Dr. Meltem Alemdar Shares A Personal Story in Science

Associate Director for Educational Research and Evaluation for the Georgia Tech CEISMC Featured On The Story Collider - True Personal Stories About Science Podcast

Dr. Meltem Alemdar, Associate Director for Educational Research & Evaluation for the Georgia Tech Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing (CEISMC) was featured on "The Story Collider - True Personal Stories About Science" podcast on March 29, 2019, at https://www.storycollider.org. The full story and her portion of the podcast that can be found at https://bit.ly/2uEFHhu.


"When I was born in 1977, my parents waited for three days for my aunt to arrive so that she can name me.I know it sounds strange in American culture to be named by someone other than your parents but in Turkish culture this is actually an honor.I always loved the fact that my aunt named me.She was so much loved in the family, an amazing cook, fun aunt, and a great storyteller.

We all associate names with certain characteristics so, in my family, my name was associated with words like troublemaker, naughty, lazy with schoolwork, rule breaker, talkative, messy, a lot of words like this.I definitely did not have a good reputation in our household.I always got in trouble and I really hated the rules.In fact, my aunt one day told my mom that she should have named me ‘ruzgar’ which means ‘wind’, a kind of disruptive wind.If you hear my name in our household, Meltem, the first reaction is, “What did she do now?”

I really hated rules and, basically, I was not the proper Turkish girl but somehow I managed to get in college.I really hated school but somehow I ended up in college.I was able to finish it and, after college, in my degree in education there were not many opportunities.My brother was a PhD student at Georgia Tech at that time.He urged me to come to Atlanta so I can go to language institute, study English, and try to figure out what I want to do with my life.

While I was attending Georgia Tech Institute, a good friend of mine took me to Georgia State University so I can learn about the masters programs.I didn’t think much will come out of it.My GPA was super low and I really never had an interaction with a professor in a one-on-one setting before.But here I was, sitting in this American professor’s office who was so interested in what I was trying to say.I was shocked.

When I got in the masters program my parents didn’t believe me.I had to get the acceptance later, translate it in Turkish, and mail them so that they can believe me.

I had great professors at Georgia State.They made me love learning.One of my professors couldn’t pronounce my name so he gave me this nickname of ‘Mel’.I loved it.I thought everybody in America has nicknames.Basically, when you have a nickname, you are accepted, that people love you.

I grew up watching a lot of American TV shows, like Cosby Show, so I thought I knew what the whole American culture is about.Once you have a nickname you are basically an American, right?

But I really tried.I tried to have casual talks on campus introducing myself as ‘Mel’ hoping that everybody can see how much I was assimilated in the culture.I continued to watch more American shows, like Gilmore Girls, Friends, Seinfeld, so that I am not left out of conversations.With a nickname like ‘Mel’ and all the knowledge about American shows I thought I can be popular, I can make a lot of friends.But the reality is, as soon as I opened my mouth, the first thing that people saw was my foreignness.

After September 11, it was hard to make friends among Americans.I miss home more and more.But I decided to continue with my education.I loved going to school here.I got in a PhD program in Education Policy Studies.Again, it was more shocking news to my parents but it felt natural to me, to ‘Mel’ here.Because ‘Mel’ here was smart, ‘Meltem’ in Turkey was not this smart, so it felt very different.

I was often reminded of my differences when I traveled outside of Atlanta.In this one particular school, I was traveling with a friend, with another graduate friend collecting data in classrooms.We arrived in the school and I introduced myself to this teacher, as usual, ‘Mel’.She looked at me and she just refused to talk to me.I was not sure what was going on.

My friend who was American didn’t have an accent.When she talked to her she continued to interact with her.I was really wasn’t sure what was going on.

Later that day when we were observing her classroom, I noticed that she had a lot of students who were second-language speakers.She also ignored them in her class.There was this one student relatively with better English was trying to explain everything going on in the classroom to her friends.I felt terrible.

Unfortunately, during my research in Georgia classrooms, I witnessed a lot of teachers avoiding saying different names, different than typical American suburban names.Every time I witnessed this, I felt terrible.I felt like these students were undervalued.I felt this connection with these students, this kinship with these students and I start thinking who are we without our names, without our true names?We are all different so are our names.

Things got a little harder for me in the United States.I start just hanging out with my Turkish friends avoiding small talks because the reality about small talks for us foreigners is not beyond than, “Where are you from,” “When did you get here,” “Do you plan to go back’.

Most people, when we speak, they have this deer-in-headlight look shocked face.They cannot go beyond hearing our accent.So that ‘Meltem’ in Turkey who was so talkative and extroverted became ‘Mel’ who was less talkative and introverted.

One day, I was smoking in front of my apartment.I used to smoke.My neighbor came out.He was a friendly American neighbor.He want to have a cigarette.I really wanted to avoid the small talk, but he was very friendly.It was right after Bush elections.I really wanted to know why people voted for Bush.I was neither a Republican or a Democrat that time.I had really little understanding of American politics, but I was against war and I want to understand it.

We had great conversation.At the end of the conversation, he asked my name.As usual, I said, “Mel.”He asked my full name.I was surprised.Nobody ever asked my full name in a conversation like this before.I said, “Meltem.”And after a couple of times, he got it.

I thought, well, it was not that difficult. This moment became very important in my life.This man became my husband later on.

After 2016 elections, I feel more immigrant than ever in this country, even though I’m a United States citizen today.I get very self conscious in social settings when I’m the only one with a different name, with an accent.I misunderstand a lot of jokes.I cannot really keep up with social cues.I get very shy in large parties because I never know how people are going to react to my accent or how tolerant they are going to be.

But the reality is I am experiencing what it’s like for so many immigrants in this country.Today, I am very proud to live this most American of stories.I am very proud to teach my fellow Americans the correct pronunciation of my name given to me in my birth in Ankara.

As immigrants, America pushes us away, pulls us back, always pulling and pushing.I realize that pushing away my name and pulling it back again is the story of this country.It’s the story of searching for and then finding our place.Thank you."


The Story Collider is supported by The Burroughs Wellcome FundThe Tiffany & Co. Foundation which seeks to preserve the world’s most treasured landscapes and seascapes, and by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.

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  • Meltem Alemdar shares her story with the Story Collider

For More Information Contact

Steven L. Taylor
Communications Manager
Center for Education Integrating Science, Math and Computing (CEISMC)
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, GA   30332-0282

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