Life will never be the same for study abroad student Seth O'Malley.
ON A WARM NIGHT this past January, 22-year-old Seth O'Malley walked across the border from Bulgaria into Serbia. O'Malley, a Portland State student, was hitchhiking through Europe from Turkey with a friend, and while they had a rough idea of when they would get to their final destination—Prague, where his traveling companion teaches English—they left the other details of the journey open to chance. The sky was clear but it was pitch black in the Serbian countryside, and O'Malley's friend became nervous. After spending the past five months studying abroad and traveling throughout Turkey, O'Malley had learned to be comfortable with uncertainty.
"I was just so glad to be standing on the side of the road in Serbia, drinking plum brandy and waving at truckers to stop and give us a ride," says O'Malley. "I told him, 'Maybe we won't catch a ride tonight.' And we didn't. But I was just happy to be there. Just like the rest of the trip, it was more of an excuse to be in these deeply special places and in these circumstances that otherwise, I had no reason to be in." The next day they hopped a bus to Belgrade, Serbia, and 556 miles later parted ways in Prague.
The circumstance that brought O'Malley, an applied linguistics senior, to Turkey in September was the opportunity to study abroad for a semester at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul, a prestigious and rigorous university referred to locally as the Harvard of Turkey. He took classes in Turkish and linguistics that deepened his fluency in the language, but of equal importance was the chance to immerse himself fully in an unfamiliar culture, live as authentic a life as possible during his stay, and rid himself of biases or preconceptions.
"I came to Turkey to experience something that was totally different, that would challenge me," he says.
His living situation supported that goal. Rather than staying in the university dorms, O'Malley opted to live with two Istanbul locals, sleeping on a futon in their living room. While both of his roommates were friendly and welcoming, he became particularly close to Rusen Filiztek, a Kurdish musician who was also in his early 20s. Filiztek took him to Kurdish music concerts and invited him out with his friends. O'Malley didn't always understand the conversations around him and at times felt conspicuous as the only blonde person in a room, but he was glad to be included in Filiztek's circle.
"Rusen was just a really easy person to like, always the life of the party when we were hanging out eating meze at bars with friends," says O'Malley
Together the two traveled to southeastern Turkey, where Filiztek was performing traditional Kurdish music. They visited Hasankeyf, an ancient town on the Tigris River that will be partially flooded by the construction of a controversial dam planned by the Turkish government. O'Malley attended a town meeting there, and was surprised to find that nearly as many residents supported the dam as opposed it.
"It reminded me of how hard it is to judge things from a distance," he says. "Things may look really clear-cut, but when you're actually there on the scene, when you talk to people, it's always more complicated."
O'MALLEY'S EXPERIENCE abroad would not have been possible without financial support from the Bill and Theresa Farrens Endowed Scholarship for Overseas Study. He was the first recipient of the scholarship. Theresa '67 and Bill Farrens (right photo) both consider their experiences studying abroad as students to have been life changing, and have encouraged each of their five children to include it as part of a well-rounded liberal arts education. The new award, ranging from $3,000 to $5,000, is available yearly through the World Languages Department.
Travel has continued to be a lifelong passion for the Farrens, who among their many trips have visited Turkey three times. Theresa Farrens, who majored in French at PSU, fondly remembers her first stay in France, even though it was as challenging as it was rewarding.
"It was probably one of the most difficult years of my young adulthood," she says. "But having a good experience does not mean having fun all the time. It changed my life."
Jennifer Hamlow, PSU Education Abroad director, says that studying abroad is one of the best investments students can make for their education. Not only does the experience expand a student's worldview, it also gives a new perspective on the role the U.S. plays in the global community. Travel also teaches coping skills that are useful in day-to-day life.
"You develop patience for managing people, for dealing with ambiguity and for navigating life," she says. "The skills you learn when you go abroad are invaluable, and you can apply them to any experience that you're going to have for the rest of your life."
For O'Malley, traveling taught him confidence in his own resiliency, but more than that, it made him reevaluate his ideas about where he comes from. Through interacting with locals throughout Turkey and Europe, he learned that while place does matter, there is more in common between people than there are differences.
"It's hard to talk about the world in absolute terms," he says. "I guess one of the most valuable lessons I've learned is it's just people, no matter where you are. We all struggle with all the same problems. It's the same arguments and ideology, just with different names. It made the world a smaller place."
Heather Quinn-Bork is a PSU creative writing student.
Caption top photo: While studying in Istanbul and traveling through Europe, Seth O'Malley (above) marveled at the sights and the diverse cultures but was surprised by the underlying commonality he found among the people he met.
Caption second photo: Cappadocia Region, Turkey
Caption third photo: Alumna Theresa Farrens and her husband, Bill, find traveling a valuable experience. They started a new scholarship for PSU students studying abroad that supported Seth O'Malley.
Caption bottom photo: Hasankeyf, Turkey