Following a code

By coming to Brown to embrace new challenges — like combining computer science with humanities studies through the Open Curriculum — Turkish student Melis Gökalp ’21 is on a path to improve the lives of those in her home country.

It started with a newspaper article. Melis Gökalp ’21 was a middle school student in Istanbul, Turkey when she stumbled upon the story. It was about a fellow Turkish student who had gone to an Ivy League college in the United States, became a lawyer, and was now seeking to change things for the better in his native country.

It was enough to inspire the young Gökalp to do the same. Later that day, she proclaimed to her family that she wanted to go to an Ivy League school. Her parents' response: “What's that?” 

Truthfully, Gökalp wasn't entirely sure either, but she had found a path that spoke to her and was determined to follow it.

Foreign territory

That path brought her to a foreign education high school that helped prepare her for college abroad. It also brought her to the United States for the first time to visit several colleges — including Brown, which had quickly emerged as her top-choice school. For Gökalp, a big part of its draw was the Open Curriculum.

“Before coming to Brown, I considered myself a visual arts and humanities person,” says Gökalp. “I was very eager to make use of the Open Curriculum because there were so many things I knew I wanted to explore that weren't available or offered at my high school in Turkey.”

Aided by a Brown Annual Fund scholarship, she was able to embark on that exploration. In her first year, she took courses in digital art, contemporary architecture, anthropology, and Slavic studies. But more than anything, Gökalp wanted to learn how to write computer code. She enrolled in her first-ever computer science course and, though it was an introductory class, it proved unexpectedly challenging.

“I was struggling. I was surrounded by students who had been doing this since high school or even middle school, and there I was trying to do it for the first time. It was really unusual for me and I was doubtful I would take any further coding classes,” says Gökalp.

Despite starting a lap behind the pack, Gökalp was able to catch up and — by the end of the semester — found herself excited to continue her trek into computer science. While she initially planned to concentrate in international relations, Gökalp is now pursuing concentrations in both computer science and Slavic studies.

“If it wasn't for the Open Curriculum, I would not have had the chance to take a computer science course because it was so far outside my comfort zone,” says Gökalp. “Brown encourages students to be comfortable with taking on new challenges.”

I believe that computer science has the potential for improving every field of human life and can be used for something as sweeping and meaningful as assisting humanitarian crises.

Melis Gökalp ’21

Already a mentor

While Brown was helping her discover new interests inside the classroom, it was also reinforcing one of her already established interests — human rights. Following the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, she had set up a program at her high school with Amnesty International to help support refugees fleeing the conflict. 

At Brown, she’s able to have an individual impact on refugee students as a tutor for a 13-year-old Syrian girl through the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring & Enrichment (BRYTE) program.

“Visiting her is the highlight of my week,” says Gökalp. “Aside from helping her with school work, I teach her coding. I’m trying to give her the early start on coding that I didn’t have when I was her age.”

Bringing it back home

Almost a decade after reading the newspaper article that set her on a path to Brown, Gökalp is still inspired by the story of another Turkish student's drive to help others.

It's been a turbulent time for Turkey, marked with political, social, and financial turmoil. According to Gökalp's parents, more and more of their friends are asking how their children can attend college in the U.S. and get out of the country.

“It's a really sad trend,” says Gökalp. “If all these young people who could possibly help or lead us in the right direction leave the country, who will be left to make things better in Turkey?”

With the education, experience, and opportunities made possible in part by the Brown Annual Fund, she hopes that one day she can. 

“After graduating from Brown, I want to help develop new technologies to make people's lives better,” she says. “I believe that computer science has the potential for improving every field of human life and can be used for something as sweeping and meaningful as assisting humanitarian crises.”