia’s class provided students enrolled in “Turkey:
Then and Now” with a thorough and interdisciplinary perspective on
Turkish history. Learning alongside peers and professors of differing
disciplines enriched the learning experience of everyone involved. While
the sites themselves were immensely educational and entertaining, the
intellectual environment created by the participants added the final
ingredient for an immersive, informative abroad experience.
“It was a really cool group we went with,” Matter said. “They were a very
intellectual group of students with broad interests. There were great
exchanges between the students [the whole trip].”
The various inputs from students also gave Upson-Saia a broader perspective of the very class she taught.
“It’s a cool way to see my own material through new eyes,”Upson-Saia
said. “They saw things that I didn’t see and its really cool to be
re-energized and to get new perspectives on my own research.”
Two more classes are slated for the next academic year that will culminate
in a trip abroad at the end of the semester. Professor Eric Frank, chair
of the Art History and Visual Arts Department, will lead a class on
Michelangelo next fall that will spend three weeks in Italy over winter
break. Professor Elizabeth Braker and Professor Jeremy Claisse of the
Biology Department will lead a Tropical Field Ecology class in the
spring, finishing with a trip to Panama and Costa Rica over the summer