John Grabowski has never met an American president but during one week in May, he had the opportunity to converse with two former Turkish presidents.
Grabowski, Case Western Reserve University's Krieger-Mueller Associate Professor of Applied History, interviewed former Presidents Suleyman Demirel and Kenan Everen as well as Rahmi Koc, honorary chair of the Turkish conglomerate, Koc Holdings AS—and listed by Forbes as one of the richest men in the world.
"For all three of the interviews, I was nervous and worried about my ability to communicate," said Grabowski.
The interviews were in English and Turkish. Grabowski handled the English portions of the interviews, but was also able to "listen in" and contribute to the Turkish segments as he developed a knowledge of the language when he served as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Bilkent University in Ankara in 1996-1997 and 2004-2005. The working knowledge of Turkish has helped in his research on early Turkish immigration to the United States a topic that he began to explore during his first Fulbright.
Grabowski talked with Evren, Turkey's seventh president, and Demirel, the ninth president, to gather contributions for an anniversary tribute to Ihsan Dogramaci, the founder of Bilkent, Turkey's first private university that is located in Ankara. The film honors Dogramaci's contributions to Turkey's youth, health care and education and focuses on the history of Bilkent, which will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the admission of its first class this coming autumn.
During his Fulbright years and on numerous visits throughout the past years, Grabowski became acquainted with Dogramaci—a world leader in child health and higher education and one of the founders of the World Health Organization. Dogramaci has been active at the international level through the International Pediatric Association, UNICEF and the International Children's Centre.
With Reyyan Ayfer, the head of corporate history for Bilkent University, Grabowski asked the presidents and the business magnate questions about how they met Dogramaci, how private universities have changed Turkish education and provided opportunities for its youth, and about what are some of the major milestones in higher education in Turkey.
While the experience of talking to a president of a country was new for Grabowski, he learned that his interviewees had met almost every U.S. president from Eisenhower to Clinton.
Following the interviews, Grabowski had the opportunity to speak informally with his subjects. His conversation with Rahmi Koc turned to museums as Koc has developed some of the finest private museums in Turkey. His conversation with President Evren focused on the leader's paintings, an avocation which he pursues in his retirement.
What originally drew Grabowski to Turkey was a strong interest in the country and its culture. That has now evolved into a focus on early Turkish immigration to the United States.
The Case historian, and director of research for Western Reserve Historical Society, has developed strong ties to Bilkent. This past academic year, he graduated his first Turkish master's student, Isil Acehan. She has now received a Fulbright fellowship that will allow her to continue graduate-level research on early Turkish immigration at Harvard University in the fall.
Grabowski also is designing a videoconferencing course that links Case and Bilkent students interested in museum studies. The design of the new course is supported with a grant from the Institute for Turkish Studies at Georgetown University.
As part of this new course, Grabowski plan a back-to-back exchange during spring breaks at each university where students will travel to each others' countries to tour museums and learn about the cultures. He intends to offer the new course next spring.
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