Asya Akca, a fourth year in the college and a joint BA/MA student in the Committee on International Relations (CIR), has an infectious enthusiasm for politics that weaves seamlessly in and out of topics as disparate as Middle Eastern history, national women’s issues, and international security. Born in Istanbul, Turkey, Akca and her family immigrated to the United States when she was not yet five years old.
Asya Akca in Ephesus, Turkey
“In 2010, we became naturalized Americans, and I think growing up in Kentucky and traveling back to Turkey fostered my interest in understanding the US-Turkey relationship in particular, especially because Turkey is a NATO ally and a very important country for the US strategically. Over the course of my childhood, Turkey started changing in terms of its own politics, and as a lot of people would say, became less secular, which really shaped my interest in the region.”
Akca’s growing interest in European and Middle Eastern politics coincided with the beginning of the civil war in Syria. As a high school sophomore, she had the opportunity to travel to New Haven to take a class on foreign affairs taught by editors of the magazine Foreign Affairs. She credits this experience with motivating her to pursue education, and plan for a career, in foreign policy.
In considering where to apply for college, UChicago seemed like a natural fit due to its intellectual rigor. “I really knew I wanted to study political science. Throughout high school, I was hardworking and I wanted to go to a college that would push me in the same way, so UChicago was always in my top five choices.”
As a first year, she had the opportunity to take Introduction to International Relations with John Mearsheimer and Strategy with Robert Pape, each paving the way for her college trajectory. Other memorable classes included The Secret Side of International Politics with Austin Carson and a course through the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The History of Modern Syria, with Julio Rivera. Carson’s course, she says, “exposed me to a whole new side of IR. I learned a lot more about the intelligence community and what happens behind closed doors, as he says, in the world of international politics.”
As a first year, she also had the chance to talk to CIR alum, McIntyre “Mack” Skarzynski BA ’15, MA ’15, who gave her the practical advice she needed to pursue CIR as a possibility for her fourth year. She notes that the mentorship she received from upperclassmen was critical for her success, and now, as a fourth year herself, she has made time to pass on such knowledge.
As a second and third year, Akca worked for the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST), where a dataset she helped build and code has informed her masters thesis topic. “We code for attack claims, if an attack is carried out and it is claimed or unclaimed. I realized there was a set of attacks happening in Istanbul, Ankara, all over Turkey that were unclaimed, but seemed to be ISIS operations. These attacks had high civilian casualty rates, usually suicide attacks, and were highly coordinated ones that the PKK couldn’t have carried out. I thought this was so strange – ISIS was claiming attacks in Europe and Syria, why aren’t they claiming these attacks in Turkey? So that got me interested in whether a series of unclaimed attacks can also have some sort of strategic value for a group to reach an objective.” While still developing her argument, Akca is looking at the possibility that unclaimed attacks might also have strategic value for terrorist organizations and the states in which they occur.
The IOP has also played an important role in Akca’s path. She currently sits on the Student Advisory Board at the IOP, where she has also previously held an editorial role on The Gate, an undergraduate political review, and been a Fellows Ambassador. The IOP supported two of her summer internships, one with the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., where she had a chance to use her Turkish language skills, and another with the US State Department, at the US mission to NATO in Brussels. Those experiences convinced her that she wanted to work within the US foreign policy community, especially in promoting American national security interests.
The IOP also allowed her to explore local American politics by sponsoring UChicago students to shadow journalists during the Iowa caucuses. Akca’s breadth of experience with international politics has shaped her view of politics at home. “The most eye-opening part of observing the Iowa caucuses and our democracy at work was just how different it is from what happens in Turkey. It made me realize how lucky we are as Americans to have the opportunity to work to elect the individuals that serve us. Although there were many complications behind the 2016 election, compared to Turkey, it’s very different. It was a historic moment to have a woman win a party nomination here in the US, and that may never happen in Turkey. It made me want to pursue a role in US politics even more.”
Fourth-year UChicago students Asya Akca (left) and Oluwaseyi “Shae” Omonijo, co-founders of the Monumental Women Project, at the unveiling of a bronze bust of Georgiana Rose Simpson in the Reynolds Club.
Akca also has an enduring interest in women’s roles in politics. “Over the course of my time at UChicago, I co-founded the Monumental Women Project, and we honored Dr. Georgiana Simpson, who’s an alum of the University of Chicago. She was one of the first African-American women in the US to receive her PhD in German philology, in 1921, and she got it here at Chicago. A big passion for me involves women’s issues more broadly and representation in the world. When you think about it, in Chicago and Washington, D.C., there aren’t many monuments that honor women. A way that I think we can start addressing the problem of a lot of women not filling political roles is that younger people can see a monument honoring a woman and feel moved and inspired by it.”
Her interdisciplinary coursework, from Political Science to the Harris School to CMES, as well as her leadership roles at the IOP and research position at CPOST, have all contributed to Akca’s sense of what she can offer to employers post-graduation. “The academic work in CIR does help. If I hadn’t taken so many classes on alliance politics, for example, I wouldn’t have been able to understand the importance of NATO and US involvement there when I was in Brussels. So there is a lot of overlap with real world issues, even if we don’t always like to admit it.”