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Worldly Determination

November 11, 2013 | by Lara Zielin

Grace Sims anticipated culture shock.  She knew she’d miss her parents and 12 siblings. And she figured she’d experience a few “firsts,” such as seeing the ocean and flying on a plane, as she headed to Turkey to participate in an international internship. For eight weeks, Sims would be teaching English in the capital city of Ankara along with seven other U-M students.

What she didn’t expect is that she’d be the subject of intense scrutiny and attention for the color of her skin. She also didn’t think that she’d uncover her passion and get a clearer idea of what she wanted to do after college.

For the first week, Sims helped students learn English by teaching about American culture, and she facilitated a “conversations club,” leading discussions in English for Turkish students. It was during her second week—on a trip to Istanbul with the entire group—that small children started approaching her. Then came the teens. Sometimes, there were men. Many wanted pictures. Some wanted to give her gifts.

“There are very few black people in Turkey,” Sims says. “I didn’t realize this, and I didn’t have a clear idea of what to expect.” Sims clarifies that people were, for the most part, “intrigued but not rude,” yet she was still singled out for the rest of her trip, often with stares and pointing. The culture clash had her digging deep to try to get the most out of the experience.

“I became determined to enjoy myself,” she says. “I had to keep getting what I needed out of Turkey.”

So Sims worked to build relationships with her students, finding she enjoyed teaching. “I was surprised by that,” she says. She kept her office door open, and kids stopped by readily. She turned their interest into teachable moments, sharing about her family, about her faith, and about aspects of black culture.

Today, at the start of her senior year, Sims is considering applying for Teach for America or another teaching position abroad—perhaps in Japan, since she speaks the language.

Sims looks back on her eight weeks with fondness, not frustration. “The experience helped me pick my career,” she says.

“I’m grateful.”

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