North Dakota State University senior Emily Grenz has a second favorite country. But being that she's a white woman from the culturally homogeneous small town of Eureka, S.D., you probably couldn't guess what it is.
It's not our neighbor to the north or a nation that's a tropical paradise.
It's not Germany, though Grenz says that country takes a close third.
It's Turkey, the country she loves so much that she's going back for the second straight summer.
But why Turkey of all places?
It all starts with an email Grenz received during her junior year, asking if she wanted to study a language and go abroad for free. What sounded too good to be true is actually an initiative of the Department of State. The Critical Language Scholarship Program offers scholarships to American students to learn languages that the government thinks will be important in the future due to conflicts and economic dealings.
Most destinations required previous experience in the language, but Turkey did not. Plus, it seemed safer than the other options, so Grenz applied and got accepted.
Grenz arrived in the city of Ankara last summer unprepared and terrified, but she left the country with the realization that she had made the best decision of her life.
"I fell in love with it," she said. "I love Turkey so much. I love the language, I love the people and I love the food. I'm crazy about it, fully realizing that there are things about it that are flawed. It's a vibrant culture that's very different from here."
Her favorite part was living with her host family, which consisted of a young woman named Buket, her mother, her brother and her boyfriend. They became like a second family.
In their home, Grenz was treated as a valuable guest, being fed Turkish food for sometimes four or five hours straight and having her dishes and laundry done for her.
"Some Americans feel like they lose all their independence," she said, "but I recognize it as a symbol of how much they wanted to make you comfortable and feel welcomed."
Grenz's friend Cihan Turkoz understands firsthand why she likes Turkey so much. Turkoz, who is at NDSU to study English, is from Istanbul.
"I think she likes Turkish foods first," Turkoz says, laughing.
And like Grenz, he mentions the hospitable nature of the Turkish people: "Usually Turkish people are so warm to foreigners. They try to share their culture and help them as much as they can. Maybe this is the thing that impressed her."
Having had such a life-changing experience the first time around, Grenz knew she had to apply to go back again this summer.
Grenz was at NDSU's Center for Writers, where she works as a writing consultant, when she found out she was accepted.
"I was so excited," she said with a smile. "I was sitting at this desk [at the CFW], and I was like 'Yeah!' yelling, and then I went home and jumped around my apartment for like a half hour. It was awesome."
Mary Pull, the director at the Center for Writers, wrote a letter of recommendation for Grenz's application. Pull said Grenz "was extremely excited to share her joy" after getting accepted, an excitement that rubbed off on Pull.
"I was thrilled but not surprised because Emily was and is an outstanding candidate—just the type of student the program was seeking!" Pull said.
Grenz will leave for Turkey on June 20, this time to stay in Bursa, a city in the northwestern part of the country. Her goal will be to move from the intermediate low level of Turkish fluency that she had at the end of last summer to an upper-intermediate or advanced level.
"I'm really looking forward to being with a host family again and to get back into the culture and use the language again," she said. "I really really like the language. It's distressing to me that I have lost so much being here."
Turkoz is excited that his friend gets to go back to his home country again.
"I'm happy for her because she loves Turkey," he said. "It's something that will be amazing for her.
"I hope she won't get lost in Istanbul," he adds since Turkey's largest city is close enough to Bursa that Grenz is planning to visit there.
In the meantime, Grenz is having trouble focusing here because she just wants to go back now, but she's been doing all she can to stay connected to the country she loves. She keeps in touch with Turkish friends through Skype and Facebook, studies a Turkish textbook in her rare moments of free time, listens to Turkish music, and watches Turkish movies.
"My poor friends are very tired of watching movies in subtitles," she says with a chuckle.
She also meets with Turkoz at the Center for Writers about twice a week to give him English conversation practice, something that's only fitting given her future plans. In the upcoming year or two, she wants to teach English abroad, probably in Turkey.
She said Turkoz has come a long way in his English already, but he's had awkward instances at restaurants where he'd unknowingly use a word that has a double meaning and the waitress would react.
Grenz can relate, as she has many similar stories about her time in Turkey. In her first week or two there, she would say what she thought were the words "look at me" to get a waiter's attention. It turns out that she was actually saying a similar sounding phrase in Turkish: "Are you single?" Or there was the time she asked for a peach at a store, and people were offended. The problem was that the word "peach" is very similar to the Turkish word for "bastard."
As these stories show, going to an unfamiliar country and being immersed in its language and culture can be challenging, but it's something Grenz highly recommends.
"I really encourage students to study abroad and push their own boundaries because it'll make you a better person," she said, "and to avoid stereotyping people and places because you will often be surprised what you can learn from them."
And like Grenz, you just might return home with a newfound appreciation and love for another culture and its people.