Global Urban Lab participants discover Istanbul over spring break

Teşekkürler, İstanbul. That is, thank you, Istanbul.

Twenty-four Rice students traveled from Houston and London to Istanbul over their spring break to study the urbanization of the emerging global city. The students, whose majors range from mathematical economic analysis to sociology, are participants in the School of Social Sciences’ Global Urban Lab. The purpose of the program is to permit students to analyze a specific urban issue and determine how today’s emerging global cities handle changing demographics, technologies and politics.

Of these Rice students who met in Istanbul for the week, half flew from Houston and the other half from London, where they are studying abroad for the semester. Both groups are enrolled in political science professor Melissa Marschall’s urban politics course, and the week in Istanbul was meant to serve as the class’s lab component.

Ellie Weeks


As a student in Dr. Marschall’s class, I was part of the group that traveled from Houston to Istanbul for a life-altering spring break.

We were housed in Koç University’s Istinye conference facilities, located in the heart of Istanbul and just minutes away from the Bosphorus Strait. Our first full day in Istanbul was dedicated to tourism: We visited Topkapi Palace, home to Ottoman sultans from the 15th to 19th centuries; the Hagia Sophia, with fascinating evidence of both Christianity and Islam in the same building; an ancient underground cistern, once used to store water and waste; and Istiklal Avenue, a crowded pedestrian shopping district. Right away, it was easy to see that Istanbul is not only where two continents meet, but also where two vastly different religions and cultures merge.

After this rich introduction to the city, we met the next morning with the staff of İsmail Ünal, mayor of Beşiktaş, just one of Istanbul’s 39 municipalities. We discussed the elections process, conflict among opposing political parties and the role of women in Turkish politics. We followed this meeting with a visit to the Istanbul Policy Center, where we spoke to political science professor Korel Göymen about the city’s history and politics.

The next day we met with officials from the Istanbul Olympic bid committee to learn about their efforts to host the 2020 games after four previously unsuccessful bids. In the afternoon, we went to Istanbul’s Traffic Control Center, which monitors traffic flow, speed limits, travel times and the city’s transportation patterns. We then traveled to Istanbul’s American Hospital, where we learned about Turkey’s health care system and efforts to address existing health care inequalities.

The following day was devoted to a mini-conference at Koç University and Rice student presentations that critically compared Houston, London and Istanbul on topics such as transportation, public safety, immigration and housing. We visited with Koç undergraduates studying international relations and attended a Turkish folk dancing workshop, following which we demonstrated the “cha-cha slide” and “the wobble” for the Turkish students.

Then came a change of pace at the Fenerbahçe sports club football (soccer) stadium, of which Ali Koç ’89 is the vice-president. Treated as VIPs, we saw the team’s locker room and business lounges, went onto the field, met with top executives and board members and got team jerseys. We were filmed and photographed the entire time. (See the news story here.) Later Koç treated us to a night out at one of Istanbul’s premier lounges, Ulus 29. His generosity was unparalleled, and it was a night none of us will ever forget.

Our celebrity treatment continued during our visit to a public elementary school, where I had expected to learn about Turkey’s education system and the challenges teachers face. But it was much more. The students threw questions at us about pop culture, and they asked about American universities – how long it takes to become a veterinarian, or if you can go to college for soccer. These students start learning English in the fourth grade and dream of coming to the U.S. one day. If I had to pick a favorite memory, it would be our personal interaction with these students. Despite language barriers, it was easy to communicate because children are really the same, no matter where they live. We posed for pictures, signed autographs and shared emails.

Now that we’ve returned to the states, we want to extend a huge “thank you” for this amazing experience to the School of Social Sciences, Associate Dean Ipek Martinez, without whose knowledge of Turkey we would have been lost, and Dr. Melissa Marschall, whose love of urban politics inspired a love of learning in her students. We were able to view a new city not as tourists, but as scholars. We received an insider’s view of Istanbul – its past, present and future – by interacting with politicians, educators and innovators. I’m grateful that I got to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. So thank you, Rice. And thank you, Istanbul.

– Ellie Weeks is Jones College sophomore majoring in sociology. 

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