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Turkish Jewish student thrives at MIAD
May 5th, 2006
Life as a college student in Milwaukee is the opposite of what Selim Barokas experienced at home in Istanbul, Turkey.
Imagine every day you are eating dinner with your family and then every day you are eating dinner with other teenagers, Barokas said during a recent interview at the student union of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in the Third Ward.
Many of his American friends looked forward to leaving their families and coming to college, but Barokas, 20, misses his. Family is very important in Turkish culture, he said.
Barokas, a Jewish student in his second year of a four-year industrial design program at MIAD, said that he has adjusted well to the change. Right now, I have no difficulties, but in freshman year it was really hard to adapt.
Adapting seems to be one of Barokas skills. At home in Istanbul, where his ancestors have lived for a long time, his parents chose to send him to an American style bilingual English/Turkish school, rather than the Jewish school in his community.
His parents, a womens clothing boutique owner and an auto parts dealer, chose that school because they wanted to give him more opportunities, fearing he would otherwise be stuck in a small community, he said. That school, particularly its outstanding art teacher, opened the door that led to Milwaukee and MIAD.
But it was largely based on an English teacher/college advisor and her enthusiasm for MIADs industrial design program that Barokas ranked the Milwaukee institution at the top among his choices for art school.
In high school, I was good at math, he said, but I really wanted to create something.
Among the list of his creations are original designs for a pencil sharpener, a model cable car and, most recently, a fiberglass submarine prototype. Each design must not only have proper form but also must function, Barokas said.
All about me
Now, at the end of his sophomore year at MIAD, Barokas is finishing up his submarine and preparing for a trip home for his summer vacation. And looking back at the mid-point of his four-year design program, he says the experience has been great for him.
He most appreciates MIADs focus on individual development, which is different from the more objective, test-driven approach of his Turkish education. Here, its all about me, he said.
During his senior year in high school he was required to earn a minimum score on a design exam given just once a year in order to qualify to enter the study of industrial design.
But at MIAD, the emphasis is on learning through creative projects, he said. During his senior year, he said, he will choose the project he most enjoyed and that will help him decide on his career direction.
Barokas is not alone as an international student at MIAD, though the school maintains no statistics about the number of Jews on campus. This semester, 25 of the schools some 650 students come from outside the United States, primarily from Asia. Though he has friends from Thailand, Japan, Italy and Germany, most of his friends are Americans who grew up within two hours of here.
Its nice to be an international student. Im seeing stuff Ive never seen and my English is getting better, he said.
The international students contribute to the school environment, said Kurt Meinke, MIAD director of international programs. The cultural background that they bring to our small school has a critical impact on our students. They add a global perspective to our very Midwestern campus, he said.
Though like most college students, his life revolves around school, Barokas enjoyed a brush with the local Jewish community when Lake Park Synagogues Rabbi Shlomo Levin invited him for a meal during the High Holy Days, he said.
And he has friends all around the country. During his recent spring break he visited five Turkish friends enrolled at Brandeis University.
And he will likely have the opportunity to experience another area of the country during his junior year, as MIAD offers interested students a semester on another campus. Interested in San Francisco, Barokas may go there for the spring term.
On being a Jew in Istanbuls majority Muslim society, Barokas said that Turkey is different from other Muslim countries because it is secular and democratic.
Everyone is equal, he said, and he feels no prejudice against him from his many Muslim friends. He keeps up with news from Turkey by reading online newspapers and feels that Turkey is becoming more committed to its secular democratic system, not less, he said.
Barokas will spend his break with his parents, his 17-year old brother Altan and large extended family in Istanbul.
Im really happy here [in Milwaukee] but when I go back to Turkey, after one day, I feel like Ive never been away. I have no family here, so Istanbul is the best place, he said.