Broadening my horizons at McGill
Last week I attended an event in Istanbul organized by my alma mater, McGill University. I found myself journeying down memory lane as so many meaningful memories from that important time in my life were rekindled. This week I wanted to share with you some of my experiences while at university, the place those years hold in my life and the effect they have on me still.
I can describe my admission to university and the experiences I had there as a turning point in my life. Actually, none of achievements were as easy as they look. I am the first member of the Süzer Family to have received a diploma abroad. What’s more, I managed to do this at McGill, one of Canada’s leading universities, after studying for the summer at Harvard.
Naturally, I had benefitted greatly from attending summer school in England at a young age and from the high school I attended, particularly the first three years in which I received instruction from foreign teachers. Still, it wasn’t easy at that age to leave my family and stand on my own two feet so far from home.
My admission to the university was something of an adventure. At first I was set on studying in America, but at dinner one day a family friend asked me if I had considered Canada as I was applying to various universities. I asked myself why I never had and expanded my options to include those in Canada.
I placed great importance on where I would study, and for that reason visited each of the campuses of the universities to which I had applied. Naturally, I added Montreal to these visits. I can describe my first impression of Montreal as “love at first sight”. After seeing Montreal and Mcgill University, which is located in the city center, I said to myself, “All right, I think I’ve found the university I want to attend.” It’s rare that feel that way, as though a lightning bolt has illuminated my mind. When it happens, I know I’m at just the right place, doing the right work or have just met the right person. This feeling has never deceived me, always proving to be accurate. It causes me to persist and pursue something to the end, even when others think I might be wasting my time.
After that visit, my primary objective was to gain admittance to McGill University. In contrast to many other families, ours had little experience in the world outside Turkey. To tell the truth, I had very little support from Kemal Atatürk High School, in Tarabya. I knew I would need to complete this process without a hitch. The time leading up to the application would be critical, as would the application itself.
Rigorous preparation and an astonishing response
Binnur Uzuner, a family friend, came to my aid at that time. Having succeeded in getting her son enrolled at MIT, she was well-versed in application processes and always gave me good guidance. Good-hearted and endearing, she made the entire process positive for me. I had completed the application process and moved on to a year, year-and-a-half of continuous self-development. I had told Binnur from the start that McGill University was my first choice, and we agreed to do what we could to make it a reality. It wasn’t an easy process. I imagine current applicants go through a similar experience. I needed to take TOEFL for a year and complete the SAT 1 and SAT 2 exams. After some serious prep work and study, I passed all the required tests.
Added to my test results were my grades from school, my CV, school activities such as sports, achievements that showed my leadership skills and personal references, resulting in quite an impressive application, if I do say so myself. I was expecting a positive response when what do I receive? A letter of rejection. I nearly lost it. How could this be possible? I had met all the criteria. I’d passed all the tests, nearly getting a perfect score on the math section of the SAT. I was one of the best students at my school. I was class president. I did all kinds of sports. There had to be a mistake, and I set out to find and fix it.
I think it’s fair to say that most people would have reacted by accepting rejection and attending a university that was not their first choice. But in my mind I was already attending McGill University. I rolled up my sleeves and jumped on the next plane to Montreal.
I went straight to the admissions office and explained the situation, saying I wanted to talk about my application. The woman who received me told me to wait for a moment and she would summon the person in charge. I’ll never forget the sight of a blonde woman approaching me from the closed-off interior of the office.
This is how our conversation went:
- Hello. My name is Serhan Süzer. My application was rejected. I think there must be a mistake because I examined all of the application criteria and I’ve certain I met them all. I’ve come here to find out the reason my application wasn’t accepted.
- Could you write down your full name and the place you applied from? I’ll get your file from inside and have a look.
She took my information and returned with a file:
- Your TOEFL score is below our minimum.
- How could that be? I passed the TOEFL exam.
(I was holding my entire application folder. I took out the relevant document and showed her.)
- Here it is.
- That’s odd. We have a lower score for you.
- Let’s look at the dates
The facts soon emerged. I had initially taken a TOEFL test as a sort of dry run without having studied for it. I later took the test “for real”. At that time, TOEFL tests were administered once every two months. I received a passing mark. For some reason, however, the results of my practice test had gone to McGill but not the results of my real test. The immediate reaction of the admissions officials was:
- It’s good you brought your records. Could I photocopy this?
Once my TOEFL test results had been photocopied:
- We’ll reevaluate your application and get back to you. I can see that your English isn’t a problem.
- (I kept chatting, a habit I picked up in high school) Thank you. I travel quite a bit and I’m sure that’s had an impact. By the way, I was wondering where you’re from. (She had an accent.)
- I’m of Russian descent.
- That’s great. Russians and Turks are brothers. Our relations are improving daily.
- Yes, I follow the regional news.
- Have you ever been to Turkey?
- No, I haven’t.
- We’ve got some great places. Marmaris, Fethiye, Bodrum, Çeşme. Turkey is a holiday paradise. I recommend you visit.
- Yes, I hope to one day.
- Thank you so much for helping me.
- It’s been my pleasure.
- I’ll be awaiting the news.
- Okay. Have a nice day.
- You too.
Two weeks later I received an acceptance letter from McGill University. It seems funny now, but persistence had paid off. I would be attending my dream university in my dream city. From 1995-1999, I did a double major at McGill in finance and accounting. I had a wonderful four years there.
With my father and aunt in Montreal
Engineering regrets and benefits of finance
In the following years, my only regret concerning my university years was that I had majored in finance and accounting instead of electrical/electronic or software engineering. In high school, I was always good in and enjoyed mathematics, physics and chemistry. But I had decided that I would be a banker. Today, I am the founder of a company – Ekore Renewable Energy, or EkoRE for short – that gets to the heart of engineering. Although I have a background in finance, my practical knowledge of engineering is such that it gives me a grasp of many details and allows me to communicate effectively with some of our successful engineers. I even attend some of the R&D meetings. To be fair, I should also acknowledge that a background in finance is essential in all areas of business and, if well deployed, can you give you a huge advantage over competitors. I think these advantages have contributed to making us what we are today.
I learned a great deal and had many experiences at university. There was a huge different between Freshman Serhan and Graduate Serhan. While my essential nature and character went unchanged, my view of the world and way of thinking were changed forever.
At my graduation ceremony
These are some of the ways university changed me:
1. My inclination had already been to consider myself a “world citizen,” but graduating from McGill, in Montreal, made me one in its truest sense. Canada is a country of immigrants, people of French heritage have left their mark on all parts of Montreal, along with those from many different parts of the globe. Factor in the international environment at my school and it was as though I had spent four years at the United Nations. It was a joy to be among all these different cultures and to become familiar with them.
2. My palate changed. Like a typical Turkish student, I started out thinking there were many things I’d never eat, but ended up liking them when I did. I remember trying sushi in my freshman year. The first sushi seemed to get bigger and bigger in my mouth as I imagined I’d never be able to get it down and might even throw up. A French friend asked, “Delicious, isn’t it?” I managed to force down a few bites before I gave the rest of my portion to my French friends. After graduation I grew to love not only sushi, but also some of the strange sweet and sour Chinese dishes.
Dining with friends
3. My first car was a Nissan Pathfinder. We had an emotional bond. It was the perfect vehicle for winter driving conditions. Montreal taught me how to drive well on snow.
Driving my first car in Montreal
4. I’d never imagined I could endure frigid weather. The typical winter day in Montreal is -10 °C in the daytime and as low as -30 °C at night. My personal record, taking into account the wind chill factor, was -52 °C one winter night. That’s how I learned to live with the cold.
5. I love skiing. It was in Montreal that I first saw an illuminated ski slope. Instead of heading for the gym after work, people would head for the slopes just outside the city. It was amazing.
6. It was a great tragedy to have eliminated so many football teams in a school tournament in which hundreds of teams participated only to lose in the final. I’ll write more about this later. As of the semi-finals we played two marches in the university stadium. Playing the final in the stadium in front of all those spectators was an amazing feeling.
7. I’ve observed this difference between students studying in France and those studying in Turkey: although the ones in Turkey display more of a practical intelligence and are quick to grasp their lessons, they are lacking in self-confidence. Students who went to school in Canada have more confidence and are more at ease overseas. Also, the English at most of the universities in Turkey is subpar. In fact, those teaching in English and other foreign languages have insufficient language skills. In Canada, I naturally spent every day communicating in English and French. I think I developed both my foreign language skills and my confidence while in Montreal.
8. After English, I added a second foreign language while in Montreal. When I graduated I could speak French, even if imperfectly. Now, having learned Spanish, that language seems to have taken the place of French. It’s odd. I can’t speak French right now, but I can understand. In order to regain my abilities in French I would need to go and live in France for a time.
9. I watched my first Formula 1 in Montreal. It was enjoyable in all ways. This experience helped me years later when I was working with a team behind the scenes to host Formula 1 in Istanbul.
10. Just as during elementary school and high school, I was lucky in terms of my friends while at university. We had a great group. At that age, friends can influence you a lot. Peer pressure is a powerful force, whether it encourages or discourages wrongdoing. Fortunately, my friends were a close-knit bunch of forthright, decent people. I had more than one circle of friends, and they included French Canadians, French, Latin Americans, Americans, Greeks, Lebanese and Indian students. No matter where they were from, everyone studying at my university was of a certain caliber.
11. I first heard the expression, “The only thing that is constant is change” at university. It was also there that I saw that people can remain true to their basic values while constantly developing and changing. In business and private life those incapable of change and development always lose. “This is how I am. Take it or leave it,” is a maxim certain to lead to disappointment. Those who do not complete in a timely fashion that which needs to be done will be left with nothing but tears shed in vain and bitter regrets.
12. I’ve always been hardworking and responsible. Our school motto was Grandescunt Aucta Labore: “By hard work, all things increase and grow.” Our school also had over 300 clubs a we joined in a range of activities every day. I also frequently heard the English saying, “Work hard, play hard.” Me and the other students at McGill did work hard at our lessons but we also had fun joining in a lot of activities both on campus and in Montreal.
McGill coat of arms
My dorm room for two years
I moved into a flat after two years. Talking on the phone in my flat.
13. My close relations to people from so many different cultures led to the abandonment of my prejudices. I no longer judge any cultures. I know that each and every culture, region and country has both good people and bad. Nobody is 100% good or bad, for that matter. There are degrees. At university I learned how wrong it was to judge people on where they were from, their culture or their faith, and that one should focus only on the person him- or herself.
14. I learned not to take myself too seriously as a citizen of Turkey. Ever since my years at university, empty boasts and clichés have seemed ridiculous. For example: “The only friend of a Turk is a Turk,” “One Turk is worth the world,” “We’re amazing, we’re the best,” etc. It’s fine to be proud of one’s roots and one’s country, but always keep this in mind: What is important is to produce or contribute something of value, to embrace humanitarian values, to serve mankind, to learn how to be happy, to belief in universal values and not upset others, and to make those we value happy. Nothing else matters.
Consider this to be an introduction. I’ll share my details about my university in my next post as well as in future anecdotes. Stay well until my next article.