Many educators – Gulsat Aygen included – love to teach the elite learners, those students who continually are tops in their classes and eager to discover even more.
But it’s the others in the attendance lists who truly ignite Aygen’s zeal for teaching.
“My major goal is creating an intellectual environment where everyone learns, especially my favorite type of students: the ones in the back row, the ones with heavy eyelids, the ones who challenge me either intellectually or with the diversity of their learning styles,” Aygen says.
Indeed, some of her “proudest professional moments” occurred while working with students who are disabled or at-risk, she adds.
“Some of the greatest learning can take place … in the quiet corners where many never look,” she says. “This is where we make a difference in people’s lives. This is where we teach not ‘academics’ but how to think, how to live and what it is to be a full human being, regardless of any challenges life may throw at us.”
Aygen, a professor of linguistics in the Department of English, knows about challenges.
The native of Turkey – she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Bogazici University before completing a Ph.D. at Harvard in 2002 – “teasingly” tells her story to inspire students.
“Education has enabled me to become an expert in English linguistics, even though I am a non-native speaker. This reminds them how much more they can accomplish as native speakers,” she says. “I also challenge students’ assumptions about their potential and what they can aspire to in life, encouraging them to aim higher.”
Former student Whitney Chappell took that to heart.
The passion she saw in Aygen spurred her to enroll in a Ph.D. program after completing her NIU master’s degree in 2009.
“As anyone who knows Professor Aygen can attest, she is astonishingly brilliant and yet, somehow, she is also very approachable,” says Chappell, now an assistant professor of Hispanic linguistics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “She was clearly an expert in her subject who held her students to very high standards, which prompted us to think about language in a way we had never considered it.”
“Dr. Aygen always makes time for her students and makes it clear that she feels privileged to teach us,” adds NIU English major Amy Bayliss, “while her exceptional skills as an educator and linguist leave us feeling that it is our privilege to learn from her.”
Students at all levels praise Aygen for providing opportunities “to think about linguistics and grammar in informative, life-changing ways,” says Amy Levin, chair of the Department of English.
Presidential Teaching Professors “set extremely high standards for students and then give them the tools to meet those standards, which is exactly what Gulsat Aygen does,” Levin says. “She is clearly a teacher of great value to the university. She is knowledgeable and an expert in her field. She is experienced and adept at communicating with her students, and she challenges them to develop more complex understandings of the issues.”
For her part, Aygen sees her role as a collaborator and fellow learner, one who fosters a communicative environment where “anyone can feel free to contribute.”
“I go to class with the pleasant anticipation of knowing I will be involved in the education of my students and will develop new teaching strategies based on their comments,” she says. “Simply put, teaching is a privilege. It is my privilege to grow intellectually along with my students, to become the best that I can be at every stage of my life and to witness younger minds grow, flourish and achieve.”