This episode of Supersense presents welcomes the psychologist Elif Emir Öksüz, a professor at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University, Turkey. This incredibly hard-working woman completed her master's and PhD in seven years while having a baby to care for. Shane and Elif talked about how it was to become a professor at the university, how it was to teach sighted students as a blind person, and how her mother helped her during her education when the technology wasn’t this advanced.
Click the video below to listen to the interview on our YouTube channel, and read on for the transcript of the interview.
Elif: Hi everybody, my name is Elif Emir Oksuz. I am from Turkey, and I am a faculty member at a public university in Istanbul, Turkey. I am a psychologist and a counselor. I studied in the United States between 2012 and 2019, and I got my masters and PHD there. Also, I am totally blind.
Shane: Thanks so much for coming onto Supersense Presents, I’m really glad you’re here! You got your masters and your PHD in 7 years? That’s really impressive to me.
Elif: Yes, and also, I had a baby during those years, and when I got my PHD, she was two years old!
Shane: Wow, that is incredible. Is the baby now living with you in Turkey?
Elif: Yes, she’s with me.
Shane: Cool, that is wonderful! So, what is your PHD in?
Elif: It is in counseling.
Shane: What got you into counseling? What inspired your interest in that field.
Elif: I will be honest with you, when I was in high school, I was a hard working student. I was blind then, and I was trying to think of jobs I could perform after graduation. Technology wasn’t very enhanced, and the attitudes were much more negative back then, so I thought my options were very restricted. I was focusing on law school, or psychology, which don’t include much visual training. I thought that if I became unemployed, being a lawyer wouldn’t help me at all, but being a psychologist would at least help me.
Shane: That is a really practical approach to it, that makes a lot of sense! When did you graduate from high school?
Elif: I graduated from high school in 2004, I got my bachelor’s, and I actually got another masters degree in counseling and guidance in Turkey. I was a PHD student there, but I was always looking for ways to go abroad to the USA because the counseling training was very advanced there. However, when I had the opportunity, there were some accreditation issues, so I had to start from the beginning and got another master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. I’ve spent so much time in school!
Shane: I can’t imagine! I’m almost finished with my bachelor’s degree, and I think that once I finish it, I will be done with school for a long time!
Elif: I don’t blame you!
Shane: It’s really admirable, what you’re doing. I really admire those who throw in so much time in becoming educated and really mastering their craft. That is so commendable.
You mentioned that the technology wasn’t as evolved in 2004, and also that a lot of those around you were sort of negative. Once you graduated and were pursuing your degree, what kind of challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them? That’s a super boring question, so it’s on you to make the answer so much more interesting than my boring question!
Elif: No, I first need to say that when I was in high school, I did have some residual vision, and although it was not helpful for me to live a sighted life, I was not identifying as a blind person and didn’t know any blind people. The technology wasn’t that underdeveloped, but I wasn’t aware of what blind people could do with electronic devices. I have to give so many thanks to my mom, who read everything to me in person until my junior or senior year of college. Then I was introduced to screen reading technology.
Shane: That is really neat! What about the professors? I’m sure you know that in America, some professors don’t want to teach someone who is blind. Did you encounter any cases like this in Turkey?
Elif: I can say that it’s a little bit worse, in Turkey. In America, you have better laws, and you can advocate for yourselves. Here, especially in the past, we didn’t have any legislation, and we weren’t able to say anything. If the professor says they don’t want you, and it’s an elective course, you simply aren’t allowed to take it. If the course is mandatory, they ask the senate to wave the course for you. I haven’t encountered such a thing in my own training, but I know so many people who faced this. There were some negative attitudes, though. For example, I didn’t apply to the clinical psychology masters program, because it was implicitly said “you won’t be able to observe the clients, it’s quite competitive, so many good candidates,” etc.
Shane: Wow, that is insane! So you got your PHD in America, did you always intend to come back to Turkey after you got the level of education you wanted?
Elif: Yes, I did! I got to America on a scholarship from Turkey, and that required me to come back and teach here for the country.
Shane: Oh wow, so they paid your full education here, so you could go back to Turkey and teach. That is so neat! What kind of things are you teaching now?
Elif: Well, you mentioned something about heavily visual courses earlier, but I was teaching neuropsychology plus physiological psychology. They are different courses, and I don’t think there are any psychology courses that are this visually focused. It wasn’t my primary area of expertise, but it was my duty to teach those courses last semester. I was actually quite successful, students rated me around 4.4 and 4.6 for the two courses, so it was quite a successful experience for me.
Shane: How did you adapt those courses? How did you convey the visual information to the students that was accessible for you, but effective to them?
Elif: I was mainly focusing on paying attention to selecting my text books from those that are available on Bookshare. Many of them had descriptions for the images, so I was copying the image and pasting it into the PowerPoint, then copying the caption and pasting it into the alt text section. Students could see the image, and I could read the description of it. I was able to describe what was in the graphics, and even sometimes I was asking if students thought the image descriptions were correct!
Shane: I love it!
Elif: I was also using a lot of Youtube videos. There are so many great Youtube videos for Neuroscience and physiological psychology. I was using my blindness to encourage them, too. One time, they were literally crying about some of the course work, and I was able to use my blindness to reassure them that they could do the work!
Shane: Absolutely, I love that! Also, there is a common thing I hear from blind educators; did anyone try to take advantage of your blindness in any way?
Elif: Well, this was my first semester, and due to the COVID pandemic, our courses were fully virtual. The online environment makes things much more accessible for me. We use Microsoft Teams, which keeps very detailed attendance and does all of that work for me. I suppose students can turn off their cameras and do something on the side, but they could do that to a sighted person as well, so the online environment was actually easier for me. However, I taught a graduate level course in the University of Cincinnati, and during that experience, I didn’t have any problems with the students. At the beginning of the course, I told my students that they could be bored during the courses. You may be tempted to turn on your screens, but you are all going to be councilors. Take this as an opportunity to observe yourself and your tendencies, and think about this question: If your client is talking about a boring situation, it’s very possible to get bored. How are you going to behave? Will you check your messages under the desk, or are you going to be engaged with them, and recognize your feelings.
I don’t know what they did during the courses, but I said that if they took advantage of me not seeing them, it’s in their honor.
Shane: I love that approach, I think transparency and straightforwardness is the best way to handle it! So, if any of our readers would like to get in touch, how could they follow you?
Elif: I have a linked in account, and my email account is ElifEmirOksuz@gmail.com.
Shane: Thank you so much, I truly appreciate it! Do you have any last words of advice you can give to our readers?
Elif: I would say that if someone says you cannot do something, which often happens to me, I almost always deny that. I tell them that I can, but maybe in a different way. Try to find your own way, because people in the public think there may be only one way, and it’s the sighted way. That isn’t true. Just be resourceful, be in good communication with other blind people who can easily help you with blindness questions, be open minded, optimistic, and hard working. Even though everything is not perfect, you will do the best you can.
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