International students grateful for Fulbright

The University is one of the top producers of Fulbright scholars for students and faculty, according to a report released by The Chronicle of Higher Education in late October.

The Fulbright Scholarship has given international students and professionals the chance to study in the U.S., as well as affording American students and professors the chance to study in distant countries.  

Last year, the organization awarded the scholarship to 10 of the University’s faculty to research in another country, tying the University with Ohio State University for the most Fulbright faculty scholarships awarded in the nation. 

The University has been successful in bringing international scholars to the campus as well.

“Every single college on campus has an international focus,” said David Schug, director of the University’s National and International Scholarship Program. “We’re trying to promote an international world. The world’s getting smaller.” 

It’s the kind of program that has the power to change lives, as international scholars are offered opportunities in the U.S. they would not be able to have in their home countries.

From Cyprus to the U.S.

 

Graduate student Soteris Demetriou calls his home country of Cyprus a sunny and beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea. But the history of conflicts between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots has cast a shadow on the country. 

Since he started  studying at the University, he not only has had the chance to meet leaders in computer science, but he also has gained a newfound hope for his home.

“I can see here in Illinois, and the U.S. in general, this is a culture that is inherently diverse and a multicultural environment,” Demetriou said. “I can see how people get past ethnic struggle, how they see past those barriers.”

Because he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, Demetriou has two years of graduate school completely paid for.

“Without the Fulbright Scholarship, I wouldn’t even be able to consider coming to the U.S.,” Demetriou said. “The expenses are something I could not even think of doing.” 

When he found out that he had been awarded the scholarship in 2012, he was beaming.

“I was exhilarated. I thought, ‘Okay this is a completely new chapter of my life, and I can actually see and experience a different culture,’” he said. “Especially in my field, this is the ideal place to be. This is the country that gave birth to technology.”

But getting his scholarship meant he had to rise above his fractured but beloved home country.

Greeks wanted Cyprus to be a part of Greece. Turks wanted the country for Turkey. The conflict sparked a Turkish invasion in 1974.  Many of the Greek Cypriots living in the northern part of the island were forced to relocate to the south.   

Demetriou’s parents were two of those refugees forced to leave their home. Because of the revolutions, military conflicts and unruly rulers, nothing was certain for Demetriou. 

“My parents couldn’t send me to a good school or pay for the education. But they really told me to work hard, though, and pursue my dreams, which is the state of mind that had facilitated my journey so far,” he said. “The most challenging part for me was growing up in an island-wide environment that was actually nurturing — either directly or indirectly — animosity between the two communities because the events in 1974.”

Even the passing of decades did not soften the blow that left both groups of people covered in bad blood toward one another. Although Demetriou grew up, it was as if Cyprus was still frozen in 1974.

“We didn’t have any interaction whatsoever,” he said.

It was a long time before he got the chance to meet a Turkish Cypriot.

“I actually met a friend, a Turkish Cypriot, when I was 26 years old even though we lived on the same island — which is a very small piece of land,” Demetriou said. “It was kind of amazing.”

Demetriou has been involved with an organization called Future World Center, setting up peaceful events and interactions in Cyprus. He plans to get his doctorate and find a job using his computer science skills afterward. But even if his work is in the U.S., Demetriou is committed to helping his country and will stay involved with the nonprofit and nongovernmental organization no matter what.

“I will try to help as much as I can, and especially with my experiences here, I can do great things back home,” he said. 

In the past five to 10 years, Demetriou said gradual progress is being made. The frozen-in-time Cyprus might be starting to thaw out and shake off its past. 

“I think it’s going to take time, it’s not easy,” he said. “But as long as the generation who actually experienced the events of 1974 is still present, I don’t think it’s easy for them to acknowledge what had happened and move on. It’s really challenging for people to do that.” 

After all this time, Demetriou said he doesn’t let the past consume him, and neither should anyone in his sunny and beautiful homeland. 

“Now, I can see past that and I just hope that other people can do that as well,” Demetriou said.  “Because as soon as they are able to do that, the easier it will be to put an end to Cyprus’ problem.”

From Turkey to the U.S.

Canan Dagdeviren, a graduate student at the University from Istanbul, said she was one of the first people from Turkey to be a Fulbright scholar working toward a doctorate. According to Dagdeviren, Turkey only began awarding scholarships for doctorate degrees in 2009, the year she came to the University.

Even though she was a first in Turkey, she still had not received the kind of attention she got once she came to the U.S.

“After I came to the U.S., I understood that people paid more attention to Fulbright fellows here more than my home country.  So I was feeling very happy,” Dagdeviren said. “It’s opened so many doors for me.”

She said her research has gone well, and she plans to work at Harvard Medical School after graduating in May. She also wants to go back to Turkey to teach there and have her own lab. 

The Fulbright Scholarship helped her do what she couldn’t have done by herself, even if she did pay her own way to the University. The program set up a training session for her that taught her how to send and reply to emails and how to order at a restaurant.  

“Small things, but they really helped me to adjust myself to the U.S. lifestyle,” Dagdeviren said.

She had an American host family and an American mentor, who she sees as the reason for her success with her doctorate at Illinois.

“He didn’t ask any questions,” Dagdeviren said. “He just accepted me in the group, and that did a really amazing thing for me.”

Stanton can be reached at [email protected]