By Willow Wilkes
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Rona, and I’m a rising sophomore in the Huntsman Program. I was born in the US and lived there until I was 11 years old. Then, due to family circumstances, an extended family vacation in Turkey turned into an extended stay. Originally the plan was to stay just for middle school, but then it ended up being high school too. I’ve spent about nine years in Turkey now, and it’s basically my second home.
When I first came to Turkey, I didn’t speak a word of Turkish, which was a unique experience. On top of that, my parents ended up enrolling me in a normal Turkish middle school. It was a good way to amplify the culture shock.
That first year it was difficult for me to understand and be understood, yet I remember the experience fondly. Constantly striving to learn a completely new culture and language was a challenge I surprisingly ended up enjoying. I don’t know, maybe I was crazy at the time…
So, I kind of grew up with this resilience to change. I feel like I am better able to adapt to new situations, because I survived a very big change in my life, and I was somehow still able to thrive.
Ever since I learned Turkish, I realized that I had a passion for languages. Even though I did learn it “the hard way” (through school and communicating with people), I found out that I really enjoyed talking to people in another language and understanding them. So, I made it my lifelong goal to learn five languages. Basically, I wrote it down on my bucket list.
Aiming to learn German after Turkish, I applied to and enrolled in Saint George’s Austrian High School here in Istanbul. It’s a 200 year-old school that popped up towards the end of the Ottoman empire, and it’s one of the best schools in Turkey.
I spent five years at the Austrian High School (it’s a five year high school, not a four year one like a lot of places in the US and Turkey). We have one year to basically learn German, and then the remaining four years were just normal high school, except all of our classes (except for a couple, like Turkish history and literature) were in German.
There I was introduced to yet another new culture, and if anything it definitely taught me discipline. One of my favourite aspects of the high school experience was that there wasn’t a very competitive atmosphere. We were all still trying to do our best and there was what I would call healthy competition. The curriculum was very difficult – we basically had to navigate two different school systems (Austrian and Turkish). As such, there was this feeling that we were all suffering together, so it was very collaborative. Even just the Austrian and German education system is kind of like that – your grades are less important than the high school graduation exam (the Matura) – so there’s a very positive learning environment.
From high school, what brought you to Huntsman specifically?
I am really interested in languages, and I’m still trying to learn some more. I knew before applying to colleges that I wanted to do something to do with International Relations. Ever since my first year in high school and even before (basically from 8th grade), I was part of MUN – Model United Nations.
I thought my dream job was to work at the UN or IMF, and 50% of my brain still thinks so. Of course, being at Penn has changed that to some degree. Currently I’m interested in working in the energy industry and multinational businesses. I’m sure that’s going to continue to change in the future. I’m looking forward to seeing how I continue to grow and modify that dream at Penn.
And then, there’s my international background. I’m basically one of the few people I know here in Turkey who speaks fluent English, and this viewpoint really influenced me. I’ve been able to observe Turkey (and the US for that matter) from both an insider and an outsider’s perspective. Things like the political crises (of which we have many), the economic crises (of which we also have many) – all these social things going on, I’ve been able to observe through a different lens.
All these experiences have synergized into me wanting to do something in the international sphere, related to economics – perhaps connected to Europe, the Middle East, and the US. Whether that would be something to do with studying abroad, or just applying for programs that have to do with international relations and economics. In the end, The Huntsman Program seemed like a good fit for me.
So far, I’ve really enjoyed it. One of the biggest allures for me when applying was the fact that it had this small, close-knit community within the larger Penn community (both of which are full of amazing geniuses). That’s definitely been great – the program is full of super smart people with similar passions.
How has your freshman year experience been?
With online instruction, it’s been difficult for all of us. I do have to say, having a base group of Huntsman people that you can more easily reach out to, whenever you need anything or if you want to make friends, has been super great, especially in the online environment. It felt like we’re all on this train together, in a pandemic, going somewhere, at home on our couches and in our bedrooms. There was definitely a feeling of solidarity.
The first semester, online, no one had any idea what they were doing – myself included. How to balance online classes with life at home, how to learn more effectively in an online environment, how to connect with fellow students online – that was all new. Being in the Class of 2024 Huntsman group has definitely helped me out. Whether that has been getting in study groups with Huntsman students, or just being able to reach out to talk.
I would say the first INSP class was also really interesting as an introduction to the program. It was nice just having a class with all of the Huntsman students together. I’d have to say out of the classes I’ve taken this year, it was probably one of the best-integrated classes I’ve seen in an online format.
Kelly and Marco have also been super helpful – it’s great to have them as program directors and advisors, who are really hands-on and help you shape whatever it is you want to do.
Second semester, I was one of the few students in the program that decided to stay home. Overall, I would say I’m glad that I stayed. Of course, I definitely feel that I may have missed out on some things, and that’s completely normal given the nature of this unprecedented semester. I am extremely grateful to have been able to stay with family and spend time with old friends, all of which will be missed.
I have to say, I’m very thankful that I was able to stay in contact with Huntsman students during the second semester – actually probably even more than in the first semester, mainly in the form of study groups. Honestly, I got through OIDD 101 together with an amazing study group that made me feel like I was actually in a physical university and not just subscribed to Coursera. Every weekend, homeworks and assignments. Shoutout to our OIDD group.
What are you most excited for in coming to campus, and what are your expectations for the next three years at Penn?
We just came out of a global pandemic, so I recognize that it will take a while before everything turns to normal. I’m proud of myself for having prioritized my well being during the past year. Going into the next semester, I feel refreshed and ready to embrace new opportunities as well as the turbulence of a rapidly changing world.
But I believe I will enjoy my time on campus. I expect it to be not quite normal, but definitely an amazing, fun experience. I am putting a rule to myself to spend as little time in my room as possible. I want to be out there, in the cafes, in the library, spending time with friends, making new friends and indispensable memories. Besides that, it’s really reassuring to know that I have Huntsman students who I can always reach out to.
Besides that, I’m definitely looking forward to in-person instruction. I’m going to be frank here – online classes have added some bad habits to my study routine. I have a feeling that even just being on campus will help me overcome them. Overall, I definitely look forward to both learning in the classroom and adapting back to a normal classroom environment. More importantly, I’m looking forward to meeting some amazing people at this amazing university.
I’m also really looking forward to what happens with clubs. I’m currently in the Wharton Undergraduate Agribusiness club, the W. Undergraduate Aerospace Club, and the Assembly of International Students (AIS). I have no idea what they do in-person and I would love to experience it. I’m sure it will be very enjoyable and much more immersive.
Really, I’m just looking forward to a somewhat normal student life.
What advice would you give to the incoming freshman class?
I would definitely encourage anyone to apply for small or emerging clubs, because they’re the ones that most need you, they’re the closest-knit communities I’ve come across so far, and they’re the ones that have helped me grow the most. You really have the chance to be hands-on with anything you do.
I would also encourage everyone to reach out and be open to meeting new people with different ideas and perspectives, from different parts of the world. Really, feel free to reach out to me or anyone in the Huntsman Program.
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