Critical Language Scholarship Program | Celebrating Women's History…

Celebrating Women's History Month with CLS Alumnae

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, the CLS Program is shining a spotlight on three inspiring and entrepreneurial CLS Turkish alumnae: Isabelle McRae, Keyia Yalcin, and Sydney Ribot. Isabelle is a multilingual development consultant based in London, one of her recent projects, translating Turkey’s first NASA mission. Keyia Yalcin is founder of Baltimore-based Fishnet, a seafood restaurant inspired by Turkish cuisine that combines fresh ingredients and old-world methods. Sydney Ribot is an Argentine American filmmaker who has directed films in Turkey, China, and the U.S. informed by her Argentinian and Southern U.S. roots and extensive time spent in Turkey. 

Connecting each of their stories is a desire to break the mold, a bravery to aspire to achieve something larger than themselves, and a confidence that their voice and perspective deserve a spot at the table. 

Senior Communications Officer Rori DiFiore, recently had the pleasure of speaking with all three women on life post-CLS, how the Turkish language has impacted their career trajectories, and what advice they would give to others trying to find their place. Please note that each interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Isabelle McRae

CLS Turkish 2016

Isabelle holds a MA in Conflict Studies with Distinction from the London School of Economics and a BA in International Affairs (Honors) summa cum laude and a Minor in Turkish Language and Politics from Portland State University. As an undergraduate student at Portland Community College, Isabelle participated in the 2016 CLS Turkish Program hosted by Azerbaijan University of Languages in Baku, Azerbaijan. Isabelle lives in the London where she works as a multilingual consultant taking on projects that feed her curiosity – whether translating court cases for asylum-seekers or more recently, serving as an interpreter for Turkey’s first NASA mission.

Rori DiFiore: First, I’d love to hear a bit about what you’ve been up to in the 8 years since CLS?

Isabelle McRae: I'll do the shortened version. CLS was my first scholarship, and it was a huge opportunity for me as a non-traditional student from a low-income background. After high school, I had a bit of a vagabond phase volunteering on farms and traveling all over Turkey and Central Asia by myself. At some point, I realized I needed to get an education. I started at Portland Community College and knew that I wanted to figure out how to bring my connection to Turkey into my academic life. I had no idea where it was going to take me. I received CLS that first year and it ended up being hosted in Baku, Azerbaijan which was an unexpected twist of fate. It led me to become really interested in the Caucasus region. I transferred to Portland State University to finish my degree and had amazing opportunities to study abroad in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University with other scholarships, and then I ended up working for CLS as the Resident Director of the Azerbaijani program. 

Through my experience in Azerbaijan, working with and living with people who were displaced from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, I became interested in forced displacement and refugee policy. I decided I wanted to study conflict studies. I got into a master's program at the London School of Economics and moved to the U.K. I thought I’d be here for eight months and move to Turkey, but life didn’t work out that way. COVID happened and I decided to build my career here. Living in London, supports a lot of the work that I do in the Caucasus and in Turkey. The proximity to those diaspora communities is quite special. That’s where I am nowadays. 

RD: Was CLS your first time studying the Turkish language? What has your journey to fluency been like? 

IM: To your first question, I had never studied Turkish when I went into CLS. I had spent a good chunk of time in Turkey, so I had picked up some street language and basic vocabulary, but I had no idea about grammar. CLS gives you this in-country experience, which I think is so special. It allows people to make huge jumps with their language, and especially when you're starting at a beginner level. The opportunity to be in-country, have a social life in the language, hang out, and make friends contributed to a sense of fluency that wasn't just classroom fluency. It was real-world fluency. 

And then, doing quite specialized work in different areas, I became qualified as an immigration court interpreter. And I had to do a whole exam and special course of study for that. I was fluent in Turkish at that point but that was a whole new language domain. What's delightful about learning a language is that you can get to really high levels of fluency but then if you want to specialize or learn a new domain, you start all over again. I love the intellectual challenge of that. People who end up being successful with languages, especially professionally, have that curiosity and enjoy that process, which is a painful mental challenge. I've benefited a lot from putting myself in situations that have forced me to use the language. CLS of course but also spending time in Turkish speaking diaspora communities in the U.S., going out to eat at Turkish restaurants, watching Turkish soap operas, trying to surround myself in that culture so that I could learn the colloquialisms, the slang, all of that. And learning as I worked, if I had to translate a document that was about something I know very little about, let's say medical trials, for example, I'm learning a whole new part of the language. 

RD: What advice would you give to others interested in getting into careers in translation?

IM: I’m very passionate about supporting young people who are interested in getting into the translation and interpreting industry. There are languages which are considered languages of lesser diffusion, like Turkish, that’s a very geeky industry term. But there is demand. I don't want to say you can suddenly get a full-time job from zero. But I've benefited a lot from being in a niche market. As a native English speaker, not only can I do the translation and interpreting, but I can also help Turkish clients localize their content to an American market. I have lots of clients who are very happy to work with me because we can have all of our work meetings in Turkish. I would encourage young people who are going through CLS or interested in CLS, that there are a lot of different and creative ways to use language skills beyond just the traditional translating documents or interpreting. You can use your Turkish skills working in finance, or working in natural resources, or politics (which is more like me). There's a lot of room for creativity there. 

RD: Could you tell us about your work on translation for the NASA Turkey Mission? 

IM: To talk about the NASA role, I’d like to give a shout out to the American Translators Association. This is the premier professional association for anyone who works in the language industry in North America. Many people from outside of the US use it as a resource for finding qualified and skilled translators and interpreters. I had gone to my first ATA conference two years ago, and got recruited by this agency called Masterword, which is a language agency that gets big contracts from a lot of very interesting bodies, many of them government and sciences and education in the U.S. Thanks to them, over my Christmas break, I was sitting at home, checking my emails when I got an alert of a request for Axiom Space. And I thought, this is interesting. I knew that Turkey was developing a space program, but I figured it might be really technical. I wasn’t sure I had the expertise to do simultaneous interpreting around aerospace. I emailed the project manager and was like, I'm not sure if this is for me, and she was like, it's fine, we'll send you some info beforehand. It won't be too technical. I accepted the assignment. Then I got the immediate response back with the details of the assignment, and it said, Turkish astronaut, plus the Turkish space agency delegation, plus Turkish president.

I thought, Oh my God, what have I done? I was beside myself, I said, there is no way I can do this. I'm qualified as an interpreter, but I normally work in consecutive interpreting, but I thought, I've signed up for this now, I can't say no. In the end, I was interpreting for the NASA team so that they could understand the highly publicized Turkey-facing conversation that was held between President Erdogan and Alper Gezeravci, the first Turkish astronaut who was in the International Space Station at that time. I got on Teams with NASA, they're listening to me and then I have the livestream of Alper who's floating around in the space station. And then I'm hearing the disembodied voice of President Erdogan in my headset. I was also cramming vocabulary related to anti-gravity and spatial science experiments. Needless to say, it was the most stressful assignment I've ever had, but it seemed to have gone over well, and NASA understood me despite the livestream glitching out several times during the talk. 

RD: Do you have advice for students at the beginning of their academic journey wondering how to choose a career path that feels true to them?

IM: I thought about that a lot when I had this NASA assignment. I'm 30 now, when I went on CLS I was 22. Eight years ago, I took my first Turkish class. I never in my life thought one day I'm going to be interpreting for the President of Turkey. That I would have gotten so deep down this pathway, that would be something I do as part of my career. I think a lot of that came through following my curiosity. I think that is an important signal, when we're in our early 20s or late teens, and we're trying to figure out what do we want to do in this world. How do we pay our bills? But also how do we have a career that we feel good about? Follow your curiosity even if you don’t know where it’s going to take you. I had great allies and advisors who helped me see that I could have bigger dreams than I thought. It's important to locate people in your university, community or family, who can nudge you and say, "Hey, what about this scholarship?” Especially for young women, we often put the bar really low for ourselves because society might tell us that we're not worth something bigger, that we don't come from the perfect background and therefore we don't deserve that. That's absolutely not true. I'm so grateful to my community college advisors, my first Turkish professor at Portland State University who wrote references for me and told me about programs I had no idea about. Curiosity and allies are so important. For people who are passionate about language or passionate about what language can do and what it can contribute to their lives. Pay attention to that and follow up with it.

Keyia Yalcin

CLS Turkish 2010

From a young age, Keyia has loved bringing people together. She channeled that love into a career in the real estate and hospitality industry. Keyia Yalcin is the founder and owner of The Yalcin Group, a commercial real estate agency, and Fishnet Restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland. Fishnet combines the Turkish culinary concept of Balik Ekmek (Fish in Bread) with her Baltimore roots and belief in the value of fresh ingredients. Keyia participated in the 2010 CLS Turkish Program in Bursa, Turkey. She received her M.S. in Real Estate Development from Georgetown University and her B.B.A. Business Hospitality Management from Howard University.

Rori DiFiore: Where did your interest in the culinary world and restaurants emerge? 

Keiya Yalcin: It's funny because I always knew I liked to talk to people. I was that social kid always chatting up a million different random people that you couldn't figure out why they all knew each other. Growing up, I had to ask myself, what does that look like as far as a career? 

I felt like that's hospitality because it's all about being hospitable and talking to people. At first, I thought my path would be through international business. But then I met with a Diplomat in Residence who shared with me that becoming successful in business can also be an avenue to diplomacy. I thought, now that sounds like a path for me. I majored in hospitality and met my husband around 19 years old. He's Turkish and from Istanbul. We met in a restaurant, and I thought, I want to be doing this with him. It just kind of worked out perfectly. I ended up at Georgetown University majoring in real estate development, but I had a whole Turkish degree on the side. I just didn't want to miss any conversation. I've been with my husband for 18 years; it'll be 19 this year. I have a whole Turkish family. I still speak Turkish all the time. Our restaurant is a fish restaurant based on the concept of balik ekmek, which are fish sandwiches. 

RD: Can you tell us more about your motivations for participating in CLS? 

KY: CLS gave me Turkish on my own terms. It gave me language for myself, not just for him [my husband]. And it really set me apart because to this day, Turkish will come flowing out of my mouth, and people will be stunned. Thinking, “Oh my god, how do you even know this? I wouldn't expect you to.” I'm having a full conversation with them. For me, learning Turkish has been about breaking stereotypes, having access to language and cultural understanding, on my own terms. CLS really just gave me Turkey. It became mine. I wasn't learning it for my husband, I was learning it for me. And it opened this door of linguistics. 

RD: Could you tell us more about how Turkish culture and cuisine factor into Fishnet? 

KY: I will say this, the soul of the restaurant, our food perspective, is not American. Because at the center of our approach to sourcing and produce, is the question of what does it mean to be fresh? What does it mean to cook something with an old-world method? I don't microwave because I don't know what that does to your body. I think a lot of the rest of the world has that perspective around food. I remember going to Turkey, and the farmers would put “Organic” on cardboard signs in the middle of their produce. They didn't really know what it meant, somebody told them apparently it was good for marketing, but the farmers' normal way of growing produce had always been organic. 

I think that the rest of the world really respects the old methods and old ways of preparation and cooking and food sourcing. At our restaurant, we do things right. We think about things, for example our oils don't have accelerators in them because if the accelerator can extend the life of the oil outside of the body, then it might do the same for oils inside of the body. Those types of things are very Turkish in thought. However, we also season some items on our menu heavily because I'm from Baltimore, and that's part of my tradition. It's an American taste with old world methods. 

RD: What advice would you give to others hoping to break into the restaurant business, perhaps for women in particular? 

KY: I think the restaurant business is tough. It can be brutal. At this point, I've just been in it so long I know what to do. But it's a hard business. I do think that for women, entrepreneurship gives you freedom to do the things that you want to do with your time, with your life, whether that is having a family or traveling or having a spouse or partner. And I would recommend that for anyone. All businesses are people businesses. Everything is hospitality. If someone is trying to break into restaurants specifically, I would just say start small. See if you can do a pop-up successfully. See if you can do a private dinner successfully. There are all sorts of micro ways to start your business without mortgaging your entire future. 

RD: What has been one of your takeaways from your CLS Turkish experience that you often reflect on? 

KY: During my CLS experience, I was in Bursa, which is a small city in Turkey. Although I was married at the time and my in-laws lived in Istanbul, I lived with a host family in Bursa. I think the thing that I still take away from that experience is that life is about translation. At the end of the day, you want who you are and what you believe, the things that are authentically you, to be able to translate into any language. So, I think that's the takeaway, that I always want to be able to translate myself. And it doesn't mean changing myself, but just understanding that who I am as a person is beyond language. I want to make sure that I can shine wherever in the world I am.

Sydney Ribot 

CLS Turkish 2011

For Argentine American filmmaker Sydney Ribot, Turkish language and culture was foundational to her start in film. Sydney participated in the 2011 CLS Turkish Program hosted by TOMER institute in Izmir, Turkey. With the help of the James B. Reynolds Scholarship from Dartmouth College, Sydney moved to Turkey full-time in 2013, and Turkey became the birthplace of her first film. Since then, Sydney has gone on to direct numerous films in China, the U.S., and, of course, Turkey, which have been screened at international festivals around the globe. She returns to Turkey every year for film collaborations, weddings, and meeting friends. She hopes to return to Istanbul in the near future to begin filming her next endeavor, a boisterous female-driven TV series focused on unexpectedly liberating encounters between people in liminal spaces, inspired by her 14 years in Turkey.

Rori DiFiore: How has learning Turkish impacted your career path as a filmmaker?

Sydney Ribot: Learning Turkish definitely facilitated me getting a proper start as a film director. Because I mean, it's very chicken or the egg, right? Nobody's going to give you money to make movies until you've made movies. And how are you going to start doing that? I had gotten interested in Turkish in undergrad. I first went to Turkey through the Georgetown program in Alanya in 2010. I felt like I’d just scratched the surface. How was I going to keep learning Turkish? CLS really kicked that off for me in Izmir. I went from knowing maybe 100 words to speaking in the advanced range in two months, largely because I had to learn how to defend myself against all the aunties, who were sort of suffocating in their hospitality. There were 20 of us that got sent to Izmir. And I just remember, thinking, I just love this. I love the group of people who choose to learn Turkish. 

CLS also built momentum for me to apply to other opportunities. I went on to receive the James B. Reynolds Scholarship from Dartmouth, which allowed me to move to Turkey full-time in 2013. It was there that I created my first films. Turkey is such a unique place. It's at the border of things. I feel like I live at the border of things. I think there's so much possibility in living at the border of things. 

RD: What has it been like navigating the film industry as a women director? 

SR: I view myself as a woman filmmaker, it's unavoidable. There have been times on set when wearing the clothes I’ve wanted to wear, like a shirt that exposed my lower back when I sat down, made the location scout salty. We were in a conservative neighborhood. He wanted to protect my honor. I thought, I’ll wear a shirt with an open back tomorrow because I am the director, you can deal with it. That’s my prerogative. These little choices are how the public sphere gets decided. It’s also one of the great things about Turkey—women can wear a hijab or a miniskirt–and everybody just has to get over it. Just be ready to defend your choice against whoever woke up on the wrong side of the bed and decided to police you. One of the first phrases I learned in Izmir was, “Sana ne?” – “What’s it to you?” Useful in life, really. 

Sofia Coppola, when she was first directing, would wear these ridiculous sequined dresses on set, just to be like, I'm a woman, I'm doing it. I think every project and film I’ve directed has gotten easier. By the time I directed Gazi (2017), I cast a lot of actors who ended up being big, like Merve Dizdar, who just won Best Actress at Cannes. I had met her though a friend and just asked, hey want to be in this? We’re shooting at Büyük Londra on Wednesday. It's an ensemble piece, a little bit of improv, but here’s the bones of it. And she was like, I like your energy, and then we shot it. No audition. Just met for a coffee. That’s the cool thing, you just have to put yourself out there and things build momentum. 

RD: What advice would you give to aspiring female filmmakers? 

SR: Keep making stuff. Keep doing it. Say yes to things, go to parties, meet people. One thing women risk is if you make something as a woman, it's seen as standing for all women, which is annoying. I'm on the side of good movies coming from the creator's deep anxieties and obsessions. That's what resonates with people, not trying to map it onto some giant political game. It's like, this is my problem, my issues, and I'm self-indulgent enough to put them out there. 

Film is really social, so there are checks and balances. If your movie doesn't resonate, people won't help you make it. Nobody's in it for the money, especially with short films, so you must have the passion. Just be unapologetic about it and have fun. Because at the end of the day, yes, people want to be part of something beautiful, funny, entertaining, moving. But they also want to have fun. You get into filmmaking thinking because what's better than an art project with 30 friends? So, if you enjoy spending time with people, it's a good fit for you.

Posted Date

March 28, 2024

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