Friday, January 28, 2022

Robert College



The year was 1860. Abraham Lincoln was elected President of a young United States of America; South Carolina seceded from the Union; a possible Civil War was looming in the future. In Europe, once a mighty Empire, the Ottomans were in a slow but certain decline.  In Istanbul, the capital city of the Ottoman Empire, a young American missionary, Cyrus Hamlin was busy trying to establish an American School, having arrived there in 1839. A graduate of the Bangor Theological Seminary in 1837 by way of Bowdoin College, Mr. Hamlin was born in Waterford, Maine to the prominent Hamlin family who also produced a Vice President of the United States, Hannibal Hamlin as well as two Civil War Generals. He had arrived in Istanbul in January, 1838 as a missionary.

Also visiting Istanbul at the time was a wealthy industrialist from New York, Mr. Christopher Robert, desiring to establish in Istanbul a modern university along American lines with instruction in English.  Mr. Hamlin was by this time running a small school, a bakery, and a laundry in the small Istanbul suburb of Bebek on the shores of the Bosphorus Straits. Mr. Robert, on an early Sunday morning wanted to purchase a loaf of bread similar to what he was used to buying in New York. He was told about Mr. Hamlin’s Bakery where fresh loaves were baked every day. Mr. Robert and Mr. Hamlin met at the bakery; and these two men, an educator and a philanthropist, successfully collaborated to found Robert College of Istanbul. A few years later, in 1878 Mr. Robert died in NY and left a major portion of his wealth to Robert College.

Today, Robert College of Istanbul is the oldest American school still in existence in its original location outside the United States. The school is one of the most selective private high schools in Turkey. It sits on 65-acres of  land on the European shore of the Bosphorus Straits. The present Robert College is the consolidation of two renowned schools: the old all male Robert College and the all female American College for Girls.

The object of the College was to give to its students, without distinction of race or religion, a thorough educational equal in all respects to that obtained at a first-class American college and based upon the same general principles.

What Mr. Hamlin and Mr. Robert started in 1860 indeed flourished over the next century. The college grew in size and scope through the help of benefactors such as John S. Kennedy, Olivia Stokes, and members of the Dodge and Huntington families. By the early 20th century, Robert College had become a leading institution in the Middle East.

By 1923 the Ottoman Empire had completely disappeared from the world’s scene, having been replaced by a young Turkish Republic. Robert College was instrumental throughout the transitional period of the Turkish nation from a monarchic empire to a modern republic by maintaining the strict political neutrality expected

Robert College

Robert College

from an academic institution. Thus, its education of the leaders of the future went on without interruption, much to the benefit of the young republic.

Robert College was an all boys school for many years until the establishment of ACG (American College for Girls) a few miles away from the original location. The role which ACG has played in the education of women provided substantial support for the modernization of Turkey.
My father, all my uncles, and my cousins attended and graduated from Robert College at one time or another. My mother attended and graduated from ACG in the 1930s. I was accepted to this wonderful institution in the summer of 1965, after graduating from the English High School for Boys of Istanbul, another very special middle school established in 1905 by the government of Great Britain and Ottoman Empire to educate the Turkish youth.

Both the old Robert College and ACG, while fostering intense institutional loyalty, never lost sight of the individual student, whose education should equip him or her to become an independent thinker of broad vision. Robert College is proudly responsible for the first female college professor, the first Chief delegate to the U.N., the first novel written in English by a Turkish author, the first Turkish actress to perform on American and English stages, the first Turkish Ambassador to China, the first TV director, the first Minister of Culture, the first Turkish playwright on Broadway, the first female Turkish piano virtuoso, the CEO of the largest Turkish non-government bank, the CEO of the largest Turkish Industrial company: the list could continue. Suffice it to say that Robert College graduates are leaders in their fields in Turkiye and the world.

One can only imagine: what would be the effect of having similar institutions of higher learning located in the areas of the world where democratic ideals are under attack, religious fervor unchecked, and terrorism is bred?  Would we still be asking the question, “Why do they seem to hate us so much?” If they knew us better, they would understand us better and maybe, just maybe the question would not be necessary. Judging by the influence and success of Robert College, a true shining city on the hills of Istanbul, the effects might be enormous.  Maybe someday we will collectively learn to put our money and efforts where it really matters.

Columnist Tarik Ayasun is a familiar face to Marco Islanders, as his civic spirit has been in evidence since his arrival here in 1986. He has served as President of the Marco Island Chamber of Commerce (1994), been on the YMCA board of directors (2000), the Marco Island Rotary Club board of directors (2005), the Marco Island Charter Middle School past president (2004), Forum Club of Collier County board of directors (2004/2006), Marco Island Police Foundation board membe (2005/2009), and is currently chairman of the city’s Code Enforcement Board.

Tarik was born in Istanbul, Turkey and has been involved in international trade for 35 years.

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