Inside USD

MBA Students Reflect on Turkey’s Tumultuous Summer

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

When Gina Stavrakakis and Vince Castillo secured international summer internships with Alvimedica, a Turkish medical device company headquartered in Istanbul, both relished the opportunity.

The two current University of San Diego students — Stavrakakis, an International MBA student, and Castillo in the MBA program — were there to assist in the company’s development of a U.S. market entrance strategy.

“We researched U.S. health care supply chain models and contacted various group purchasing organizations (GPOs), distributors and consultants to develop business opportunities for Alvimedica,” Castillo said. “This opportunity has been the capstone of my MBA experience thus far. I’ve gotten to use skills learned in the classroom and apply them across cultural and language barriers to help this company in their growth plans.”

Stavrakakis and Castillo were also supervised by a USD alumnus, John Kucuk, a 2008 graduate of the Master of Science in Global Leadership program.

“This internship was perfect for me since I was also taking an MBA class during the Berlin/Istanbul intersession,” Stavrakakis said. Furthermore, “from previous international experience through my IMBA in developing and emerging economies, I knew it would be best not to have any expectations and just be open to whatever the experience would be.”

She had the right mindset, but both students witnessed much more than they ever anticipated. Or, as Stavrakakis quipped, “on the other side of that no-expectations-internship I now have an answer for ‘what did you do this summer?’ that wins every time.”

On their second day, Stavrakakis and Castillo were walking from their apartment to Alvimedica’s office and that’s when their summer experience changed for good.

“My nose started to burn and I began to cough,” she said. “We looked at each other and Vince said, ‘Tear gas.’ We continued to Taksim Square and Gezi Park, about a 10-minute walk. Gezi Park had been occupied by thousands of protestors since the day before we arrived and they had camped out for a few weeks. We arrived at the edge of the square and saw large plumes of smoke at the other end. We decided to take a sick day and go back home.”

Taksim Square, which Castillo described as Istanbul’s version of Times Square in New York, and Gezi Park were filled with tear gas the rest of the day. Protestors cleared out of the square, but Gezi Park was still occupied. Riot police, however, did a night raid on Gezi Park with unlimited tear gas and used water cannons with pepper spray-laced water.

“Protestors fled into neighboring streets, one of which was ours. For hours, police pummeled protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets and chemical-laced water,” she recalled. “That same night, thousands marched over the Bosphorous Bridge to support the protest. A main highway was clogged with thousands more marching from outside of the city.”

Stavrakakis said she got news updates via Twitter and other news feeds. “And yes, on this night, I was scared.”

Castillo said people were standing up against the policies of the increasingly non-secular administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Castillo said Gezi Park became a catalyst for protestors because Erdogan had ordered the grounds to be cleared to build an Ottoman-era barracks to be used as a shopping mall.

“The nearby Ataturk Cultural Center was to be torn down and a mosque built in its place, which was perceived as an indication of his administration’s approach toward a more non-secular government,” Castillo said.

Prior to the Gezi Park invasion, police had begun to brutally arrest foreign journalists and censored the state-owned media. Castillo said the number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey is the highest in the world according to the 2013 World Press Freedom Index.

“The night the protest began, CNN-Turkey ran a penguin documentary,” Stavrakakis said. “Consequently, they had their charter pulled from CNN. Medical workers aiding protestors were being detained as were 300 lawyers who had joined the protest.”

The next morning, Stavrakakis said, is a feeling she’ll never forget.

“I cautiously stepped out onto the street to see the aftermath. It looked like a war zone. It felt very quiet and sad. There were tear gas canisters, torn up sidewalks and bushes. Shops, sidewalks and bus stops had been spray painted with anti-government slogans. Most unsettling of all, though, was that there were police in full riot gear with semi-automatic weapons about every 20 feet on the main street above us.”

Despite the environment and the conditions, both students feel their summer experience was worth every bit of the time they spent there.

“Studying and working abroad in Istanbul had a tremendously beneficial impact not just on my education, but on my world view as well,” Castillo said. “Having the chance to see, firsthand, democracy in action and the reactions of a conservative government supplemented with classroom discussions of state capitalism and globalization, I feel the Ahlers Center and USD’s MBA program allowed me to have a truly unique experience, one that I will remember for a lifetime.”

Stavrakakis said her support and her thoughts remain with the protestors.

“They welcomed us into the park during the occupation and encouraged us to take pictures, film and post everything that was happening. They wanted to talk to us and offered food in solidarity. The camaraderie I witnessed is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Today I’m home and I’m still following the events in Istanbul. There are still marches and protests. It has calmed down, but there are still clashes. The side with the most guns and money usually wins and both sides are resilient, but the protestors didn’t seem to show any signs of backing down. With elections not happening for another couple of years, anything could happen. … Until then, I plan to stay in touch with my Turkish friends — and I think I’ve got a pretty good story for my next job interview.”

— Ryan T. Blystone, as told by Gina Stavrakakis and Vince Castillo

Photos courtesy of Gina Stavrakakis

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