TEDx Terry Talks Preview: Altay Sedat Otun

Altay in North Korea

Altay in North Korea

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On Saturday, November 2nd, Altay Sedat Otun will be presenting his TEDx Terry Talk on “ The Rise of the Citizen Policy Analyst.” Recently, he sat down with the Terry Project’s Marion Benkaiouche to talk about why he thinks university students should move away from stimulated policy conferences like the Model United Nations, and become policy makers themselves. 


Q. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

A. I am a fourth year student majoring in honours political science. I am also a pretty awesome uncle to my adorable 5-year-old nephew. I was born in Boston but grew up in Istanbul, Atlanta, and Chicago.

Q. What is your talk about?

A. I consider my talk to be a call to action. Since I arrived at UBC four years ago, there has never been a shortage of stories of engineering students who created groundbreaking inventions or the Sauder student who established an innovative start-up. However, during my time as an undergraduate student, I never once heard of a political science or international relations student who created or changed policy – be it foreign, domestic, healthcare, economic, whatever!

For me, I strongly think that’s because Arts students are too heavily invested in the paradigm that “we can’t make a difference until graduation.” There is a widespread belief that we are somehow too young or too inexperienced to be taken seriously. And it doesn’t help that the only avenues available for students interested in policy are simulated conferences such as Model United Nations. Instead of students spending their time and effort creating actual change, they are instead pretending to make a difference.

That is why a group of students, professors, and myself have been working for the past year to establish a student run think tank on our campus – the first of its kind in Canada. The second half of my talk will be devoted to discussing the background of this organization and our first research study in Turkey this past summer.

Q. It seems from your application that you’re taking a critical approach to simulations. How much will you be talking about this?

A. I will definitely spend the first half of my talk focused on the issue of simulation conferences in universities. When we make our transition from being a high school student to a university student, there are certain things we leave behind before our freshman year. Some of us give up the comfort of our parent’s warm home for that 300 square foot basement suite in East Vancouver while others are forced to live on a budget which often involves eating food that can be eaten cold, ordered over the phone, or heated in under five minutes. No matter what, all of us give up something before we enter college in the hopes of becoming more mature as we head down the path towards adulthood. It’s a normal part of life!

But there seems to be one thing that has made it from the hallways of high schools to universities like UBC without being noticed – simulation conferences like Model United Nations. During my talk this Saturday, I will argue that these conferences don’t belong in universities because it prevents students from empowering themselves and actually making a difference. Instead of utilizing their talents to become actual policy analyst, they are stuck in these conferences pretending while their peers in other faculties are actually changing our local, national, and even the international community.

Q.Do you find that students spend too much time “simulating” and not enough time actually doing?

A. Absolutely! UBC is home to tens of thousands of students representing countless countries, languages, and cultures. Each of our students are passionate and experts in some field – whether that is a student who is knowledgeable on some aspect of infrastructure and has ideas on how to make Vancouver’s transportation system more inclusive and sustainable or the student who is passionate about Indigenous rights who has an idea on how to bring about reconciliation between competing ethnic groups in other countries.

Simply put: our university is already a large think tank! We have all the resources right here on our campus. We first need to shake off the paradigm that we as undergraduates can only pretend and secondly need create an organization that will harness these resources in order for students to create policy recommendations that will shape debates in Vancouver, Ottawa, Washington, and beyond.

Q. Interestingly enough, it seems to me that students are obsessed with being “productive”—it doesn’t matter whether they participate in model UN, complete internships or volunteer, in my circles it seems that there’s little emphasis on leisure. Do you agree? Do you find this to be a positive?

It is not a secret that life for young college students has gotten tougher and more competitive. With a shrinking amount of entry-level jobs for a large group of graduating students, most of us feel the pressure to get involved in everything under the sun in hopes of catching the eye of potential employers. I too have fallen prey to this way of thinking. In my junior year, I was waking up at 5am to Skype with the US Embassy in Ankara for my internship with the US State Department before heading my morning classes. In the afternoon, I would spend few hours working as a research assistant for the UBC School of Journalism and then volunteer downtown for Immigrant Services Society of BC. By the evening, I was struggling to finish up my homework for the next day. I stretched myself too thin and nearly burnt out.

In my opinion, whatever that is worth, its key that students spend time just relaxing. Whether that is watching a movie with friends, reading, hitting the gym, or taking up a hobby like painting/crafting/etc. Just remember that your university years are meant to be enjoyed!

Q. You’ve got a pretty full resume—what do you do outside of all of that?

At the moment, my free time has been centred around Halloween! It is my favourite holiday and I have been spending it with my friends watching horror movies, going to haunted houses, browsing through incredibly creepy YouTube videos, and of course having “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story” watch-a-thons.

Q. Tell us something that you think is really cool about you—do you have any quirks or weird abilities?

A. I think the coolest thing that I have done is travel to North Korea during the summer after my first year at UBC. It’s an experience that I still think about and it certainly has changed the way I look at the world.


Be sure to check out Altay’s talk at the TEDx Terry Talks on November 2nd, at the Life Sciences Institute, UBC. For ticket information, please visit: http://bit.ly/1aioyd0 

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