At Stanford, it is easy to get caught up in assignments, clubs and parties. Plunged into the lifestyle of following your calendar and checking off submitted papers, we are mostly separated from the outside world. I am not talking about the Stanford bubble: it is not the fact that we rarely leave campus or take part in activities outside of our student lifestyle here that is scary. What is scary is the fact that we lose our connections to the other parts of the world — or fail to build them up in the first place.
It is disturbingly easy how one can forget even once-essential things to their lives. For me, this was living with the constant tension from politics and the hopelessness, anger and disappointment in humanity. Under the rising conservativeness, authoritarianism and the resulting polarization of the society, the reality of living in Turkey meant never living without something to worry about. This was especially how I would feel after reading the daily news, just before hastily closing the tab with complete distress because I could not stand reading anymore: news about young women raped by five men and then burnt alive, children losing their lives during childbirth and a suicide bombing in the very street next to my high school were a just a few examples. My own daily life consisted of hour-long subway rides with people commenting on my clothing as inappropriate in their religion (as “too revealing” because it attracts male gaze), raised attention to my Twitter feed in case of suspected terrorist activity in the city, improved techniques for how to best deflect cat calling and and utter disbelief at the amount of hate between people with different values within the country, a situation not helped by the provocative politicians.
Upon coming to Stanford, my lifestyle became quite different. I was not drowning in problems like child-marriage scandals, restrictions on freedom of press — on the verge of being completely destroyed — and the rising intolerance of the society around me anymore. Instead, I was focusing on my classes, working jobs, attending interesting events, taking part in clubs and exploring the different party scenes at Stanford. Following this transition, I became less worried, less on the edge of my seat and more relaxed. My main focus shifted: it was now on me instead of my surroundings. It felt good to be individualistic.
But I also became less conscious. I stopped reading about my country altogether, and my conversations with my family were less about them and more about how I was doing. I lost my awareness of what was going on in the other parts of the world, including my home country. Unless I made a specific effort to learn more about current affairs, I could easily plunge into an ignorance about everything happening outside the US. I was not attentive to the very problems that used to guide my life and what I hoped to do through it, what constituted my mission: what had made me want to work in international justice was the atmosphere I grew up in. Yet now, delved deep in my studies, I was losing the awareness that formed my life vision in the first place. I was so into international social justice because I could relate to the problems pressing other countries parting from my own experience. Without this awareness buildt up through an insider perspective, would not my studies lose their connection for my overarching goal? I had not realized this.
Problems, of course, do not vanish when they disappear from our radar. I became less alert of the challenges within my country, but they endured and evolved. Likewise, when we see the sufferings in another country, our awareness lasts for only a few days, a few weeks if we are particularly attentive. But these worldwide tragedies are merely selected instances of a continuum of suffering: they last a few days for us, but for people living them, they remain a reality. We only see them through a window, whereas people going through these problems have a wide vision of them. It was this specific vision of what was going wrong that I had forfeited just a few weeks into Stanford.
I feel guilty for forgetting about my experience back home, but more than the guilt, what bothers me most is the loss of purpose. My experience and upbringing are what gave me the purpose and an overarching goal for choosing to come here. I based my goal on my experience and the similar problems I saw in other countries, integrating my experience and seeing the similarities between us: similarities between Mexico and Turkey continue to surprise me. When I am here, however, I forget about what motivated me in the first place. I forget about what it is like to live in disappointment, fury and weariness directed at problems much larger than I can possibly change on my own, at least as a 20 year old college student.
Following my trip home over winter break, I gradually became more aware of this loss of awareness, and have been trying to remedy it ever since. However, this contemplation has led me to believe that we could use more international awareness on campus. We constantly have many events on different countries and regions, whether on culture or recent politics, but we seldom have concrete insider perspectives about how people from certain countries interpret and feel about their conditions. I was lucky enough to attend the Global Studies reception featuring a Mexican journalist, and it was probably one of the best speaker events I have attended here. It was all about sharing the worries about one’s own country, and supplying students with the inside experience of the reality out there. Without this insider experience, it is easy for communities in countries such as the U.S. to misrepresent happenings in other parts of the world, and this misrepresentation complicates the issue for the affected population even more. For instance, there is a tendency to characterize everyone opposing the current regime in Turkey as fighters for democracy, whereas there are lots of groups within the country with various political agendas that in fact have nothing to do with saving the secularism and democracy in the country. Lacking insider experience and perspective on the issues, to what extent can students, researchers or even experts meaningfully engage with problems and of foreign countries?
Having realized the importance of actual first-hand experience, I not only retrieved the awareness that gave me my mission, but also was encouraged to reflect further on the bubble we live in at Stanford, and how many of us are guilty of the same lack of international awareness. Having insider experiences heard can not only get us out of the bubble, but also can save Stanford students from this savior syndrome about other countries. Not only should students remember their own reality, which can range from their rural life to city problems, but also share and listen to the global narratives around them. We have many opportunities to be aware of global affairs at Stanford. You do not even have to attend fancy talks: conversing with fellow internationals would suffice to get you started. This recognition of actual insider perspectives would be the connections that we sustain with the outer reality. The whole world is in a particularly vulnerable state, states that should deserve more attention than what some politicians tweet every day. I believe that keeping the global reality, along with mine, on my mind while cherishing my Stanford experience will allow me to equip myself with the best tools in order to improve that reality. I cannot afford to be blissfully ignorant — neither can you.
Contact Gülin Ustabaş at gulinu ‘at’ stanford.edu.