Tragedy in Turkey Sparks Collaboration on Campus
Two weeks ago, two major earthquakes in Turkey and Syria killed tens of thousands of people, leaving an entire region in crisis. As aftershocks continue to roil both the land and the people—another strong quake hit just as this story was being published—a small but dedicated group of WPI faculty and students who hail from Turkey are scrambling to help their home country while also absorbing unfathomable loss.
Doctoral student Caner Tol learned of the earthquakes in his home country when his 12-year-old niece called him on the evening of February 5. Tol was working hard to meet a submission deadline for an upcoming conference, but it was the middle of the night in Turkey, so he knew something significant had prompted his niece to call.
The epicenter of the first earthquake—with a magnitude of 7.8—was about 140 miles from Tol’s home in Mersin, on Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast. Although none of his immediate family members died in that quake or in the magnitude 7.6 tremor that followed a few hours later, residents of Mersin have felt hundreds of aftershocks since then.
“Those first days after the earthquake were the hardest days of my life. I was watching the news in tears while still going to the lab to get my work done,” says Tol, who is in the fourth year of his PhD studies in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “I really had a hard time focusing to get the results and write the paper. Of course, when you think about what people are going through in Turkey and Syria, what I experienced is very small.”
Shortly after Tol submitted his paper on February 7, he got an email from Ulkuhan Guler, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Guler—whose family lives in northwestern Turkey, a 15-hour drive from the worst of the damage—had begun reaching out to Turkish students and faculty at WPI.
“We can’t be in Turkey to help our loved ones in person. But we have a community here, too,” she says of the 15 students, 12 faculty members, and one recent alumnus from Turkey. “We have connections and understand each other, and together we can increase awareness at WPI. We’ll feel better knowing that we’re helping in some way.”
Guler encouraged Tol to organize a campuswide fundraiser. She says she got the idea from Xinming Huang, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who had participated in a similar fundraising effort after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck his home country of China in 2008.
Tol and other Turkish students worked quickly. Within a few hours, they had connected with Turkish student organizations throughout North America and gotten help from WPI’s Office of International Student Life and from Kim Wykes, assistant director of Campus Center operations, to set up a table in the Rubin Campus Center, where volunteers have been educating the campus community about the earthquake and raising money for the Turkish Philanthropy Fund.
Collectively, the Turkish student organizations around the United States and Canada have raised almost $510,000 in less than two weeks. More than $8,000 of that has come from the WPI community, largely from student donations.
Give to WPI's Turkish Student Association Earthquake Fund
“The money is going to the people who are directly affected by the earthquake, but the donations are also good for our psychology. We feel like we are being useful to our people and we feel supported by the community where we are living right now.”
—Caner Tol, PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
In addition to the donations made at the table, the International Student Council gave all the money it took in during a previously planned event selling waffles and Nutella on Valentine’s Day to the Turkish students’ fundraiser. And at its pop-up thrift store last week, the Green Team collected winter clothes, which they will deliver to the Turkish consulate in Boston.
“WPI people are so kind. Even though some students don’t have a lot of money, they try to help,” says Elif Asar, who earned her PhD in mechanical engineering in 2022 but remains connected to the Turkish community at WPI. One day while Asar was sitting at the fundraising table, an undergraduate student told her, “I don’t need to buy food every day in the Campus Center. I can prepare food at home and donate that day’s lunch money to Turkey. That will do something.”
Tol says this fundraising effort has been an amazing example of collaboration and solidarity. “The money is going to the people who are directly affected by the earthquake, but the donations are also good for our psychology. We feel like we are being useful to our people and we feel supported by the community where we are living right now. All of that is very important,” he says.
A Long Journey Ahead
Still, Asar says, as the severity of the crisis deepens on the ground in Turkey and Syria, it becomes harder to be so far away from home.
“When we started our fundraising campaign, we printed a poster saying more than 12,000 people died. Now every day we cross out the number and increase it,” says Asar, who is grateful that her immediate family in Ankara remains safe but also feels an enormous sense of grief. “Some people ask, ‘How is your family?’ and they think that because our family is not under the rubble, we should be fine. But that’s not correct. We are not okay,” she says.
Guler agrees. Though she is, of course, relieved that her family is safe, she has multiple friends who aren’t as fortunate.
“Gradually we’re understanding the severity of this,” she says, noting that healing and rebuilding will take years. “And it’s not just the earthquake itself. Everything will get worse now because people need shelter and they need to continue their lives. After the shock they will begin to understand their losses, and then they’re going to feel the emptiness.”
As those in the WPI community from Turkey and Syria continue to absorb the news from their home region, connecting with each other and receiving genuine support from the wider community has become increasingly important. Colleen Callahan-Panday, director of international student life, experienced something similar in 2015, when a 7.8 earthquake rocked her husband’s home country of Nepal.
“The next day I went to work and most people had no idea this tragedy had happened, and life just continued like normal. It was disorienting and upsetting. It was a really important reminder for me of what some of our students experience when things like this happen,” Callahan-Panday says. “Feeling connected to community when tragedy hits is important, and for our students those connections—as well as feeling useful and taking action—are great ways to be helpful despite the distance. Letting them know that there are people on campus who understand and can offer support is important as well.”
On Monday, February 6, International House and the Office of the Dean of Students reached out directly to all of the students from this region. In addition, the Student Development and Counseling Center offered additional mental health resources to the students.
“Our office tries to keep an eye on large global events so that we can connect with students from that region quickly and let them know we can be a resource when there are difficulties at home,” Callahan-Panday explains.
Making a Difference
Interim President Winston “Wole” Soboyejo says that kind of immediate, thoughtful, and targeted human response, which WPI leaders do with the students most directly affected by any major tragedy, is incredibly valuable in times of crisis. And following those words with action is just as crucial.
“We shouldn’t wait until we can travel to Turkey and Syria. We need to be thinking now about how we at WPI can make an impact,” says Soboyejo, who has begun brainstorming with WPI’s faculty members from Turkey on ways to partner with universities and institutions in their home country. “People in that part of the world have real needs and WPI has real expertise—in areas like engineering and project-based learning—that could create real benefits in their lives. Together we are thinking about things that we can do that are meaningful and looking to work with partners in Turkey to make a lasting contribution.”
In the meantime, the campus community continues to learn how to best support those from the region who are grieving here and now.
“I never cease to be impressed by the resiliency and drive of our students, some of whom have been through some really difficult experiences while being far from home,” Callahan-Panday says of recent global events. “Between our Chinese students in the early days of COVID lockdowns abroad, to our Iranian, Ukrainian, and Russian students who have had families affected by civil unrest and war, to students affected by large-scale natural disasters like the earthquakes in Turkey—these are all major challenges, made more difficult by distance and separation from family and home, yet they find ways to move forward.”