I first met Okan when I was moving into the American Foreign Policy Institute this past summer, and he graciously offered to help me move in. I came to know him as a thoughtful, ernest student who was always down for intellectual discussion and ready to offer style advice.
How do you dress yourself in the morning? You do always put in a lot of attention into your attire.
I usually plan ahead. Like at least the night before, or sometimes I plan the whole week if it’s necessary. I don’t know how I would describe it; I just make sure that there is some kind of contrast. If I’m wearing a button-down, I’m wearing jeans.
This all ties in to how you’ve previously described yourself as the “archetypal metrosexual.” How did this claim emerge?
It’s not my own claim. I’ve been told that, and I kind of just came to accept it as a style. I guess [this emerged] from having spent too much time on just taking care of myself. Some people find that unusual and not like the mainstream masculine. I don’t care. That might be why. I just came to accept the claim and adopt the label.
This tangentially relates to your pop star career in your middle and high school years.
Ever since I was really little, like seven or eight, I wanted to dance like Michael Jackson. And I had been working on that, and there was this dance competition in my middle school and then I was waiting for that moment and I got to dance in the style of Michael Jackson and a little bit of Turkish folk dance. And [it] got quite a bit of views on YouTube. Probably about half of them by the local Turkish people and half of them by people all over the world. But then that died off very quickly after about two months, but getting people praising something that I’ve been working on for years was quite interesting. And then the fame dying off was also not so great.
What does your Turkish nationality mean to you?
One of the things that I’ve found that people in the U.S. could be careful about is that when someone is from a specific country, it doesn’t mean that they belong to the major ethnic group of that country. Someone might say that they’re from Croatia and you go to them and you might say, “What is it like being Croatian?” There’s a pretty good chance that they’re not Croatian. They’re maybe Serbian, and the same is also true for Turkey. Someone might be Kurdish or Armenian. Chances are that they’ve assimilated and identify themselves as Turkish, but some don’t. Some see that as a power structure that is dominating the geography and their identities. Their ethnic identity, their language is much more central to them. But I am ethnically Turkish and I am what some people in Turkey would call a “white Turk.” Not necessarily a racial term, but being more privileged, being from Western Turkey, growing up in a more secular environment. One of the things that’s really magical for me is being born in this geography and feeling part of history and being a descendent of ancient Anatolians. According to some research, 85 percent of the genetic composition of the Western Turks comes from the ancient civilizations and not the Turkish tribes that emigrated and captured what is today Turkey. I am ethnically Turkish but I am also a descendant of Hittites, of Trojans, of Lydians.
So how did you then hear about the College and decide to apply here?
About a quarter of the students from my high school end up at colleges in the U.S. and the U.K. I was just looking, just Googling “best colleges in the U.S.” The small campus, the closeness that I was hoping would exist between professors and looking at the community, just something about the community really attracted me. And yeah, I decided to come. I didn’t even get to visit Williams before deciding to come here.
Had you been to the States before?
I have been pretty much every summer during my time as a high school student. The first time I was in the U.S. was when I was doing a summer program about acting in New York. Now, looking back, I’m seeing how many things I didn’t really understand. I had this vision of what the U.S. would be like, how American society would function, and just like how much that didn’t actually fit what I was experiencing, but I didn’t actually notice that. So I was kind of living in a lie, in a dream at that time. And then I also came another year to do a summer program, and then two summers before coming to Williams to work as a research assistant in a psychology lab. Before coming to Williams, I was really sure that I would double major in theatre and psychology, and that is not what I’m doing now.
What led you to the academic focuses that you have now?
I think my passion for just figuring out why things are the way they are and how the world actually works and how societies work led me to take the classes that I took. I became very interested in sociology and also took Professor [Christian] Thorn’s cultural theory class. It also helped me see things that I’m really interested in. I became really interested in critical theory after that, and political theory as well.
So what classes and professors have been especially meaning to you?
I took Professor MacDonald’s political theory class, and it had obviously a lot of political theory but it also had a lot of political sociology. It was a small class, and I learned a lot and I got to really use so much of the knowledge that I got in that class. I had this date, and during the date I got to talk about pretty much all of the authors we read in that class. She was really interested in political theory so I got to lecture her about pretty much a summary of the class and connect all the different authors. I feel like Professor MacDonald would be proud.
You were a bit of an insurrectionist in your adolescence. How did you get involved in political activity?
So, the protests that were happening in Turkey were initially about protecting the environment, because the plan of the government was initially to demolish one of the last public green spaces left in Istanbul. There were only like 15, 20 protestors first, and their tents got burned by the police and the next day there were like tens of thousands of people in the square, in the park. It got really big, and it turned into an anti-authoritarian, anti-government set of protests or even a kind of uprising. But for the most part it was also like a festival — it was not hardcore; there was no violence. There were instances of vandalism, but for the most part it was just people hanging out in the park. It was very much like the anti-war protests that happened in the U.S., and if you look at the images I think it looks just like that. There were a lot of people from my high school and we camped in the park and that was the first time I really felt like a community, like part of a community. I felt like people really trusted each other; people really wanted to get to know each other. People from different backgrounds got to try to understand each other. You would have someone who was more conservative but was still against this because of what was done to the environment and you would have a transgender sex worker and you would watch them talk together about politics and watch them laugh together. It was a magical sight. There was a time when there were a lot of children in the park, and we built a sort of outdoor library together and then we were painting its walls together, having fun. It was so important to feel like a community and connect on this level. And the park has not been demolished, so it was in that way successful. I’m sure that some people actually wanted to overthrow the government, but for the most part that was not the goal and it changed everything. It raised this attitude, this understanding that you can’t just do whatever you want; people are going to actually come together. People that you tried to divide for so long will actually come together and try to understand each other and work for something to have for themselves.
What is the post-college plan?
I would want to use my political thinking to make a change, but at the same time, a part of me wants to just go back to Turkey, live a very simple life, maybe on a farm or something, and just be away from all kinds of complications, if that actually would be possible, and just read and listen to music.
So on the one hand, we have political revolutionary, and on the other we have, “I want to sit on a farm and read and listen to music and not do much else of anything.” Such is the nature of Okan, I suppose.