Marietta High School was host to 14 student athletes, seven girls and seven boys, from the southern Turkish cities of Adana and Mersin as part of the SportsUnited Program, run by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The Turkish players, their coach and a trainer, who arrived last Friday, boarded buses outside the high school on Whitlock Avenue on Thursday to head to Washington, D.C., for a few days before returning home Nov. 12.
Firat Ozdalyan, who has coached basketball in Turkey for eight or nine years, participated in the SportsUnited Program once before with an exchange in Florida.
But Ozdalyan said this is the first time most of the students have been in the United States or even traveled abroad.
While in Marietta, the Turkish students were housed by nine families in the area so they could observe an American family.
“It is a different style of life,” Ozdalyan said. “They really don’t want to leave.”
Tracy Warren housed one of the athletes with her daughter, Chandler, 16, who attends Marietta High School.
Warren said her daughter is interested in other cultures and the family has spent summers traveling internationally, including to Singapore.
During the week-long visit, Warren said it was great to see how strangers from different cultures “can form one big friendship.”
The Warren family made their exchange student a memory book before departing, and Chandler plans to stay in contact with her new friends through social media.
Turkish student Senna Arman, 16, said she really liked Georgia because of the forests with trees changing colors.
During the stay, Arman tried hamburgers, hot dogs, and Mexican food for the first time.
Turkish students elect artistic classes
Warren said she was impressed with how well the Turkish students spoke English, their good basketball skills and how “learning and education is a big plus for them.”
The cultural exchange of athletes between Georgia and Turkey included the visitors being immersed in course work for a full day at Marietta High School on Monday.
Many of the students chose to sit in on business, electronics, dance, chorus, band, and weight training classes, which are electives that are not often offered in Turkish schools.
Marietta High School Principal Leigh Colburn said an American education is well-received around the world for including these extra courses.
“We are not just looking at their brain, we are trying to develop a whole child,” Colburn said.
The education experience in other areas of the world are focused on academics with athletic competitions done through club sports, which lack the school spirit that comes with mascots, homecoming weekends, cheerleaders, marching bands and pep rallies.
“That is a uniquely American experience,” Colburn said.
Students bond on and off the court
There are few cultural barriers on the basketball court, where much of the communication is about body language.
Marietta High School boys’ basketball coach Matt Lyons said when the Turkish and Georgia students practiced together twice this week it was not about being competitive, but learning skills from each other.
The girls’ coach since 1996, Ken Sprague, said basketball is growing in popularity overseas because it is a great spectator sport with a lot of action, does not cost a lot of money to play and it is easy to get a game together.
Sprague said the students of Marietta High School were wonderful during the week of the exchange.
“It was great to see how warm and accepting our kids are,” Sprague said. “They got close quick.”
Damien Bostick, 17, who is a senior at Marietta and has been playing basketball for 11 years, said he enjoyed every aspect of their visit.
The only tough part was learning and remembering their names, Bostick said.
Bostick said his team was able to show their drive to be the best, the differences in rules and regulations for American basketball and the fundamentals to focus on in practice.
It was also a chance to bond with his own teammates, who learned to communicate better with each other and work together to welcome the Turkish athletes, Bostick said.
Ozdalyan admitted that the Marietta students were more athletic than his Turkish players.
Arman, who has played volleyball since she was 10 years old in Turkey, said she likes sports because it makes her healthy and strong.
“I feel like I am free,” Arman said.
Completing the exchange
The goal of the SportsUnited Program is to link sports and education to increase the cultural understanding between people around the world, much like the goals of the Olympic Games, Colburn said.
Colburn said Marietta High School does exchange programs often, including programs with Marietta’s sister city Linz, Germany.
“Part of our International Baccalaureate program is building global students,” Colburn said.
But having an athletic focus was new, Colburn said. She added that aspect meant there was already a connection between the students from the moment the Turkish visitors arrived.
Colburn said the exchange was only discussed six weeks ago and all the expenses were paid for by the U.S. Department of State.
Next year, six boys and six girls from Marietta will travel with Lyons to Turkey for 10 days, overlapping with their spring break.
“That culture experience will bring it full circle for our guys,” Lyons said.
The city’s Board of Education still has to approve the second part of the exchange, Colburn said.
If approved, Colburn said it will be a great opportunity for her students to experience firsthand Turkey’s unique architecture and climate.
“Turkey is where the East meets the West,” Colburn said.
Bostick said he plans to go to Turkey, where he hopes to taste the food and tour the sites.
Ozdalyan added Turkish food “is the best in the world.”
Arman said she is excited to show her new American friends Turkish traditions and extend to them the same great hospitality.