Pitt students volunteer to welcome world

By Julie Percha

Pitt graduate student Mehmet Soytas knows what it’s like to be an outsider.

Like many international students, the doctoral candidate from Istanbul said that he faced a big cultural and language barrier when he came to Pitt.

So when he learned about the opportunity to greet international delegates at the G-20 Summit, he jumped at the chance.

“It’s sometimes hard to express yourself in a foreign language,” Soytas, the president of Pitt’s Turkish American Student Association, said. “[International delegates will] feel more comfortable when they see someone from the same nation who is speaking the same language.”

Soytas is one of more than 100 Pitt and CMU students volunteering with the Pittsburgh G-20 Partnership, an alliance of public and private organizations focused on welcoming international dignitaries to Pittsburgh during the Summit.

Some of the students volunteer as ambassadors at the G-20 Partnership’s Welcome Center, located in the Regional Enterprise Building Downtown, while others are organized into 19 teams of “attache volunteers” stationed in the hotel lobbies of visiting dignitaries.

As part of their volunteer assignments, students assist visitors by fielding questions, providing information about the city and conversing with delegates in their native languages.

Among the volunteers working at the Welcome Center Thursday afternoon were Kerley Tolpolar and Rui Zuo, both GSPIA students.

Tolpolar, a native of Porto Alegre, Brazil, and Zuo, of Wuhan, China, were two of 19 volunteers from a G-20 country who were representing their home nations.

The Welcome Center features free wireless Internet, printing services and information to accommodate foreign journalists, and volunteers remained busy offering information and advice about Pittsburgh.

Zuo said that she registered to volunteer at the G-20 Partnership’s website because she thinks the Summit is a good opportunity for the city.

“I like Pittsburgh,” she said. “I want more people to know about it, and especially, I want more people to know about the world.”

Tolpolar said that she’s always been attracted to volunteer opportunities — especially political ones.

A regular volunteer at Brazil’s World Social Forums, which promote social justice, Tolpolar said it was also important for her to volunteer for the Summit.

“I think it’s a unique opportunity for me to follow the events from a very special perspective,” Tolpolar said. “I just wanted … to be a part of it somehow.”

Soytas has been volunteering in the Welcome Center since it opened on Sept. 1.

After attending a Summit volunteer information session held on campus, he applied to be a volunteer online and offered not only his own time, but that of his fellow TASA members.

He sent an e-mail to members of TASA, which includes CMU students, since the university does not have its own Turkish student organization, asking them to assist with the Summit.

Soytas organized the 12 students who responded in teams of two to serve as attache volunteers as the Turkish delegation arrived in Pittsburgh.

The volunteers were stationed at a special desk at the Renaissance Hotel Downtown, which the Turkish delegates share with French and German representatives.

As delegates arrived, teams offered information about the city and provided translation services.

Serife Genc and Asli Yazagan , of Istanbul and Ankara, respectively, were among those volunteering.

Genc said that she volunteered so that she could take an active role in the Summit.

“I just didn’t want to sit at home and read the news,” she said. “I just wanted to see what’s going on around and if I can help out a little bit.”

Yazagan, who was just finishing a six-hour shift at the desk, said that she is proud to represent the city on an international scale.

Even though Pittsburgh is not her hometown, she believes the Summit is a great opportunity for the area.

“Maybe this won’t ever happen again — who knows?” she said. “It’s a great chance for us students to be aware of what’s going on.”

Andy Pugh, executive director of the Squirrel Hill-based Welcome Center for Immigrants and Internationals, a Pittsburgh G-20 Partnership organization, said that the student volunteer impact has been immense.

He said because Pitt and Carnegie Mellon boast many international students, they can provide world visitors with diverse language and liason services.

“I’m so impressed with the students,” Pugh said. “They’re providing help in so many ways.”

And the visiting dignitaries appreciate the efforts, said Gail Shrott, vice president of program services for GlobalPittsburgh, a partnership organization.

She said that delegates were surprised by the warm Pittsburgh greetings.

“I don’t think they expected that,” Shrott said. “Their faces lit up. They said it was just wonderful.”

But Soytas appreciates the volunteers’ efforts just as much as the visiting dignitaries do.

He said he felt compelled to help with the Summit because volunteerism isn’t a popular concept in Turkey.

“[In Turkey], they expect someone else to do it because it’s a job description. Someone does this, and someone does that,” Soytas said. “Here, I can see that volunteering is just a part of life.

“That’s something culturally I find really different, but really elegant.”