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,” says Aygen, a professor of linguistics in the Department of English.
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, who was named an NIU Presidential Teaching Professor in 2015, 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.
Students at all levels praise Aygen for providing opportunities to think about linguistics and grammar in informative, life-changing ways. For her part, Aygen sees her role as a collaborator and fellow learner.
“Simply put, teaching is a privilege,” she says. “It is my privilege to grow intellectually along with my students.”