ALUMNI PROFILE: Stacie Haen-Darden returns to Turkey as a Fulbright Scholar

When Sevastopol High School alumna Stacie Haen-Darden spent her senior year of high school in Turkey through the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, it changed her life, as the program so often does. But boarding the plane at age 17 – before the internet existed and before phone calls home required just a few taps on a smartphone – Haen-Darden was too scared to think that far ahead.

It didn’t help that she didn’t know Turkish. Early in the trip, for example, she got sick from drinking the tap water, but she couldn’t explain how she was feeling to her host mom, Nihal Gökhan. Overwhelmed and overcome by frustration, Haen-Darden started crying, and her host mom, feeling bad for her, started crying right along with her.

“We laugh about that now,” said Haen-Darden, who has since learned Turkish.

Despite the language barrier, she and the Gökhans grew close, and the classes she was attending at Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University (COMU) helped her to see the world “in a lens beyond the one I was comfortable with,” she said. “With adversity, you can allow it to be a stumbling block, or you can allow it to be a stepping stone. When you travel abroad, I think it strengthens your ability to make adversity into stepping stones.”

Stacie Haen-Darden with the host family that helped her to fall in love with Turkey in 1990. (From left) Merve Gökhan, now Merve Çelebi (Haen-Darden’s host sister); Nihal Gökhan (Haen-Darden’s host mom); Ruşen Fuat Gökhan (Haen-Darden’s host dad); and Haen-Darden. Photo courtesy of Stacie Haen-Darden.

By the end of that year, Haen-Darden was so reluctant to leave Turkey that she extended her trip through the end of summer, barely returning to the U.S. in time to attend the last student orientation at UW-Madison, where she was beginning her college career.

“It was hard because when you leave America [to begin the Rotary program], you know you’re coming back,” Haen-Darden said. “When I left [Turkey], I didn’t know when I would be back.”

Now, 32 years after that first trip, she’s back teaching at the same school that she attended in Turkey. As a Fulbright Scholar and senior lecturer, Haen-Darden teaches an English sociology-terminology course and co-teaches a sociology-of-crime course. She’s also an international-relations guest lecturer and the leader of a faculty seminar in which she explains her work with juvenile-justice programs in the United States.

After a full day of teaching, Haen-Darden helps to facilitate an English-language club, then heads to class herself to brush up on her Turkish. 

In the U.S., she’s a justice-studies adjunct faculty member at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, so she’s documenting her travels in Turkey on Instagram (@turkeyfulbrightscholar2022) with the help of Chappy, a stuffed-toy version of the College of DuPage’s roadrunner mascot. 

Stacie Haen-Darden in Turkey. Photo courtesy of Stacie Haen-Darden.

Though Chappy is good company, Haen-Darden misses her husband, kids and cat, and she’s looking forward to seeing them again on Jan. 29, when the semester concludes and she heads back home to Naperville, Illinois.

After three visits to Turkey – one through the Rotary Youth Exchange Program in high school in 1990, one with her family in 2015 and one with her college roommate in 2018 – Haen-Darden was excited about the opportunity to give back through education. The fear she felt during that first plane ride has long faded, and now she said Turkey feels like a second home.

That’s due in part to the bond she developed and still has with her host family – or her adopted family, as she calls them. 

And that bond only strengthened after she left. Haen-Darden and the Gökhans kept in touch – at first through letters and, on special occasions, costly international phone calls. Later, they switched to email, and the Gökhans have visited her in America several times throughout the years.

Though Haen-Darden started bonding with the Gökhans before she knew Turkish, learning the language since then has made it easier to connect with other Turks. Now she loves doing just that, whether it’s with a server in a restaurant who’s reading her fortune in her coffee grounds or a shop owner teasing her about her American accent.

Being immersed in a new language and culture “just opens your mind up to the goodness of others,” Haen-Darden said.

It has improved her teaching, too, by giving her a better understanding of how to approach cultural differences and interact with students who come from backgrounds that are very different from what she’s used to. 

Most of all, her experiences have taught her to adapt to change – something that doesn’t come easily to her meticulous-planner nature.

“The ‘F’ in ‘Fulbright’ stands for ‘flexible,’” Haen-Darden said, joking.

Throughout her trip, she has been soaking in the rich culture, the Turkish tea and her view of the sunset over the Çanakkale Bosporus out of her apartment window. Haen-Darden misses her family, but she knows that when she’s back in the States, she’ll miss Turkey again.

“When I start missing it too much, I’ll come back,” she said.

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