Interview with Bilgi Denel & Şener Özşahin

Two Significant Turkish Profiles at Princeton University in the 1960s:

A Perspective on the Transformative Landscape of Cross-Cultural Exchanges between Turkey and the US1

As an architect and an economist, Bilgi Denel (1937, Istanbul-…) and Sener Ozsahin (1944, Gelibolu-….) are two graduates of Princeton University in the 1960s. In relation to the new geopolitics order in the world and cross-cultural exchanges between postwar Turkey and the US, the first-hand experience of these two significant figures has a potential to shed light on the emerging dynamics of culturally responsive teaching and learning milieu in universities in North America in that period and their influences on the constructive operations of gender within such a context. As they expressed, Bilgi Denel, one of the very few foreign students at Princeton University was the first “qualifying student with an engineering background from Turkey” at the School of Architecture in 1959. Considering cultural difference as an important resource in teaching, learning and the production of knowledge, his formative years were shaped by Professor Labatut and Professor Lickleider; and those years gave a transformative motivation for his academic career in Turkish and the US architecture. As a second significant figure, Sener Ozsahin’s decision to study at Princeton University was shaped by his close dialog with Mr. Carl Tobey, his first English teacher in Turkey and a graduate of Princeton University (Class of ’40). Pursuing his education as the first Turkish citizen to earn a Princeton undergraduate degree, he studied economics and his roots in this field come from Prof. W. Arthur Lewis, Prof. Frederic Harbison, Prof. Mancur Olson and Prof. William J. Baumol. Obtained his degree in Economics in 1966, he conducted a successful professional career at OYAK (Turkey’s first and privately-owned pension fund) and some leading holdings, such as Sabanci and Ekinciler in Turkey, and played an important role in organizing and promoting activities and dialogs among the graduates of Princeton in his native country, as the founder and the first president of the Alumni Association of Princeton University in Turkey. In the following interviews, their answers provide a significant contextual grounding for understanding the multicultural perspective evolving in North America in the 1960s and its impact on higher education as well as the gender’s multiple roles in constructing both cross-cultural exchanges and the exploration of new knowledge in their disciplines and professions. These two figures and their career paths also indicate why there is still a need more inclusive scholarly studies on history in relation to their special fields in that time period: In order to complete the record of the past and explore the historical production of gender knowledge within a multiple perspective.

Meral Ekincioglu, Ph.D.

Cambridge, MA, June 24th 2016.

Bilgi Denel: A 45 Year Teaching Career in Architecture

Bilgi Denel (1937-…) (Photo courtesy of Bilgi Denel)

Bilgi Denel

Meral Ekincioglu: Dear Bilgi Denel, you are one of the pioneering figures who opened up new horizons for his students in architecture. Could you share your background in Turkey and in the US?

Bilgi Denel: I was born in Istanbul, in 1937, and grew up in Ankara. After my elementary school in Ankara, my father took me to Istanbul, to take something they called “tests” for three days at Robert College.  I had no idea what these were, but I thought they were entertaining; also, father had said that he would buy me a bike! I did get in (though the bike came much later!) and I was made a boarder. That meant I had to stay there even during the weekends since my family lived in Ankara then. To me, this place felt like a dungeon; I even refused to learn English – until I discovered the library, with thousands of books! This made the “dungeon” disappear for an eleven year old child!  In Robert College, I continued into its higher education program, and I graduated with a Degree in Civil Engineering in 1959. Engineering was a field my father thought as a good option, as the popular tendency in those years. Over the years, I had considered other venues and decided that architecture would have been much better for my abilities.

ME: How did you decide to pursue your education at Princeton University?

BD: I chose Princeton University somewhat arbitrarily. During the summer of my junior year, I wrote to a number of Graduate Schools of Architecture. I applied to 12 of those; I was accepted by 10. The Dean of the School of Architecture at Pennsylvania University, Holmes Perkins, interviewed me in Ankara and made an excellent offer to me. At the same time, Penn wrote to me that, as a foreign student, I could get very inexpensive season tickets to the Philadelphia Philharmonic. Being a music lover, I thought that I would spend all my time at concerts, and not find time to concentrate on my studies. That made me decline Penn! I decided on Princeton as a second choice. They informed me that I would be a qualifying student to take a whole bunch of undergraduate and graduate classes during the first year; I would do the regular graduate program starting the second year.

ME: Which department at Princeton University? Which years?

BD: Architecture Department. In 1959, I was one of the very few foreign students in architecture; the first “qualifying student with an engineering background from Turkey”. They did not quite know how to shape my program. In those early years, the school was somewhat racist and elitist, with no women students allowed. Fortunately, I had a few wonderful people who tutored me and nurtured my education. With a correct educational attitude, they observed my progress closely, trusted me, and pushed me forward at each step. The grading was pass/fail; with all passes, I was able to carry 5, 6, or more courses during a semester, spread over a variety of topics; I was always trying to catch up, and afterwards, introduced to another new challenge! Faculty and friends had a true shock once to find out that I did not even have a driver’s license when I could not design a parking lot properly! One learns quickly when one really wants this. From 1959 to 1961, my professional and cultural courses were completed (and I was able attend many great concerts as well), and after my 3rd and Senior year Graduate Design, Professor Jean Labatut, head of the Graduate Design, told me that I would be ready do my Master’s Thesis Project and finish during the 2nd semester of 1962-63.

ME: If you conduct a thesis at Princeton University, could you define it?

BD: 1959-1963. Professor Labatut was the Thesis Adviser for all Master’s Projects for all the 40+ years that he was at Princeton – a true master educator!  His title was Director of Graduate Studies. Students wrote a synopsis of what they will work on, in 100 words. Of course, I wanted to work on something big, tall, and heroic! He ordered me to do housing “indigenous” to Turkey! I did not quite know what that would encompass; this was the word we used before “vernacular” became fashionable.

When I told him that I did not know much about Turkish Indigenous Architecture, Professor Labatut intervened: They gave a scholarship money for that summer and sent a Turk (me) to Turkey, to learn something about Turkish vernacular architecture. My Master’s Thesis project was to design seven elementary village schools in the seven climactic regions of Turkey, using local materials available materials, climactic, and social factors, etc. I had 22 of 30X40” boards in color, where the reviewer could tell the different climates by my use of color on the drawings. My completed project of Master of Fine Arts in Architecture was successful and accepted. It is still at the so-called “Architecture Morgue” at Princeton, where sample graduate projects are kept as learning tools; I was told it was exhibited at the school, among a few others, as a sample of 1960s work a few years ago. This was the beginning of my life-long research on Vernacular Architecture in Turkey and elsewhere. My Ph.D. is from the Istanbul Technical University, not from Princeton.

ME: Is there any role model for you to conduct your career in the US, and in particular at Princeton University?

BD: Educators like Professor Labatut, Professor Lickleider, and others have been influential in shaping my learning and thought process. I realized early that you can not teach a student, but you can create incentives for a student to want to learn and teach himself.

ME: As Aliye Pekin Celik, the first woman architect from Princeton University states, you are one of the leading professors who influenced her career decision at that university. What would you like to share about your relation with her?

BD: In all, I had well over 6000 students. I usually have no idea in what course or time I had that person in my class since a new group comes after each semester.  However, I remember Aliye very well as a bright student, also responsible with good work habits, as I think of her work in juries. I also had her husband, Metin, as my student; I remember his work being very professional for a young student. I don’t remember many details, but she asked me if I could recommend her for Graduate studies at Princeton. I was pleased to recommend her and she got in.  I recommended her husband, Metin Çelik, for work at a friend’s professional office, where he worked for some 32 years or so until he retired. Both of them are very special people! I knew Aliye did very very well as a student, since a professor of mine wrote back to tell me that she became the 1st female Graduate Student of the School and graduated with honors. We were very proud of her achievements (I recently found that letter and gave it to Aliye, very proudly!). Over the years we have met socially.

As far as METU courses, design juries and criticisms, etc., go, Aliye would remember much better.

ME: Did you conduct any common project with her in the US?

BD: No common projects in the US.

ME: Do you know any Turkish women (and male) architects in the US in the same period? (In the 1960s-1970s)?

BD: There are a few. Some studied and returned to Turkey.  METU had several programs to send their better students mostly to Penn and Pratt Institute at Brooklyn, NYC during the 1960s but I have lost contact with most by now.

ME: Did you return to Turkey after Princeton, or continue your career in the US?

BD: After Princeton starting in June, 1963, I worked for SOM in NY for over a year. The experience was fulfilling. I, then, taught at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA, Architecture Department, for a school year, to return to Turkey in 1965 for my military service duty. I applied Ministry of Education in Ankara to get my Princeton equivalence. The Ministry decided that Princeton’s degree was not so! I had to sue them, after 4 years, they concluded that I was right and I won the case and gained the right to pursue a career in architecture. In the meantime, I was offered a position to teach at METU; I accepted and stayed on.

In 1980, I accepted a position at Cal Poly State University, where I had taught before, in San Luis Obispo, CA. I chose to leave Turkey at that time since a bomb was thrown into my house in 1978. (As well as two other academics’ homes in the same building). Also, the generals took over again with results I did not approve of! At Cal Poly, I taught until 2004; I retired after a 45 year teaching career.

ME: Did you conduct any project in Turkey and the US?

BD: I was one of the founders of MESA, a design build firm in Ankara, in 1969. I had a hand in the design and building of +/-20,000 affordable housing in Turkey. By 1980, I severed my ties with MESA, but kept in very close relationship until January 2015 when the company was sold. At one time I had 43 former students from among METU Architecture graduates working in very responsible positions there. I did constant consulting for the firm all those years. Aside from teaching, I did no professional work in the US.

ME: Thank you for this interview.

Sener Ozsahin: A Successfull Career from Princeton University to the Professional World in Turkey

Sener ozsahin

Photo 1- Sener Ozsahin in front of the Nassau Hall, Princeton University, 1963.

Meral Ekincioglu: Dear Sener Ozsahin, first of all, I would like to express my thanks to you for this interview. As Turkey became geostrategic concern for the US in the postwar period, many successful Turkish students began to take their places in leading American universities and pursued outstanding academic and/or professional career in this country. As one of them, you witnessed how that period stimulated a significant transformation in education in both countries, cross-cultural encounters between them, changing landscape of politics of gender in the transnational context of the US, etc. As a graduate of Princeton University (Class of ‘66) and the founder of the Alumni Association of Princeton University in Turkey, could you briefly explain your educational background before Princeton University?

Sener Ozsahin: I was one of the first 26 students of the Samsun Maarif Koleji (SK) in Samsun, Turkey. We were admitted on the basis of a nation-wide test system. SK was a state school established and opened in 1955 as a boarding school exclusively for boys. Students had to pay a yearly tuition. All science and English courses were taught in English by American and British teachers. The junior high school stage of the school consisted of a preparatory year for intensive English courses which was followed by 3 standard years. I graduated in June, 1959. SK was made coeducational in 1970’s.

SK had a high school program too. But for my high school education I     transferred to the TED Ankara Koleji, a renowned school in Ankara where again English and most science courses were taught in English by British teachers. I did not have to attend this school as a boarding student, since  my parents started residing in Ankara by then. Actually there were two separate but equal schools under the title TED Ankara Koleji in my time, one for the boys and the other for the girls. I graduated from this school in June, 1962. The two schools merged to become coeducational in 1964.

I had some very good teachers in the aforementioned schools. I have benefited from them immensely.

As for a role-model, this may sound rather odd but being perfectly honest I shall say I never had a role-model in my life in the true sense of the term. Of course I am shaped by the examples of the people who impressed me positively, or by those I revered and admired a lot. But surely this is an integral part of the psychology of personal development and it doesn’t need to project or manifest itself fully and tangibly in one certain person. There has not been  anybody whom I can say I chose as a role-model from top to toe for my education or for my career later.

SO: As I already explained rather briefly, there were very few Turkish students who went to the US colleges and Princeton had none. There were however some graduate school students and a few people assigned with teaching or research titles, i.e. permanent or visiting. I remember somewhat blurredly having heard that the number of Turkish students in all the States was slightly over one thousand in 1962. But I never had a chance to have this number confirmed officially.

Photo 2-Sener Ozsahin with students from Princeton University in front of the White House, 1963. (Photo courtesy of Sener Ozsahin).

Photo 2-Sener Ozsahin with students from Princeton University in front of the White House, 1963.

ME: Was there any other student from Turkey in your class when you begin your education at Princeton University? What would you like to say about students from Turkey at your department (their numbers, gender [women and male], their educational backgrounds, etc.) throughout your education at Princeton University?

SO: There was no Turkish student in the undergraduate school at Princeton during my freshman year. I found out to my surprise after graduation that I was the first Turkish citizen ever to earn a Princeton undergraduate degree.

In my freshman year a classmate of mine from SK who was already admitted to the Robert College in İstanbul, Turkey also applied to Princeton and was admitted at the cost of relinquishing his whole freshman year credits at the Robert College.

As I said there were already some Turkish students in the Princeton Graduate School though.

Photo 3-Sener Ozsahin in front of the White House, 1963. (Photo courtesy of Sener Ozsahin).

Photo 3-Sener Ozsahin in front of the White House, 1963.

ME: What would you like to say about the profiles of students (their nationality, sex, etc.), a multicultural perspective and diversity at the university and at your department?  

SO: Princeton University, established back in 1746 had the long tradition of being a university exclusively for men. It also had the reputation, I gathered of being the favorite school of prestige for the rich white peoples’ sons in the olden times. Throughout my college years women were not accepted to Princeton. However we had a very few number of female students in the “The Critical Languages Program” which included Turkish also.

Prospects of coeducation in Princeton was a very popular topic those days, discussed and debated extensively and intensively by the academicians, administrators and the alumni of the university. Princeton University eventually started admitting women in the undergraduate school 2 years after my graduation in 1966. I observed later that in about the same years the other men’s’ colleges in the US underwent similar transformation, just like some traditional women’s colleges (e.g. “seven sisters”) that became coeducational.

In the years (1962-66) of my college education at Princeton, there still was plenty of segregation and discrimination against the African Americans in the US. Those were the days when Martin Luther King, Jr. and like were waging a social struggle for equal civil rights. There used to be unpleasant incidents happening quite frequently.

By the time when I was admitted, Princeton University appeared to have a well-balanced admission program that safeguarded it from possible criticisms on cultural, racial or social class discrimination. It also had a big endowment of a scholarship program which was efficiently implemented and- even if not overtly pronounced – an objective of a minimum number of African American students to be admitted on a yearly basis.

There was only one incident in my freshman year when allegedly a barber in town refused to cut an African American man’s hair, claiming that the young man’s curly hair was too stiff. We, as some of the freshmen reacted severely to this incident and it was in the Princeton newspaper etc., but that was all. There was no problem of communication or attitude in this respect in the classes or on the campus. There were also some African foreign students who struck me as coming from some elite and high social classes of their countries. They did not mix much with Americans or African Americans. The university appeared to have balanced admission plans in overall for the foreign students as well.

ME: Do you think that there are some significant thresholds in your education at Princeton University after Turkey?  

SO: The way I see it, college education at Princeton meant an incredible amount of daily reading, taking notes of great ideas conveyed in the lectures,  analytical thinking and problem solving while proceeding always on the frontiers of knowledge. Moreover, it meant focusing and hard work.

My college experience at Princeton was like going over multiple thresholds of significance. Apart from the curricula and the material covered in the courses, I learned about writing papers or articles, as well as being able to debate around a subject scholarly or in a more civilized and efficient manner, about appreciating the value of time and using it efficiently, and being rational and consistent in presenting my views orally or in writing. I gained the skills of doing research independently at Princeton. I learned further about where and how the road to being a true intellectual began. Princeton helped me broaden my horizons. I can state with confidence today that the 4 years of college at Princeton provided me with a huge enlightenment and helped me raise my overall awareness to a considerably higher level.

ME: Which professors influenced/shaped your formative years at Princeton University? How?

SO: I must admit I was personally not in very close and affable contact with my professors at Princeton. But I was enormously impressed and influenced by the Economics lecturers in general, and by Prof. W. Arthur Lewis, Prof. Frederic Harbison, Prof. Mancur Olson and Prof. William J. Baumol, in particular.

ME: Was there any professor from Turkey at your department or at the university (if you know) around those years?

SO: I met during my time, 2 visiting professors of economics from Turkey who came to Princeton for one or two years. I must stress the fact that it is not my intention to be judgmental, unfair or offending to anyone in anyway, but in comparison to their Princeton colleagues I felt like they did not quite meet the academic standards and expectations of Princeton 100%. But please note that my impressions were only based on brief and informal or rather casual exchanges of view and I might have been mistaken very easily.

ME: If you wrote a thesis at Princeton University, could you briefly explain its scope, content, you’re your research problem? How and why did you study on this topic and research problem? Who was your adviser, etc.?

SO: Unlike most other colleges, the students at Princeton University are required to write a thesis in their senior year, which comprises an important part of earning their undergraduate degree. My thesis title was, “A Linear Programming Approach to the Agricultural Export Promotion in Turkey”. 

I was simply fascinated by the course I had taken on Linear and Nonlinear Programming applied particularly in Microeconomics. This was a fairly new concept at that time. What I had in mind for my thesis was to see if I could use the technique of linear programming alternatively at a macro level, particularly for the agricultural products of Turkey that may be exported on the basis of profit maximization. I thought it would be an original and challenging venture.

My first thesis advisor appointed by the Economics Department unfortunately was a total disappointment and was replaced later by Prof. Mancur Olson under whose excellent advisorship I completed my thesis with some delay, but successfully.

If I had to write a thesis at any academic level today I would choose a theoretical topic like: “Income Distribution and Economic Stability”.

ME: Do you think that your education at Princeton University and/or in the US has some positive effects on your future career? If yes, could you explain it?

SO: I do indeed: not because people in Turkey really knew about Princeton and appreciated what it meant to be a graduate of this school, but because of the inner qualities and self-confidence it gave me in coping with different circumstances and issues in life. 2

ME: Thank you for this interview.

1 These interview questions were sent by e-mail (to Bilgi Denel on December 12th, 2015 and to Sener Ozsahin on May 30th, 2016) and that time period surprisinly coincided with the appointment of the first Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Princeton University. See for this, Dienst, K., 2016, “LaTanya Buck named dean for diversity and inclusion”,, accessed on April 5th, 2016; and Salama, M., 2016, Princeton Hires First Dean for Diversity and Inclusion,, accessed on June 15th 2016.

2 Following his degree from Princeton University, Sener Ozsahin obtained his Master degree in Economics from Ankara University in 1972. Throughout his professional career in Turkey, he worked at leading holdings, held executive positions and conducted significant projects, such as the establishment of the Lassa Project at Sabanci Holding. Retiring in 1993, he has many published articles and reports, such as “Turkish-European Manpower Movements” for USAID, “a Report on the Automotive Sector” for TUSES (the Turkish Social, Economic and Political Research Foundation), “Zero Poverty” for SHP (Social Democratic People’s Party in Turkey), “Cosmic Mechanics Theory (CMT)”, etc.

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