BY MARYAM SHAHID (CS/II)
Emel Özdora Akşak started teaching full time in the Department of Communication and Design at Bilkent University in September 2012, after working for the UNICEF Turkey office for three years. An undergraduate alumna of the department in which she is now teaching, she received a PhD in mass communication from the University of Florida in 2009. Her research interests include refugee communications, public diplomacy, public relations, organizational communication and corporate social responsibility.Why did you become a professor?
Even as a student I was always interested in learning and teaching my friends; I enjoyed making things easy to understand for others. When I was a student at Bilkent, I would hold study groups before midterm exams. I also have professors in my family, so I’d seen how the academic career evolves – the challenges, the benefits. So I just found it something I wanted to do with my life.
Why/how did you choose Bilkent? What do you like most about being at Bilkent?
Bilkent, for me, was a natural choice because it was the school where I got my undergraduate degree. Coming back to Turkey from the US and Belgium, it seemed like the best option. I think it’s one of the greatest schools in Turkey, in terms of our student body, the curriculum, the staff, the research and the academic environment we have. The university gives you academic freedom in the sense that you have autonomy in deciding what to study, what to research, how to teach your classes. I love the quality of education and the flexibility we have as an academic institution.
What projects are you working on currently?
I like working on different projects simultaneously. One of my major research areas right now is Syrian refugees in Turkey. Working at UNICEF, I already knew about refugees and the projects we had with them, but I’m now also looking at the topic from an academic perspective: studying refugees’ representation in the media and how the refugee issue is becoming a part of political communication and public diplomacy, as well as looking at the representation of refugees in social media, which is unfortunately full of negative stereotypes, hate speech and derogatory comments concerning them. I also study civil society organizations in Turkey – sort of bringing communication, relationship building and the refugee topic together.
What excites you the most about your work?
Starting! The beginning, the initiation, coming up with an idea and looking at how others have looked at that idea; trying to find another angle for approaching that topic, and thinking about how I can contribute to the existing literature. It’s a process of sort of seeing how your piece fits into the overall puzzle.
Could you share a defining moment in your career?
That would be moving from working as a communication specialist to finally deciding to come back to academia full time. I had completed my PhD studies and been a teaching assistant; I then took a break and worked as a communications person with an international organization for three years. Coming back to teaching and research, which was my true passion, was a defining moment for me.
What’s one piece of information from your field that you think everyone should know?
How to communicate better. I see this quite a lot: people doing great work in all kinds of different fields but doing a terrible job communicating their work to others. I think everybody needs good communication skills – verbal, written, body language – knowing how to organize your ideas and opinions and communicate them to others; knowing how to create a connection with people.
When and where do you do your best thinking?
As a student, I was a night owl, so it was always in the middle of night. I’d get up from bed excited about a new idea, or I’d even still be half asleep and would make notes with one eye closed. But now, having two kids and trying to balance family life and a career, I’d say the mornings. From a night person, I’ve turned into a morning person.
What distracts you?
New ideas. Sometimes I’ll be doing something and it’ll be almost done, and then a new idea or project will surface, and I’ll be so tempted to focus on it instead. It’s like having a cake or box of chocolates on my desk.
What are you most curious about?
Science. I’m not a science communications person, but reading about scientific developments – innovations, space, biomedical developments – seems so interesting to me, even though it’s quite outside my academic focus. I might not always understand it fully, but it just makes me so curious.
What’s the most common misconception about your work?
That it’s only about communication, and nothing else. People don’t understand how interdisciplinary our field is, how every academic field needs communication. Even if you’re talking about sustainability and renewable energy, for example, you might have the greatest idea, but if you can’t communicate it properly to the right audience, then what you do is basically useless.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Play with my kids. Your lifestyle determines your habits and your likes. I love being outdoors; we spend so much of our time inside buildings – our homes, our offices – that I like being outside, whether it’s sunny or snowy. And I can combine being outdoors with being with the kids, so that’s a twofer.
If you weren’t a professor, what career would you choose?
A communications person. Organizational communication would be my field.
What’s the secret to leading a happy life?
Accepting the status quo. I look at my situation, understand my limits and territory, and make my work interesting. Also, having good relationships with the people you work with. We often spend more time in our offices than with our families, and we should try to make a positive experience out of it. I’m lucky, I have it very easy – I work with wonderful people. We have a very pleasant work environment in our department.
If you could go back to your undergraduate/graduate student years, what advice would you give your younger self?
If there’s a subject that you find difficult – for me it was math – even if you feel like you’re not good at something, try to learn and approach it from a different perspective. Don’t block it out. Instead of immediately panicking about something and shutting yourself down against it, try to approach it again from a different perspective.