From Perçem village to Tacoma – Professor Turan Kayaoglu

  • .Associate Professor of International Relations at UW Tacoma
  • Editor-in-Chief, Muslim World of Human Rights.
  • Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs in the School of IAS
  • Author of two books—one of which was just published last month

Turan Kayaoglu’s credentials are impressive, but there is so much more to his story.

A Long and Winding Road…

villageKayaoglu grew up in Istanbul, after moving from his birthplace—Perçem village, in the Erzincan Province of eastern Turkey—when he was just four years old. A massive migration from rural villages to industrial centers was taking place, turning farmers into shopkeepers or factory workers at a dizzying pace.  As a result, he was one of nearly 60 students crowded into an elementary classroom. Yet it was his family’s move to the city that made his presence in that classroom even possible.

Without the access to education that Kayaoglu enjoyed, his father has no formal schoolingparents, but “kind of reads.” His mother’s longing to read—in her 60s—inspired him, and her failure to learn after two years of trying made him more sensitive to the difficulties faced by some of his own students.

Kayaoglu is the fourth of five sons born to Sadullah and Hanim Kayaoglu, with 19 years between the oldest and youngest. He and his younger brother are the only two with a university education, although one of his older brothers did go to a technical college. “But, I was the first to attend a four-year university.” He may have taken it “too seriously,” he said, as a way to compensate for his older brothers’ lack of educational opportunities.

While in middle school, Kayaoglu considered his options and chose a technical high school to become a computer technician, “in large part because you could get a job.” At that point, no one—not even Kayaoglu—was considering he might one day have a career in academia.

“If you were thinking you’d go to university, you wouldn’t go to a technical high school.”

But in spite of his choice, he took the university entrance exam that every Turkish high school graduate takes. “1.2 million students took the exam the year I did,” he said, “and I was in the top 100! My advantage was…it was a standardized test, and I worked very hard for three years before taking it. I became very efficient at studying for those tests, so later, when I took the GRE, I had that background.”

Three universities—on two continents

Kayaoglu attended Bilkent University in Ankara on a full scholarship—“tuition, board, and stipend. That was kind of great!”

Bilkent—the first private university in Turkey—had two kinds of students: the high-achieving, scholarship students (about 10%), and the paying students (the other 90%), most of whom were from wealthier families. There was, he said, “a real class distinction between the two groups. We socialized with our own group.”

Some call Bilkent “the Harvard of Turkey,” but Kayaoglu’s response was simply, “it was a good school. I owe a great deal to the good education I got there.”

Classmates talked about going to the U.S. for graduate work, “so I learned what exams to take, what kind of university to attend, where to look for scholarships.” He applied to three universities, one of which was American University in Washington, D.C. In the end, he chose the University of Denver for his MA studies.

“D.C. was too policy-driven,” he noted. “I was looking for a quieter place, to focus on more fundamental questions.”

His original intent was to study Middle East security, but Jack Donnelly—who later became his mentor—was a Human Rights and International Relations expert. Their meeting changed Kayaoglu’s focus, leading him to apply to PhD programs where he could study International Relations, including the University of Denver and UW Seattle. After being accepted at several schools, he chose UW because “Seattle offered a more wide-ranging approach to the issues that interested me.”

Arriving in the Evergreen state

Location was “a non-issue,” Kayaoglu said.  “I was maybe too idealistic, more concerned with whether [Seattle] was the best place to get my education.” Still, after he’d packed all his belongings into a station wagon to drive from Denver into Washington—and finally through the Cascade Mountains, he was in for a surprise.

As someone who didn’t take location into account when choosing a university, what was Kayaoglu’s initial reaction to the wonders of Western Washington?

“Wow, this is like Paradise!”

His PhD program at UW Seattle was followed by ten years as a UW Tacoma professor, and he’s still in Western Washington—and happy to stay.

“I may end up spending the rest of my life here,” he said.

“Keeping busy”

When Kayaoglu arrived at UW Tacoma, he considered himself an International Relations scholar and historian with a Political Science background.  “Now, I think of myself differently,” he said. “My current scholarship is more contemporary.” He is often invited by churches, synagogues and other organizations to talk about Islam and the Muslim experience.

Still, teaching and writing—and even speaking to both local communities and groups at the United Nations—don’t seem to be quite enough for Kayaoglu. He likes to stay busy, often looking for things to do when he has a bit of free time. He also has a history of starting things that spread across campus.

In 2009, Kayaoglu produced the first issue of a PP&E newsletter that later moved from paper to the web, recently becoming the PPPA blog. Other IAS divisions have followed suit with their own newsletters and/or blogs, allowing a larger community to become more aware of what is happening across IAS—something that he hopes will continue.

Kayaoglu was the primary mover behind the IAS Brown Bag lecture series where faculty share their research with each other and their students. He has organized two PPPA colloquiums—the first in Silverdale in 2014, and the second this past May in Port Angeles.  Faculty at the weekend retreat presented their research and discussed it with their colleagues—something Kayaoglu would like to see spread throughout IAS.

“The more we know about each other’s research, the more we can find the overlaps,” he said—adding to UW Tacoma’s interdisciplinary character.

“It is essential to our identity as a school, but when people ask, ‘What does that mean?’ we often fail to give a reasonable answer. But there isn’t necessarily a platform in which we can learn about each other’s research.  If other divisions wanted to organize something like the PPPA Colloquium, I think it would be great!”

A side benefit is the social aspect of the event. “You can bring your family. Learn more about your colleagues.” For PPPA, that has been a positive thing. “We genuinely care about each other’s research—and we are friends. We can spend the weekend together!”

Cultivating his roots

Away from UW Tacoma, Kayaoglu enjoys reconnecting with his Turkish heritage.

“We don’t necessarily have a large Turkish community in Tacoma,” he notes. But he does enjoy spending time with Turkish friends in Seattle, “meeting for coffee or lunch,” as a way to stay connected to his heritage

“I worry to what extent my children will get to know my background as a Turkish-American, but also my wife’s background as an Arab-American.” Asked whether he is teaching them to speak Turkish, he said, ‘I try my best, but it’s not necessarily easy.”

“But my children are so much better off [than I was],” he said. “My wife has an M. Ed. and is an elementary school teacher.” Considering his wife’s profession and his own, he noted they often joke between them about their children’s future education, saying “they will start well, and they will end well.”

Books…and more Books

Aside from his children, the biggest achievement in Kayaoglu’s life at the moment is the release of his second book, The Organization of Islamic Cooperation: Politics, Problems, and Potential (2015), part of the Routledge ‘Global Institutions’ series. It is currently available in hardback through Amazon.

Turan 2Kayaoglu said his inspiration for the book came from a Tommy Morrison quote, “to go and write the book you want to read.”

So that’s exactly what he did.

“I wanted to read a book about the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), one that’s accessible to scholars, gives a good description of the organization, but at the same time engages with its politics, problems and potential.”

“I don’t know what kind of impact it will have,” he said. “But it will help scholars like myself, who want to deal with the OIC and understand its involvement in international relations.”

Looking ahead, Kayaoglu is already working with several colleagues on another book, based on ideas garnered through a series of conferences held in Denmark, Istanbul, and Seattle. Chapters—including topics of freedom of religion, sexual rights, and conflict resolution—will be written by scholars from Europe, the U.S, and the Middle East. “We are hopeful that the University of Pennsylvania Press will pick it up as part of their series on Human Rights.”

But there is still another book Kayaoglu is being urged to write—this time by his wife. “She thinks I should write a book about my village,” he said. “Looking at the impact of modernity on centuries-old villages where families farmed and raised honey bees, sheep, and cows. I am part of this global process where villagers left their traditional life styles and moved to the cities, adapting to the urban landscape.  It was a transformative experience, for me, my family, and for Turkish society at large.”

Starbucks… and the global village

Considering the changes in Turkey as a result of this “encroachment of modernity,” Kayaoglu speaks of his father who, until his recent retirement, owned a coffee shop in Istanbul.

“When I go home to visit and see a Starbucks, I am happy… and apprehensive.” It makes him happy to find his favorite coffee and a reminder of Seattle, but also apprehensive because [Starbucks] “pushes people like my father out of business.” A reminder that through globalization, there is something lost for everything gained.

“My mother, in her childhood, thought the world consisted of a handful of villages. As an adult [moving to Istanbul] she was terrified of all the cars.” Yet she urged the move because of the opportunities it offered her children—for “a good education, and health care.”  Having earlier lost two children in infancy who might have survived if they had lived in a city, she knew the move—whatever the struggle might be in the transition—would be worth it.

“There is sometimes a romantic understanding of village life,” Kayaoglu added.  But he notes that modernization is more than just its good points or bad—how a village is touched, or whether a way of life might be destroyed. It can also be about “how will I negotiate my different identities and find my place in this ever-changing world?”

And that—whether we are from Perçem village or Tacoma—is a question we can all relate to.