About the Author: Preeti Shah serves as Vice Consul at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, Turkey.
As President Obama, with his trademark smile, graciously shook the hands of the young participants, I took a deep breath. The town hall discussion with 100 Turkish students and students studying in Turkey had gone off without a hitch. Assigned as the press site officer from the U.S. Consulate General here in Istanbul, I watched as an old cannon factory, first built in the 15th century, transformed over the last two weeks into a television studio and audience venue. Complete with bright lights, multiple camera positions and an open press invitation that resulted in over 100 journalists vying for angles, the event demonstrated our President’s willingness to talk openly not just to Americans but also to students all over the world.
Chattering nervously before the event, several students told me how they couldn’t sleep last night, for fear of getting up late and missing the event. Some of the students were alumni of Department of State programs, but for many, this was their first interaction with anyone representing the United States. I became aware of just how monumental this day had become, particularly for these students. They had been given an unscripted and unrehearsed opportunity to ask questions of President Barack Obama. No topic was off limits, and President Obama shared his thoughts in his characteristically warm and open manner. He fielded his first question about climate change and moved on to topics including Turkey’s possible membership in the EU, nuclear proliferation and the possibility of peace in the Middle East. Watching the faces of the Turkish students as they had the chance to talk with the President, my President, I was in awe. After the event, the students who participated in the town hall created their own Facebook group. They are using this social network to share videos and pictures of the event and continue the conversation begun by the President.
Coming at the tail end of his Europe trip, that included the G-20 meeting in London, Turkey represents President Obama’s first visit to a Muslim country, the significance of which has not gone unnoticed by both the Turkish and international media. Living in Istanbul, I have seen the effect of the President’s popularity firsthand – an Obama look-alike graces billboards in the metro and along the roads touting low interest rates at a Turkish bank. Public opinion in Turkey regarding the U.S. has been on an upswing for the past few months. President Obama’s visit, and specifically his gregarious interaction with students, has served to highlight the enduring friendship and cooperation between the two countries.
Read more about the President's conversation with Turkish students or watch his remarks to them at the White House Blog.