Lemon Zest : Elif Ak's Scholarship Story on Life in the USA & Turkey

Categories: EMPOWERMENT AND SUCCESS: Scholarships & Mentoring, SCHOLARSHIPS: Students Under 24 Years of Age, Students,

Author's Note: My name is Elif Ak and I was born in Istanbul, Turkey. I moved to the United States eight years ago. Until I stepped foot in America, I didn’t speak a single word of English language and to this day, I am still learning this crazy language! I am a recent graduate from Riverview High School’s International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. I am planning to attend American University in Washington D.C. in the fall. I will be majoring in Data Sciences in Justice, Law and Criminology, and am planning on furthering my career in this area.

Writing Lemon Zest was something that made me reflect back to my life both in the USA and Turkey. I realized how much I’ve grown over these years. It was so joyful to write my story in a way that made so much sense to me. I aimed mostly for authenticity and sincerity in my essay. I remember the day when right after school, I went to Starbucks, got my drink, sat outside, put classic music on, and closed my eyes. I asked myself, "What is your first memory of this country, and what did you find interesting that made a significant impact on your life that will make the reader want to read it until the last sentence?" It was a simple, quick and a classic memory that made me reflect, eight years later, how much it changed who I was and how I approached to unusual things in life.

I am so glad to share this story with so many people and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be writing this introduction for the Community Foundation’s Blog. It is an honor.

Editor's Note: Elif Ak is a recipient of the Lela D. Jackson Foundation Scholarship, an award of $50,000 over 4 years ($12,500 per year for 4 years).


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A day in June, 2012…a day I discovered something that led me to a new perspective, a whole new view on life. On this day, I discovered a garage sale. How do you explain to a foreigner the concept of a garage sale? It is the wild idea of spreading objects, stories, and knowledge among people— discovering diversified worlds that have so much to tell, teach and pass on. What is new? Everything is new. I’m in a new world. I have a new life from now on, so much to learn, so many colors to discover. For a second, I felt something in my heart. Just like the feeling of ice-cold water being sprinkled on my body on a hot summer day. I was shocked, excited and confused all at once.

My story begins with the day I discovered the garage sale. I asked my Baba what the sign said. He didn’t know, so he stopped. I got out of the car anxiously, wondering if it was okay to just walk into someone’s house, yet I did. My curiosity gave me all the courage I needed. Inside, there were hundreds of clothing items that came in so many different shapes, sizes and colors. The bright red dress looked just like the one my grandmother made for me from little scraps she bought at the local bazaar. I loved my dress so much, that I wore it to every single holiday I possibly could. There were long, short, thin, and thick scarves that looked like the ones my mom would wrap me in when I had to walk to school on a windy winter morning. There were bright pink running shoes that nobody could afford in my neighborhood back in Istanbul. The garage had an aroma that was made from scents like naphthalene, dye, mold, wood, and hope. How does hope smell? It smells like a new beginning, a change. It smells like something I desired.

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Caption: First photo of Elif with her family in the USA, after moving from Istanbul, Turkey. June 2012.

That first garage sale taught me how to see so much beauty and assortment in someone else’s life. It was exactly like reading a book in a foreign language. Scary that it can be rough to read simply because you don’t speak that language, impossible to catch all the important details, yet excited for the end anyways, because nobody around you really knows the end. I have a story to tell, and I know with every given opportunity I will tell my story to anyone who wants to listen, because like that garage sale, my story also has many colors. So many different shades make me who I am. Yes, it is so challenging to leave your colors behind and go into complete greyness, learn a new language, culture, just start all over. I know millions of others do it every day, but there’s only me who can tell my story. I have so much more to learn, to achieve, so much to give back, just so many more colors that I need to discover. I believe with any given chance, with anyone who will listen to me, I can make an impact in this world.

I come from a place where there is no room for diversity, no room for opinions that make the world colorful. I come from a place where gruesome honor killings are provoked by reasons as simple as short skirts, wrong stares, with the wrong people, at the wrong time. There is simply no room for lemon zest, baby blue, magenta and pea green, there’s only black and white. That garage sale taught me so much more than I realized at the time. It taught me that it is okay to be colorful, and that it is okay to share my colors with the world. I have this wild story to tell and there’s only one of me to tell it.