Ilke Zekiye Denizli (SIPA ’15) was born in Istanbul and moved with her family to New Jersey when she was seven. The family planned on returning to Turkey, but “it just never happened,” says Denizli, who found herself straddling two worlds. “Home’s not here, home’s not there, home’s just kind of this weird hybrid.”
It was Denizli’s Turkish background, and her interest in the interregional links between her native country and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, that pushed her to study the post-communist space. “The deeper I delved, the more I started realizing that I was interested in the unique cultural and political landscapes of this part of the world,” she says, noting that the Balkans, where Turkey has been an active player since the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, served as her point of entry to the region. The summer after her junior year, while pursuing a BA in political science and economics at Rutgers University, she interned with the U.S. Department of State, where she focused on the allocation of aid to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo.
In the fall of 2013, Denizli enrolled in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. She signed up for Professor Gulnar Kendirbai’s class on Central Asia, which presented an overview of “the whole trajectory of the region from tribes to the supposed ‘nation states’ we have now,” and solidified her interest in post-Soviet studies. She appreciated the firsthand regional knowledge that Kendirbai, who hails from Kazakhstan, brought to the classroom. “It’s great to be taught by someone who is passionate about the subject and can offer not only an academic but also local perspective,” she says.
Before long, Denizli was spending most of her time at the Harriman Institute—“people always assume I’m a MARS student.” Currently, she is a Harriman Institute Junior Fellow and a Harriman Isaac Henry Ergas Memorial Fellow, as well as the Institute’s department research assistant. She is also president of the Organization for the Advancement of Studies for Inner Eurasian Societies (OASIES), which she initially joined at Kendirbai’s urging. The organization sponsors a Central Asian film series, an annual conference where graduate students present on a range of topics pertaining to Central Asia, and networking events with former alumni. “This has been an amazing opportunity,” says Denizli, who continues to be in awe of the diversity of issues concerning the region, and the common threads between them. “You’re able to connect everything to the various empires and civilizations that have passed through or tried to assert their influence.”
After she graduates, Denizli plans to work on multilateral development. Last spring she interned with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Office for South-South Cooperation, where, among other things, she worked on a research project on Russian investments in the Common Wealth of Independent States (CIS) region. She went on to intern at the UNDP’s Istanbul International Center for Private Sector and Development last summer. “Perhaps I can continue to work for the UN,” she says.
– Masha Udensiva-Brenner
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