Born and raised in Turkey before moving to the United States to attend Trinity University, Ilkin Telli is a former UnCollege fellow who backpacked her way through Costa Rica, working in hostels along the way and gathering a ton of amazing stories. These days she is wrapping up her first year of studies in South Africa and continuing to cultivate her wandering spirit. I got the chance to talk with Ilkin about her life before UnCollege and how the program has impacted her since.
UnCollege: You’re originally from Istanbul, Turkey, so right off the bat we know you have a history of travel under your belt even before you got involved with UnCollege. Did you travel around a lot during your childhood? Why did you move to the U.S. in the first place? How did you feel about the move? What were your initial impressions of travel growing up?
Ilkin: Traveling has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve grown up with my parents traveling to Europe almost every month on business trips. I remember the day they sent me on my first summer camp to England at the age of 10, I lost my passport and had to go completely out of any comfort zone I’ve ever known to figure my way out back home. I spent my summers in London during middle school and would return home to tell my family I wanted to live outside of Turkey for my education. Although it took them two more years to warm up to the idea, soon the search was on to find a boarding school. The U.S. was not a top choice, but as I was applying through my swimming experience and ranks, the U.S. seemed to be the best option. I was 15 when I left Turkey and I am still amazed, looking back on those days, at how calm and just purely excited I was. I wanted to see more, meet more people, do something out of the ordinary and be somewhere I wasn’t meant to be. The rush and the extremely low moments, balanced by the ecstatic moments, made me feel alive and would inspire me to keep doing more. I learned to value the simple comforts of being home, but soon, home became everywhere I found myself in.
As you grew older, you progressed through the United States education system at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania where you were a competitive swimmer. Your athletic achievement eventually earned you a scholarship to Trinity University in Hartford, Connecticut where you attended as a freshman in the fall of 2013. By the end of that first year at Trinity, how were you feeling? What was the drive behind your decision to take a gap year? What did you want to accomplish physically and internally during your time out of school?
Finishing my first year of college at Trinity, I was in a state of exhaustion. My competitive goal with swimming after over 10 years was over and I was at the final stage of my education. Once the stress of getting into a college and successfully finishing my goals with swimming was done, I found myself feeling fulfilled and confused. I was enjoying my classes but I was going through them as I would go through any high school classes. I realized college was just another high school experience which would soon be over, before I had any clue what I was doing, where I wanted to be or who I was. Once freshmen year was over, I returned home and overwhelmed with these thoughts, started searching for a way out. I needed some time to get my thoughts straight on what I was really doing in college. The idea of a gap year came naturally and I trusted in this idea to show me what it was that I was missing, what was the thing that made me feel uncomfortable with my place in the conventional college experience.
How did you find UnCollege and why did you choose to participate in their gap year program specifically?
I wasn’t sure what my expectations were while deciding on a gap year or had any idea how to spend it in a beneficial way. Therefore I started my research on how to go about it. I found UnCollege online and the program seemed to offer all the professional, social, worldly skills that I thought should be a part of any college experience to help you get ready to be yourself in the real world. I watched some past fellows’ videos and read some articles from their travels and internships. I thought to myself, if I could’ve done this one gap year instead of the past freshman year, I would’ve been in a completely different state than I find myself in now. I knew somewhere inside I was the only person who could figure me and my future out, but instead of figuring those things, I was being dragged some direction in fast pace by how it should be. I was rushing into something and still had no idea what that thing was. Uncollege was a chance for me to take the time off and reflect on myself, where I was coming from, and where I was going.
How did you leave things with Trinity? Did the university agree to excuse you for a year and hold your spot so that you could rejoin your classmates when you completed your gap year? Did you drop out completely? How did your parents react to your decision? How involved were they in the process?
The university didn’t really have a say in me leaving for a year. I made the decision over the summer in Turkey, filled a voluntary withdrawal form and sent it in. I talked with my advisor and learned that I was excused to have a semester or two away from Trinity and still have them hold my spot for the coming year. On the form they asked the reason for my decision for withdrawal, I checked everything they had listed on there. Then I was certain the decision was right. I was to be a year behind my classmates, but that didn’t hold too much of a problem for me. My parents and I had the deal that I would return back to Trinity once the gap year was over and so it was settled. My parents have always had my back and believed in me with each decision I made for myself, I will be forever grateful as none of these experiences or decisions would have happened without their support.
When you took your gap year with UnCollege in 2014, the program looked a bit different than it does now. For you, the program started with Launch: the workshop, goal-setting, and personal development phase of the experience based on the UnCollege campus in San Francisco, California. What did you work on during Launch? How did the workshops you took influence you as a fellow and a person in general?
The Launch phase gave me a look into the professional life that I was very much a stranger to. Basic things, but only basic if someone tells you how to do them, such as resume building, how to write a cover letter, how to be more professional and self confident while working with others, how to be someone in the eyes of an employer. I would say bringing these aspects into my daily life and motivating me to have a better inner strength and take the necessary steps to find the right path for myself is a portion of what Launch Phase added to me. I interned with a startup for marketing, helped UnCollege with the social media platforms, to strengthen my public relations, marketing skills while employing my knowledge with psychology. Above any professional experiences, I do want to add that the experience of moving into the diverse and alive city of San Francisco with people from different backgrounds, interests and personalities was also the most influential part of the Launch phase for me. We learned to live together in a city we were all strangers to. The day we left the Launch phase I left with some professional experiences and knowledge, but most importantly with a group of people I still call my family.
What was your relationship with your coach, Jonathan Gordon, like during the program? How did he impact, guide, and/or change you along the way?
I will never forget when I stood outside the building with my suitcase on the first day. I heard some chatter and laughter from the inside, I was certain the address was right, but I couldn't get myself to go inside or carry the suitcase up the stairs. So naturally I just stood outside for a few minutes listening in on the blurry conversations coming from the kitchen area. The first person I made eye contact with was Jon. He helped me with my bags, showed me around, made me feel comfortable and sat by me as if he felt the anxiety I had of being in a completely new environment. Once he told me that he would be my coach, I knew right away that he would be one of those influential people who show up into my life. There are those people out there, waiting to be a part of your life to direct you towards the right path you were already meant to be on. Jon became a coach and a mentor to me throughout the year and was just as valuable and comforting as he was on that first day. He was the one who introduced me to such valuable experiences as Challenge Day, and to some beautiful and influential people, and offered me a simpler way of viewing tasks as not tasks but life experiences. One year can change a lot in a person's life and the year will have its ups and its downs, it's human nature to lose touch with yourself and your vision sometimes. The coaches are there to help you not only to keep yourself organized and set the necessary goals, but also to offer you a hand through these ups and the downs. That is precisely what Jon did for me and let me figure things out on my own with slight but necessary suggestions to plan how my year will play out.
I’m supposed to ask you about shaving some dude’s back hair in Costa Rica, according to Jonathan! Is that a story there you’d like to share with our readers?
This really is one of the prime stories of my travels so far. I knew volunteering at hostels would require some unwanted work, I expected a lot less than what I got. I would clean floors, kitchens, bathrooms, but shaving a dude's back as he told me about fasting to get rid of the memories of his ex-wife was not something I had on the expectations list. The important part of the story is that I didn't even have to do it. While washing the dishes I got to notice how much of his time he spent to shave his body hair and struggled to reach his back. He was divorced and hungry and I felt bad. It was my time to give something back to the world and that thing was some back hair floating around on the streets of San Jose.
Where do you and Jonathan stand now? How often do you talk and what do you talk about?
This I believe sums up the distant but close-knit relationship I still have with my coach Jon: Recently, as I was discussing a very much heart oriented decision with my family, they asked if I had talked to Jon to get his opinion. I told them not yet, I will, but I already had an idea on what he would think. Later I sent him pictures of my travels in exchange of some pictures from California and explained how I felt about everything and got the response I needed to motivate me and further direct me towards what already felt right. It is easy to forget the importance of getting some assurance on our feelings and thoughts and be reminded of our goals and that there is someone out there who trusts in them just as much or even more than we do.
For the second phase of the program, Voyage, you traveled to Costa Rica and spent some time backpacking around Latin America. What was your experience like there? What things did you do on a daily basis? How did you use what you’d learned during Launch on your trip? What did your time in Latin America inspire you to do/look into going forward?
Although I’ve traveled to different countries throughout my years away from home, Costa Rica was my first solo backpacking experience. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into, but during the Launch phase I was encouraged to make certain plans, financial arrangements before packing my bags to leave, which have gone a long way into preparing myself to start this journey. My three months in Costa Rica and Panama were all a surprise to me as well. It was as if crafting a life for myself in each town and becoming a part of it for a while while working, volunteering in various settings. It was in some ways similar to the experience I had during the Launch Phase in San Francisco. What people often confuse about traveling is to think that it is an experience you start and end, however traveling continues wherever you are, I’d argue that it is more a mindset. Living in San Francisco during Launch Phase with who once were strangers, finding what work I wanted to be involved with and finding my way around the city definitely prepared me to do the same thing in terms of survival and communication in Latin America.
Internship, the (then) third phase of UnCollege’s gap year program, looked a bit different for you than it did for the other fellows. Talk to me about the work experience you got during your time abroad working in hostels. How did it affect you? Why did you shape your gap year in this way instead of participating in an internship once you returned home from Costa Rica?
The hostel work experiences added to my experience to learn how to adapt quickly to any new environment and find my place in each community and culture. I chose to work while traveling with the knowledge that the internship experience I needed had to be done on the road, and would require me to find a balance between work and travel. As I mentioned before, travel has always been a part of my experience and will continue to be. UnCollege offers a program in which the individual can adapt to their own interests, ways and goals; spending my internship experience abroad felt like the right course of action for me.
At the end of your gap year, instead of returning to Trinity in 2015 to finish your degree, you decided to study abroad in South Africa. What prompted that decision? Why study abroad? Why go to South Africa, specifically?
South Africa has been a place I had always hoped to go to, for no apparent reason other than pure interest and a search something new. Trinity offered a really good study abroad program in Cape Town, I didn’t see a reason not to take up this opportunity. I was looking for a way to create a college experience that would be the best fit for my wandering spirit and studying in a completely new country and culture satisfied this search.
You’ve spent the past year now in South Africa. What did you get up to on a daily basis? How has this experience impacted you?
The past semester was spent balancing my time between classes at University of Cape Town and experiencing the most of this new location I found myself in. Cape Town offered me a city environment in which I could take a 5 minute drive to the most beautiful oceans, experience many cultures in one space and day, easily travel to different cities and hold part in a different educational system than the one I was accustom to in the US. I was very satisfied with the life I experienced on the streets, the colorful and lively people of South Africa and the classes I took at the university. I decided to finish my degree in Cape Town. It is safe to say South Africa continues to inspire me to focus on my personal goals as well as offering me a good system and perspective to finish my Psychology degree in.
Jonathan says, “I don’t know if I have any fellows that have transformed as much as she has in the program.” What do you say to that? What are your overall thoughts on UnCollege’s gap year program?
I came into Uncollege a lost girl who wasn’t certain what to search for or where to find it. I can’t fully claim I now know where I am going or have all the answers, but my time with Uncollege gave me the very important knowledge that it’s okay to not know, trust in the doubts and uncertainties I have, take each chance and opportunity, and most importantly to trust myself. I had my doubts about the path I had put myself in and was rushing through, but didn’t before my gap year had enough time to focus on myself and find the right mindset to continue on, or change something. Uncollege offers a very interactive year; it is designed for and by the individual. It doesn’t tell you what to do, rather it gives you the help and resources you need to just do it, trust yourself and find more of yourself in the process. It is very nice hearing that the change I experienced within myself was just as evident from the outside as it was inside, and to the ones who met me on the first day of the program and knew me by the end. I appreciate everything UnCollege has given me, including the people, experiences and knowledge both on professional and personal levels.
Where do you plan to go next (geographically and metaphorically)? What’s on the horizon for Ilkin? What do you want to do with your future and how do you plan to do it?
I’ve never been the person to fully plan the future and I believe that is one of my strengths. Anything is possible for me in the future, but I am certain more travels and focusing on my writing will be a part of it. As of now, I am focusing on being a part of an art gallery, finishing up courses to finish my degree and taking each day as a new adventure. There is still more to learn about the world and myself and my goal right now is to continue on this path and see where it leads me.
Based on your experience with the program, who would you recommend UnCollege to?
I would and do recommend UnCollege to everyone who is interested enough to listen. There are many people with ideas, goals completely different than mine; there are many people who had and will have a completely different experience than I did with UnCollege. However the general idea is the same: no matter what age, path, we are all trying to find our place on this earth while trying to adapt to it in a hurry; a gap year will be beneficial to everyone in ways they are incapable of seeing from only one side of the picture. Taking some time off or completely taking off from the conventional and familiar practice of doing something, will be constructive however way it's done but would definitely be cleaner, easier and more focused on the person with the four phases and resources Uncollege provides.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
As I mentioned, I would recommend UnCollege to everyone, but mostly I would recommend not just UnCollege, but taking a gap year to everyone. It is important to remember that there is no black or white way of doing something, whether with UnCollege, or not, or after high school, or after college, or wherever the person stands at the point they realize there might be more in the world and about themselves that they need to see and experience, some time off will only be beneficial. I am recommending to take a leap of faith and do something different. If at the end of your time away from your expected reality, you realize you are happy where you were before, good, then keep on doing that, but there is this incredible chance that you might find something new about your life and yourself which will change your content off life and point of view forever.
To hear more personal gap year accounts, click here to learn about our fellows.