Spotlighting Young People in the Gray Zone:
A Participatory Action Research Project with High School Students
Youth research and youth work in Turkey predominantly focus on university students. Even though there is developing research on children’s wellbeing (Akkan et al. 2019; Uyan-Semerci& Erdoğan 2017; Uyan-Sermerci et al. 2012), there is a gap in research on high school students (between the ages of 15-18). High school students seem to be in this “gray” zone between childhood and youth. Most of the research on youth work and childhood exclude high schoolers and most of the research on youth and youth work focusing on university students also tend to omit the high school-aged groups of youth. For the researchers, there are also some practical reasons for not conducting research with high school students as it involves getting not only the consent of the parents (of the students below the age of 18) but also getting the official approval of the Ministry of National Education. The existent body of research in social sciences focuses on parents, rather than on high school students as subjects of study (Altun Aslan 2020; Çelik 2017; Çelik & Özdemir 2022). As high school students are classified as students preoccupied with preparing for the university entrance exam, there is also a gap in youth work targeting this high school student population since any “extracurricular” activity is perceived as a distraction from the university entrance exam preparation. Due to the significance assigned to the university entrance exams in the education system the main goal of Municipalities and civil society associations is to complement formal education and aid students in their entrance exams (as seen in the examples of Municipalities offering university preparation courses to enable disadvantaged socio-economic groups to stay in the ‘game’). As there is this gap in youth work and youth research on high school students in Turkey, we thought that it is very important to “reach out” to high school students and organize a participatory action research/experimentation with them.
We, as the OUYE (Opening Universities for Youth in Europe) Project’s university partner Yeditepe University Sociology Department and association partner Zero Discrimination Association, collectively organized a summer school on the campus of the university. In order to get across the significance of organizing such an activity on the university campus and the peculiar meaning of “opening the university” in the Turkish educational context, we will start by providing some background information as to how the universities in Turkey are physically closed to anyone outside the university community (viz. students, academic-and administrative staff).
Universities as gated communities
Universities in Turkey are “supervised” by Yüksek Öğretim Kurulu (YÖK- Council of Higher Education) founded by the 1982 Constitution, following the military coup in 1980. This Council is very much disputed for curbing university autonomy and academic freedom. Universities are also not open to the public, and even students enter the university premises going through a security check and showing their student identity cards. Almost a decade ago, security checks have been digitalized and students now use their electronic cards to enter the university premises. Those who are invited as guests are only allowed to enter the university campus after the security personnel is duly informed about their visit in advance, which involves the completion of “necessary” paperwork explaining in detail the nature and purpose of their visit.
There are 61 universities in Istanbul. Some of these are campus universities whereas others are not. Campus universities are constructed over a large area and provide all students with everything they may need in one place, such as dormitories, dining halls, libraries, study places, sports facilities, etc. Providing more than sheer academic activity, campus universities are social life centers offering a myriad of opportunities. They can host many activities such as concerts, funfairs, or academic and cultural events. Universities without campuses are known as “high school-like” (liseden bozma) among young people. In such universities, not all units are together; they are located merely as mere buildings in the city. For this reason, these universities do not offer the life center opportunities offered by campus universities. As a campus university, Yeditepe Universitywas founded in 1996 and is situated at the intersection of two districts of Istanbul, namely Ataşehir and Maltepe. It is one of the campus universities located adjacent to one of the few forest areas in Istanbul. The large campus has three gates all of which are controlled by security checks. As the university is closed to anyone but the university community, we thought it was important to physically open the campus to high school students, at least for a week during the summer school we organized.
Opening the University Campus to Youth:
A Summer University for High School Students
The term “summer university” is a fancy term for high school students as it offers them the experience of university life. At Yeditepe University (and also at some other universities), there are paid summer university programs which attract high school students who can financially afford such an experience. Besides summer universities, there are also paid summer camps or schools organized by various sports clubs, which all offer an experience for students of higher socio-economic standing. Thus, it was very important for the OUYE Turkish team not only to open the doors of the university to high school students but also offer them a free summer school experience.
We also aimed not to create a “typical” university atmosphere but use non-formal pedagogical approaches in a formal education setting, the university. Thus, our goal was to open the doors of the university not only in the physical sense by making the otherwise gated campus space accessible to high schoolers but also in the mental sense by incorporating non-formal educational methodologies into our summer school, and thus broadening the horizons of the young participants with respect to university education and life on campus.
The summer school lasted for 5 days (20-24 June 2022), Monday through Friday from 10:00-16:00. It was held with the participation of 14 young people from nine different schools between the ages of 14-20. Participants were reached through Zero Discrimination Association networks, and attention was paid to the participation of socio-economically disadvantaged youth. Before the summer school, two meetings were held over Zoom with a few participants, where possible workshops in the summer school were discussed, and the program was shaped according to their wishes.
Even though there were assigned classrooms for the summer school, the entire campus itself was used as a classroom, and the students loved the outdoor activities carried out on the lawn. Although there was a certain time plan scheduled for the entire week for the sake of efficiency, the facilitators of planned activities did not “lecture” but worked as moderators to create a friendly and cozy atmosphere and used youth-friendly methodologies. Starting with the first day, the students were asked to document their experiences, thoughts and feelings over the course of the summer school through videos using their cell phones. Edanur Tanış from Zero Discrimation Association was with the group throughout the week, providing support to the students on how to take photos and make videos. One of the outputs of the summer school is the joint video of the participants which provides an insight about the summer school journey from the participants’ points of view.Turkish-Team-Visual-Outputs-of-Summer-School-Activities-20-24.06
The first day started with an official welcome and introduction to the summer school program. After this opening session, participants were informed about the OUYE project, and about our summer school program and the videos we asked each of them to make throughout the week. In order to help the participants with filming, Edanur Tanış gave a workshop. Following the workshop, the participants were invited to have free lunch in the cafeteria of the university. After lunch, students were taken on a campus tour under the guidance of Assist Prof. Barış Baykan. Yeditepe University campus expands over a large green area and is marked by a diversity in flora and fauna. In addition, sustainability studies and the achievement of sustainable development goals are supported by the university administration. Thus, Barış Baykan first talked about the sustainability work on the campus and then about the diversity of plants and birds in the arboretum and the greenhouse on the campus. Following the tour, participants had free time, during which they were asked to interview each other and evaluate their first day.
The second day of the summer school a workshop, titled Drama as a Bridge to Collective Creation, was led by two experienced youth workers Dila Okuş and Bilal Akar of Culture and Theater Research Collective (Cultheater). The main goal of the workshop was to develop the skills of young people to create collective productions and establish dialogue using cultural education methodologies. The concept of cultural education encourages children and young people to grow up as balanced and mature individuals to find a place in the world in which they live. The point of departure here is the contention that it is not enough for children and young people to have factual knowledge and understanding of society and the world but that they also a need to be aware of their selves, acquire the skills to express themselves and become true interlocutors of others’ forms of expression. The workshop, which was prepared as a part of youth work, was carried out under the following three main topics: Drama activities that will enable young people to establish a dialogue with each other; discussing social inequalities using Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed methods like Forum Theater and Image Theater; and collective story-building and telling through theater.
The third day, the group visited the Pera district under Alkım Bayraktar’s lead. Pera is a district on the European side of Istanbul in the downtown area. Being located in close proximity to the old city, Pera has historically been and still is one of the most active city centers for art, culture and social life. Ever since we started thinking about organizing a summer school, we envisaged to have art as an integral part of the program and the workshops. Thus, when we added a study visit to our summer school program, we combined it with art. Pera Museum was the most suitable option regarding its surroundings and history because Pera was a place that has always been associated with culture, art and entertainment venues like museums, theatres, cinemas, cafés etc. With the Pera tour, we both got to know the art venues of the past and shed light on social life. After the tour we visited the Pera Museum. Barış Bilgin from Pera Museum’s learning programs gave a brief introduction to the Museum and led a short tour, informing us on the Museum’s various collections. It is there that participants took the initiative and stated that they would like to make their daily video interviews there in the Museum rather than on campus.
The fourth day started with the Gender Workshop by Nuran Öksüz. The workshop aimed to raise awareness about our language and power relations in society. First, the young people were given a few professions, and asked to visualize and portray them using crayons. The youth envisioned older male figures for positions of power and respect, and female and youthful figures for low-profile positions that required no specific training and expert knowledge. The second part of the workshop involved a discussion. Here, it was discussed why our imaginations are like this, what it means to be a young woman/man, and whether or not they can find spaces to express themselves in society. The young people pointed to the family as a place to express themselves. In the second half of the day, ‘Question and Curiosity Library’ and ‘I Can Do It Assembly’ workshops were held by Sıla Tanrıverdi. These are curiosity and skill-oriented methods developed by children, teachers, and experts at the Imagination Center, a social initiative and civil society organization. First, individuals’ awareness of their interest and skills are raised in the activities held during the workshops; Then, it was aimed for the participants to see the curiosity and skills of others around them. At the end of the workshops, interest and skill maps were created. At the end of the fourth day, university students and the summer school participants came together and chatted about being university students. Participants asked what they were curious about, and university students answered their questions and presented a perspective from within the university.
The fifth day started with a workshop about social rights for youth, conducted by Sacide Demir from Zero Discrimination Association. All participants discussed the problems on the agenda and sought solutions. With this workshop, the young people had the opportunity to develop further the discussions at the Gender Workshop held the previous day. They discussed their rights in society as young women and men and how much they can access these rights. The following workshop of the day was video editing. Edanur Tanış led the session and gave basic video editing information to help participants edit what they shot throughout the week.
At the end of these five days, it was very pleasing for us to hear from the participants that they wished the summer school lasted longer, and that they very much valued and enjoyed their experience (further evaluations of the O1 can be found in the O2 co-evaluation report).
Lessons from the Summer University
Our summer school experimentation enabled us to understand the importance of conducting youth work with high school students and provided important insights not only about the needs of high school students but also about the limitations of formal education institutions (high schools and universities). Below there is a summary of the insights we gained from our summer school experimentation:
1) Turkey’s education system is very competitive and centered around entrance exams. Our local process made us understand the importance of youth services that would remove them from the competitive setting they are thrown into by the arduous university entrance examinations.
2) Turkey’s education system is also highly stratified. Within the framework of the summer school we organized, stratification manifested itself in the relation among the participants from different high schools and there was an apparent difference between the future aspirations of students coming from different high schools: whereas participants from good schools expressed a sense of self-confidence in their academic prospects at the level of higher education, those from less resourceful schools were intimidated by the former group’s self-confidence, and expressed their lack of hope for admission and success at the university. Another critical point to make here is how important it is to bring together the different groups of high schoolers that are stratified on various grounds by the existing education system.
3) Our summer school experimentation demonstrated how much authority is a central issue in formal education institutions. Authority in fact is a significant component of student-teacher relationship in the Turkish education system. The participants’ anticipation of university education was very much based on the assumed continuation of this authority relation. Hence, their self-expressed pleasant surprise to see “friendly” teachers who used interactive pedagogical methodologies in the workshops they attended on campus. Our summer school experimentation thus demonstrates the importance of questioning the authority-based formal institutions and creating bonds with young people.
4) During the summer school, participants were enthusiastic to see the active use of non-formal methodologies at a formal institution, the university There was indeed this mental confusion: non-formal methods of education in a setting that’s as formal as it gets in the participants’ minds. This mental confusion on their part surprisingly proved to be one of the biggest accomplishments of our summer school. Our summer school experimentation demonstrates the importance of opening formal institutions to non-formal methods.
5) Though desirable by the participants, we observed that physical activities (the campus trip, physical drama activities and the Pera tour in the summer school program) even at the level of minimal muscle exertion were too much for them. We thought that this might be one of the tolls the pandemic has taken on the young people. This is why it seems very important to prepare youth work involving physical activities.
6)We observed that the effect of the economic crisis on the participants manifested itself in almost every activity they participated in – drama, storytelling, expressions of their dreams and desires. There is this need to understand the impact of the economic crisis on the young people.
7) Our experimentation enabled us to underline the link between socio-economic class and the scope of dreams; and the importance of making young people aware of their alternatives. Thus, we very much value the words of the mother of a female student who attended our summer school: “Thank you for broadening my daughter’s dreams”.
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