Cross-Cultural Connection

Maura O'Brien '17 stand in front of ancient ruins during her U.S. State Department internship in Turkey. (Photo provided)

By Matt Hawkins
February 8, 2016

Bradley political science major Maura O’Brien ’17 discovered the complexity of life living in a cultural crossroads as a U.S. State Department intern in Ankara, Turkey. Three months at the city’s U.S. embassy helped her grasp new perspectives as news headlines unfolded on her doorstep.

O’Brien, a political science major with minors in religious studies and international studies from Washington, Illinois, explored Muslim culture and the Syrian refugee crisis as a cultural intern from late October 2015-mid January 2016. Her duties focused on public affairs and fine arts promotion; however, a four-day volunteer venture to refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesvos proved to be the trip’s defining experience.

The island, just a few miles off Turkey’s coast, is a prime destination for Middle Eastern refugees escaping ongoing conflict.

“I felt I had to help,” said O’Brien, who initially hoped her internship would focus on assisting displaced Syrians. “I wasn’t prepared for everything I saw. Even though camps weren’t quite coordinated, amazing volunteers kept camps as orderly as they could.”

O’Brien saw thousands of people who had few basic necessities. Many refugees still lived outside and could only hope and wait for arrangements to move onto Europe.

“It was hard to see the situation, and I was amazed how the refugees navigated the conditions,” she said. “I felt guilty because I could go home to an apartment with heat, water and food. It’s hard to keep thinking of refugees stuck on the island while I’m home with all my comforts.”

O’Brien embraced Turkish culture and its political nuances as she assisted operations at the embassy. With duties focused on the arts, she helped foster cultural knowledge exchanges in schools and fine arts venues. Her input helped embassy staff select projects to support through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

Additionally, she lived with a retired woman whose family knew modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Those conversations gave O’Brien an unexpected insider’s perspective on history, politics and religion.

By internship’s end, O’Brien realized she gained such an appreciation for Turkey that returning to the U.S. was difficult.

“It was amazing to experience a different country and see how they view issues differently,” she said. “They were incredibly friendly to talk to and made me feel welcome. I got comfortable quickly and traveled as much as I could.”

As O’Brien returns to life on the Hilltop, she looks forward to future engagements with Turkey. First, she plans to reunite with her host, who will visit family in North Carolina later this spring. Then, O’Brien hopes for a future return to the country.

“It’s impossible to not go back because I have so much more to learn and experience,” she said. “I couldn’t have gone at a more complicated time, and I want to continue to work with the people as they work through their challenges.”