How does an international scholar make a career on queer and migrant narratives in the US? Duygu Ula, now a postdoctoral fellow at Barnard College, shares her experience around the world and across disciplines, alongside valuable advice for international as well as domestic PhDs in Complit.
Duygu Ula was eager to continue her education in the US after her BA in English and Media Studies at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts. But as her applications to a Ph.D. in English came out unsuccessful, she decided to go home for a while, pursuing a Masters in Cultural Studies at the Sabancı University instead. More than a detour, however, her time at Sabancı ended up changing Duygu’s route when a friend suggested that, given her multidisciplinary interests, she might find a better home in Complit than in English. When she returned to America—this time to Michigan—to study queer and migrant narratives, a “home” was very much what Duygu found.
Although she had already lived in the US during her undergrad, Duygu’s return was not without its difficulties: “Academia can be really isolating,” she comments. “Being an immigrant in the US is always fraught with challenges.” Luckily, Duygu found support not only from the Comparative Literature department—she remembers fondly how Paula and Nancy, then the main staff at Complit, made her feel welcome on her first day by pronouncing her name correctly—but also, and most importantly, in the grad student community. “It would have been hard to deal with the challenges I faced without sharing that experience with others.”
On the one hand, Duygu benefitted from Complit’s diverse body of students and faculty, as their broad range of interests across disciplines and traditions came with a higher degree of sensibility to the needs of international scholarship. Funding to travel around Turkey and the Balkans was key for Duygu’s research; moreover, pursuing Michigan’s graduate certificates in Film, Television, and Media (FTVM), and LGBTQ Studies also allowed her to “get out of the silo of a single department.” CompLit’s ties with other programs allowed Duygu to be a GSI in English, Women Studies, and Film. This ended up being especially useful in her current position at Barnard, where she teaches First-Year Writing courses and workshops to audiences ranging from freshmen to TAs and even faculty across departments. Duygu was also happy with her advisors, Prof. Tatjana Aleksić and Prof. Frieda Ekotto, who never imposed their agenda on her research, but rather helped her think through what she wanted.
On the other hand, notwithstanding all the support she found at Michigan, some of the roughest waters Duygu had to navigate happened as she entered the job market. To aggravate the already stressful scenario of US academia, Turkey wasn’t really a viable option for someone interested in queer studies, gender, and sexuality. “Scholars doing that work over there are under difficult circumstances, dealing with great pressure from institutions around them,” she explains. Two things helped her during this process: the first one is her vast experience in teaching at UM. Although this seemed like a disadvantage during the program when it took over so much of her time and energy, all the grading and lesson planning ultimately made her feel very prepared for a teaching position. Second, thanks to a fellowship from the Institute of the Humanities while writing her dissertation, Duygu was able to leave herself two years to apply for a job. This alleviated some of the financial burden, as well as visa-related worries. As she began applying for the second time in her seventh year, she felt more confident describing her work to different audiences this time, and also put more effort tailoring her statements to each application, making sure to show employers that she had the skills they were seeking, and more. The strategy worked and, once again, Duygu was able to find “home,” now at Barnard.
Finishing the Ph.D. and finding a job in the US as a Turkish scholar could have been even tougher, had Duygu not found help and support from Complit, her fellow graduate students, and the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), where she worked actively as a part of the international graduate student caucus. While she acknowledges the value of having such a large number of international students, Duygu wishes that the University of Michigan and other American institutions that use diversity as a currency would take more responsibility for their minority populations and what they require in terms of information and support, financial and otherwise. “Things need to be more organized and streamlined so that international students can worry less about jumping through structural hoops,” she suggests.
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This interview was conducted and edited by Duygu Ergun and Luiza Duarte Caetano as part of their work as Graduate Student Diversity Allies in the Summer of 2021.