Former Student Discusses Time Spent Teaching in Turkey
By: Kaitlyn Schwers
When Brett Marler was preparing for graduation from Drury University in 2010, he did not imagine that he would be working abroad one year later. He had received a grant to become a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant that landed him in Turkey. Since then, he has found other opportunities in Turkey. He taught English classes at Ankara University and, he currently works as a copy editor for Today’s Zaman, a newspaper in the city of Istanbul. Now, Brett is considering coming back to the United States for graduate school to study Islam and politics.
How did Drury prepare you before you left for Turkey?
Aside from two semesters in Washington, D.C., I had lived my whole life in Springfield up until graduation. Taking classes in the Middle Eastern Studies program at Drury widened my perspective in a way that allowed me to think out of the bounds of the Midwest. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful Tunisian teacher named Zeineb as an instructor for two semesters of Arabic. Cultural exposure is as important as the language itself, and I know all of us in those classes learned as much from personal interaction with a strong young Muslim woman born in the Middle East as from any academic study of the region.
While I didn't study abroad, I did take advantage of Drury's partnership with the Washington Center to pursue an internship in D.C. I found myself at an organization that promoted Turkish-American ties, learned that Turkish people are some of the most wonderful in the world, and the rest is history.
Since graduating from Drury University in 2010, what have you been up to?
It was just a few days before graduation and I, like the average senior in college, had no idea about a job for the next year. The mail brought a letter the next day telling me I had been awarded a Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistantship) grant and a year later I was at a market in rural Turkey trying to buy cheese with a phrasebook.
After teaching English classes and getting odd stares for nine months in a small town, I moved up to the capital. In Ankara, I worked under a grant of the U.S. Embassy English Language Office (which also administers the Fulbright ETA program) and taught English classes at the country's oldest theology faculty. Imagine trying to pair up guys and girls for speaking exercises who had likely never hung out on their own with a member of the other gender outside their family. But, as most ambitious travelers or foreigners know, if things feel at home, then it’s likely you're not learning anything.
After teaching English, how did you start working for Today’s Zaman? What do you do for that newspaper?
Teaching English, especially through Fulbright and the U.S. Embassy, was a great stepping stone. But I wanted to veer back toward politics (or, as it turned out, media), especially if it took me through Istanbul. I came back to Istanbul and stayed at hotels for days until I had an interview at one of the country's two English-language papers, the daily Today's Zaman. Based on my experiences the previous two years and a long-time volunteer position at an online publication, I was hired as a copy editor at the paper. Articles are written by Turkish reporters and columnists and sent to me and other copy editors, who fact-check, fix up, or sometimes wholly rewrite them. The more exciting part of the job is making last-minute decisions on the headline and front page and trying to slip in shout-outs to friends and family, of course. The atmosphere is itself ripe for an aspiring political scientist, as the paper is part of a larger social movement in the country known as Hizmet, which advocates for a modern application of Islamic values in society and politics.
Where do you hope to go to graduate school? What would you like to study, specifically?
After a grueling application process and many rejections, I have been accepted into a few programs, both for an MA and Ph.D. I'm looking at George Washington in D.C., Brandeis University near Boston, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago at the moment. My interests are in how Islam has been used as a force for political mobilization, not only in the context of the explosive Arab Spring but also in more subtle cases like Turkey. I hope to answer larger questions in the process, such as "How does spirituality translate into political belief?" and "What answers do modern religious communities have for the problems of modern society?" These are the exact questions I first began to explore while studying Islam and politics at Drury.