Monday, November 7, 2016

Illini Everywhere: Turkish Illini, Since 1920

By Salvatore de Sando

This article by Salvatore de Sando was originally published on the website for the Student Life and Culture Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign on October 25, 2016.  It has been republished here with permission.  

Since, at least 1920, Turkish students have been attending the University of Illinois. Turkish Illini have included accountants, anthropologists, architects, business administrators, chemists, civil engineers, computer scientists, economists, educational researchers, electrical and computer engineers, food scientists, materials scientists, mathematicians, mechanical engineers, musicians, political scientists, soldiers, swimmers, and teachers. Read on to learn more about early Turkish Illini!

A Turkish Student Society Group ILLIO Photo from the 1946 Illio, Page 405, found in Record Series 41/8/805 (Student Life and Culture Archives)

Life Abroad During the Turkish War of Independence, 1919-1923

Photographer and Electrical Engineer: Yussuf Zia

Yussuf Zia left the International College of Smyrna (now Izmir), during his junior year, to study electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. [1] During Mr. Zia’s two years at Illinois, he worked as an assistant in the photography department and he was a frequent speaker for campus events. In 1921, for the Asiatic Society club, Mr. Zia spoke about his experiences as a solider and army translator in 1915. [2] In 1922, for a multicultural student event, he told stories from the life of the satirical, Seljuk sufi, Nasreddin Hoca. [3] The follow year, Mr. Zia transferred to the University of Wisconsin to complete his studies in electrical engineering, before he found employment with Westinghouse Electric in East Pittsburgh. [4]

The Zeki Brothers Ali and Hassan

As the independence war loomed, Turkish novelist Halide Edib and her spouse, the Turkish politician, writer, historian, and medical doctor Adnan Adıvar, decided to send their sons abroad to study and to avoid fighting. [5] The couple knew University of Illinois Ottoman History Professor Albert Howe Lybyer, through his previous work as an instructor in Constantinople (now Istanbul) at Robert College and during his recent work on the 1919 Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey (also known as the King-Crane Commission). [6] The older brother Ali Ayet enrolled in electrical engineering and the younger brother Hassan Hikmet enrolled in University High School. Ali lived with Mr. Zia and Hassan lived with Dr. Lybyer.

Like Mr. Zia, Ali and Hassan came to the University of Illinois to begin their studies but they did not complete degrees. [7] Their coursework was not the only challenge ahead of them. In 1921, as the Scarlet Fever passed around campus, Hassan became ill, resulting in the Lybyer home, Yussuf, and Ali being placed under quarantine for weeks. [8] To be a sick student is no joy and it is worse in a foreign country with little contact from your family. Even worse, it was the 1920s and communication from Turkey to the United States was limited. It was the next Fall, when it was Daily Illini newsworthy to report when the Zeki brothers received a letter from their famous mother and hand-delivered from the Secretary of the American Chamber of Commerce in Constantinople (now Istanbul) Lawrence S. Moore. [9] After their illness had passed, later, the Zekis gave interviews about Turkey too. [10] They were never completely alone either, as faculty and other University community members did support these students throughout the year–including holiday breaks. For winter break 1922, for example, the Zekis joined Bulgarian students at Professor Lybyer’s home for a holiday dinner. [11] What did they do for fun? For fun, Ali was reported to be a competitive ping-pong player at the YMCA. [12] Unfortunately, it was not until the summer of 1923, when the Zekis visited their parents again. [13] Upon their return, during the next Fall, Hassan began courses at the University–in commerce–but both brothers left in 1925 to continue their studies.

A May 17, 1921 Daily Illini article with photographs of Ali and Hassan Zeki, as well as their mother Halide Edib. (Student Life and Culture Archives)


Studying Abroad Between the Wars 

While early Turkish students’ educations were funded privately, many post Independence War students were funded by government scholarships or graduate employment. During the 1930s, there were at least two students on campus: Djelal Eddin Moustafa (B.S. Civil Engineering 1932) and Naci İskender (B.S. Education 1937).

Djelal Eddin) Moustafa Illio Photo from the 1932 Illio, Page 103, found in Record Series 41/8/805 (Student Life and Culture Archives)

Naci Iskender Illio Photo from the 1937 Illio, Page 86, found in Record Series 41/8/805 (Student Life and Culture Archives)

Not much is known about Mr. Moustafa except that he continued his studies and he completed a Masters of Science program in Ohio. [14] Alternatively, Mr. İskender was active in campus life and after graduation, he returned to teach math in Turkey. [15] From DI interviews, we know that Mr. İskender took advantage of local, seasonal recreation opportunities like ice skating. In fact, during one ice skating trip, a DI reporter interviewed him. [16]

“In Turkey we do not have the opportunity to skate on ice; I can’t skate; but I want to learn; I think it is a wonderful sport” he said. “The national sports in Turkey are horseback riding and wrestling [sic] [i]n the universities, the leading sports are soccer and swimming.”

After asking for details about the government scholarship system, the reporter asked Mr. İskender what he thought about the University. That response which closed the article was:

“I like it very much, I think Illinois is a wonderful school.”

Studying Abroad During World War Two

Military Officers and Civil Engineers, 1940-1945

During the early 1940s, the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department accepted a group of Turkish military officers to continue advanced studies in engineering. The first students included Captain Mehmet Fuat Tigrak (B.S. 1942, M.S. 1943, PhD 1945), and Lieutenant Mehmet Ensar Uyanik (B.S. 1942, M.S. 1943, PhD 1945).

Captain Mehmet Fuat Tigrak Illio Photo from the 1942 Illio, Page 105, found in Record Series 41/8/805 (Student Life and Culture Archives)


Lieutenant Mehmet Ensar Uyanik Illio Photo from the 1942 Illio, Page 106, found in Record Series 41/8/805 (Student Life and Culture Archives)


Initially, both officers came to complete bachelors and masters degrees; however, with the support of Department Head and Professor Whitney Clark Huntington, they completed PhDs too. In fact, under the supervision of Professor Ralph Peck, both men were involved with the development and construction of the University of Illinois – Willard Airport. [17] Future Turkish civil engineers would continue to attend the University in large numbers, and they even comprised the majority of the Turkish student population until the 1960s.

A September 9, 1943 Letter from Professor W.C. Huntington to Major Aydinalp, found in Record Series 11/5/1, Box 8, Folder "Turkish Students." (Student Life and Culture Archives)


An October 8, 1946 Letter from Professor Tigrak to Profesor Huntington, found in Record Series 11/5/1, Box 8, Folder "Turkish Students." (Student Life and Culture Archives)


Turkish Student Society (1944-49) and Turkish Student Association (1959-Present)

As the Turkish student population grew, there were increased opportunities for Turkish students to help other Turkish students as well as to share Turkish cultures with the University community. Since at least 1944, Turkish students formed at least two student organizations at the University.

From 1944 to 1949, the Turkish Student Society (TSS) was the first registered student organization (RSO) for Turkish students. Through the YMCA‘s international programs, the TSS participated in annual Turkish Coffee nights. Through the Cosmopolitan Club, TSS members found opportunities to exchange cultural knowledge with other students and community members. Turkish coffee nights and Turkish dinners can be found in the the Daily Illini.

A Turkish Student Association group Illio Photo from the 1964 Illio, Page 297, found in Record Series 41/8/805 (Student Life and Culture Archives)

Today, since 1959, the Turkish Student Association (TSA) continues the work of their predecessors, including mentoring and supporting new students, while organizing cultural events for members and the University community. By the 1950s, the first Turkish women arrived as students, thus making the TSA a co-ed student organization from its inception. With nearly a century of Turkish students on campus, the longest, Turkish, student-run campus event must be the annual Cumhuriyet Bayramı (Republic Day) which celebrates the establishment of the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923. As the Turkish Student Society Coffee Hour booklet suggests below, this annual dinner ball may have been celebrated on campus for almost the entire history of the Turkish Republic.

The cover of a TSS student publication for the 1946 Turkish Coffee Hour, found in Record Series 41/6/840, Box 33, Folder "Turkish Student Society." (Student Life and Culture Archives)


The fourth page of a Turkish Student Society "Turkish Coffee Night" program booklet, found in Record Series 41/6/840, Box 33, Folder, "Turkish Student Society." (Student Life and Culture Archives)


Are you a Turkish Illini? Do you know someone who is? We’d like to hear from you! Please send us a message or leave a comment below. We want to include you and your story, as we celebrate the first 150 years of the University of Illinois.

Happy First 150 everyone!

(A special thank you to the University of Illinois Turkish Student Association officers and members who invited me to their meetings and events, while supporting the development of this story and for sharing their stories too.)

[1] “Turkish Student Made Photography Assistant”, Daily Illini, February 9, 1921, page 1.

[2] “Yussuf Zia to Speak”, Daily Illini, April 8, 1921, page 1. Also see: “Zia Relates Experiences as Turkish Army Officer”, Daily Illini, April 9, 1921.

[3] The stories were part of a larger student club event at the Union Building, including Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Filipino students. “Japanese Wedding to Mark Program in Oriental Bazaar”, Daily Illini, January 5, 1922, page 8.

[4] The Wisconsin Engineer, Volume 30, Number 5, February 1926, page 168.

[5] “Mother To Sick Students Arrives As Envoy Of Turkish Government”, Daily Illini, May 17, 1921, page 8. Of course, Mr. Adıvar was their step-father; the brothers’ biological father was the Ottoman mathematician, physicist, and astronomer Salih Zeki.

[6] American Charles C. Crane may have financed their education, says Mr. Normal E. Saul in his recent book The Life and Times of Charles C. Crane, 1858-1939.

[7] Years later, the DI reported that Ali was enrolled in the University of London, Hassan had completed his Bachelors at Cornell and he enrolled in Columbia University for a Masters program. Please see: “Mother of Illini Students to Talk for Native Land” by C. R. Frederick, Daily Illini, August 9, 1928, page 2.

[8] “Lybyer Put Under Scarlet Fever Ban”, Daily Illini, April 19, 1921, page 5. This lasted for a few weeks. Mr. Zia recovered first, followed by Ali and then Hassan. Please see: “Release Quarantine Ban From Youssauf A. Zia ’24”,

[9] “Turkish Students Receive Tidings from Homeland”, Daily Illini, January 21, 1922, page 8.

[10] Ali shared a second-hand account of a friend whose home was looted during fighting in Smyrna (Izmir). “Turkish Student Goes Here from Far Golden Horn”, Daily Illini, September 27, 1922, page 7. For an account of a University faculty member’s childhood in Smyrna (Izmir), please see: Record Series 15/3/20 “George C. McVittie Papers“. Ali also spoke at a Rotary International anniversary event. Please see: “Foreign Students Assist Rotary in International”, Daily Illini, February 19, 1924, page 1.

[11] “Foreign Students to Spend Holidays with Faculty, Townsmen and Memories”, Daily Illini, December 23, 1922, page 6.

[12] He took second place, after winning 21 of 30 games in a spring tournament. “Ransdell Seizes Cup After Month’s Effort at Ping Pong Tourney”, Daily Illini, March 15, 1923, page 6.

[13] “Zeki Brothers to Visit Parents in Stamboul”, Daily Illini, April 17, 1923, page 2 and “Zeki Brothers Return from Visiting their Mother”, Daily Illini, September 19, 1923, page 2.

[14] Record of Proceedings of the Board of Trustee of the Ohio State University, Columbus, July 1, 1933 to June 30, 1934, page 135.

[15] Mr. Iskender may have been a mathematics book co-author too. Also see this Ankara Kolej Class of 1955 reunion webpage for a later photograph of Mr. Iskender.

[16] “Try, Try Again, Is Iskender’s Motto; He Thinks Ice Skating is a Wonderfully Fine Sport”, Daily Illini, November 13, 1934, page 7.

[17] Record Series 11/5/1, Box 8, Folder “Turkish Students”.

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