I am a sociologist. It took me a while to believe that I know enough to claim the honor. I started my career as an engineer. After brief internships in a pipe factory, a software company, and a management consulting firm, I realized that I am happiest in the library reading and puzzling over problems that most people do not care about. I read my first sociology book as a graduate student, and immediately knew I wanted to learn more. Then came the hard part: convincing my family that this was the right path. We made a pact in the end. They gave me one year to try this crazy thing. And the rest is history.
I study migration, and I am a migrant (many times over) myself. My first journey across borders happened when I was an infant. My parents—descendants of Ottoman settlers in today’s Bulgaria—returned to Turkey when I was just eight-months old to re-unite with their long-lost family members. We first settled in Bursa, then moved to Ankara, and finally to Kapakli, a tiny village two hours north of Istanbul, where my father served as the only doctor. I went to elementary school in Cerkezkoy, a nearby town, and through a nation-wide exam, got into a middle-school (Nisantasi Anadolu Lisesi) in Istanbul. At first, I lived with my uncle and cousins, who had just arrived in Turkey after being forced out by the communist regime in Bulgaria, and settled in Istanbul. Once my sister, Aylin, got into a school in the city, my mom moved there with us.
There was a track system in Turkey then, and I was put on a math and science track early on. This track naturally fed into the careers in medicine and engineering. So, I never got to ask myself: “What do I want to be?” I just assumed I should be an engineer. I took another nation-wide exam, along with more than a million high-school graduates, and luckily, got into my top choice: the Industrial Engineering program at the prestigious Bosphorus University. I learned a lot of math, some statistics, and some other engineering stuff. I thought I was ready to start my career in consulting or banking or anything but academia.
But I was also not immune to social influences. Many of my friends were applying to graduate schools in the United States, and I did not want to be left behind. So I applied, without much research, to wherever my friends were applying to. And, to my great surprise, I got into a master’s program at Princeton. For the next year, I continued to learn math, this time applied to financial instruments, at the Operations Research and Financial Engineering Department. That summer I got an internship at a financial consulting company. It was good, but I was sure it was not for me. When I returned to school for my second year in the program, I knew I wanted to opt for academia, but I did not know in what field. I took courses from economics—which seemed to similar to what I had done before. And, then I discovered sociology. I did not understand much of it yet, but I knew here was a field that asked all the right questions.
To this day I have no idea why Princeton Sociology admitted me. I just know that I was extremely lucky. I got to work with amazing mentors (Paul DiMaggio, Sara Curran, Bruce Western, Doug Massey and Viviana Zelizer), and somehow, I wrote a dissertation that got me job at Harvard. After nine years there, I am now at Cornell. I still cannot believe my luck that I get to do this every day—read, think, learn, and teach.
I am honored that my research, teaching and mentoring has received recognition. As flattering as any award is, I think I am happiest when someone tells me that what I do or say is useful to them.
Elected to Sociological Research Association
Public Voices Fellowship, the Op-Ed Project
Analytical Sociology Best Paper Award
George Kahrl Excellence in Teaching Award @Harvard University