Oh, the places you will go…’74 alumna teaches in Turkey

Elaine (Thorson) Elagoz '72 points at her Valley High School senior photo. Little did the Clermont, Iowa, native know that when she boarded a PanAm flight from New York City to Istanbul, Turkey, in 1973 that she would spend a lifetime teaching abroad at the American Collegian Institute in Izmir.
(Note: The following article is republished with permission of LeAnn Larson, publisher and writer of Fayette County Newspapers in West Union, Iowa.)

In 1969 Elaine (Thorson) Elagoz was living on a farm outside of Clermont, Iowa, with her parents, Clarence and Lillian Thorson. She had just graduated from Valley High School and was enrolled at Upper Iowa University that fall to further her education.

Her plans were to major in math, minor in history and to earn a BA degree in education. After 3½ years she graduated in December 1972, with a 3.87 grade point average and the highest academic distinction, summa cum laude.

After graduating, it was on to finding a teaching job. Her father instilled in her a love of travel, so Elaine thought now was maybe a great time to look into an international teaching assignment. Graduating early posed a few problems for Elaine, as there were no teacher fairs available mid-term.

“Imagine not having the Internet or a computer. We had a bulletin board at the university that posted job openings, and that is how we found out what jobs were available,” she explained.

Elaine (Thorson) Elagoz UIU Class of '72 senior photo

Elaine (Thorson) Elagoz
UIU Class of ’72 senior photo

A two-year Peace Corps program offered a teaching position in Ethiopia, Africa. It also required her to learn the language. After looking into it further, she decided it was more of a challenge than she was seeking at that time.


Continuing her search on the board, Elaine found only two other math positions available around the world. They were both in Turkey, one in Istanbul and one in Izmir. The job posting in Istanbul was for the head of the math department. Elaine knew that at 22 years old and with no teaching experience she surely would not be chosen for that position. Still wanting to teach abroad, she decided to pursue the math position in Izmir.

“I had to apply to a board in New York City, and I quickly received a letter back saying one of the principals from the three schools in Turkey would be coming to interview teachers in February,” Elaine stated.

When the time arrived, Elaine headed to Minneapolis where she was interviewed by a principal from Istanbul.

“It only took an hour, and the woman interviewing me decided that I would be very capable of teaching in Turkey,” smiled Elaine.

Thorson accepted the position and soon received her contract for her teaching position to begin that fall. It also stated that all new teachers were expected to arrive in Istanbul in August.

With a few more months prior to her leaving for Turkey, Elaine found out about a short-term teaching assignment available in St. Paul, Minn. Wanting to add some experience to her resume, she soon found herself teaching math at Inver Grove Heights Middle School. She taught nine weeks which was half of a semester, to end the year. August rolled around quickly, and soon the young Clermont woman was saying her goodbyes and packing up her things to spend the next three years of her life teaching abroad.

She arrived in Izmir in August and moved in with all the other new teachers at a boarding school. Each morning they would spend three hours learning the Turkish language.

“The grammar is so different. The language structure is backwards to us. You take the word, add the tense, and then add what person it is,” explained Elaine.

In the afternoon the orientation included learning about the Turkish culture. “We learned about their traditions, their religion, and how we were expected to act not only in public, but when we were at someone’s home. I remember it being so different than it is in the United States,” she explained.

Within a month of orientation, Elaine’s teaching career began at the American Collegian Institute. It was an all-girl school at the time. She taught in the English language, three classes of math with 35 students in each section. She also taught eleventh grade Algebra and twelfth grade elective math. The Institute is a seven-year school. Students who have finished fifth grade take an entrance exam because it is a private school. They are required to take one year to learn English. Then it is followed by three years of junior high and three years of high school.

Back in 1973, Elaine’s W-2 form showed that she was paid $5,000 for one year of teaching. Her housing, an apartment on the campus, and her meals were included in her salary. The school employed over 100 American teachers at the time she arrived.

The students are required to take math, science, English, music, home economics and gym classes all taught in English by Americans or British teachers. Only the history and social studies classes are taught in Turkish.

“There are very high standards set for both students and teachers. The course work is difficult and very intense,” said Elaine.

“Because our school is actually a missionary school, all students are involved in service and community outreach. The teachers sponsor social service clubs and work with students on weekends in orphanages, villages, book mobiles and recreational activities.”

Because of the three-year contract, there is a constant rotation of teachers. There are teachers at the institute from all over the United States, including Illinois, Missouri, California, New York and others. Some stay forever, and some don’t.

Elaine added, “A principal of mine once said, ‘The first year is a period of adjusting; the second year you get accustomed to the country; and by the third year, you will be in love with it.’”

After Elaine’s first three years of teaching, she returned home to the states, but it wasn’t long before she yearned to go back. After corresponding with her Turkish school, she was offered a two-year contract and back to Turkey she went. She began her second stint of teaching at the school very comfortable in her surroundings.

During this time she met a man named Enis Elagoz, whom she began dating. Soon her contract had ended and it was again time to head home to Iowa.

While in the States she accepted a teaching job, but it all changed when Enis proposed to her over the phone.

“I can’t believe I made my mother call the school and tell them I wouldn’t be able to teach in the fall,” she explained with a laugh.

Elaine soon found herself back in Turkey and married in 1980. After her marriage to Enis Elagoz, she took some time off from teaching. She was a new wife and the mother of two stepdaughters. Plus, she and her husband were soon expecting their own child. For the next 10 years, Elaine stayed home to help raise their children.

In 1991, she returned to teaching and continued for over 20 years at the same school. Much had changed. When she returned to the school, it had become co-ed. Computers had arrived, and like most teachers, she had to learn right along with the students how to use them. The girls Elaine taught back in the early days now had children that she was teaching. In her final years of teaching, they were using smart boards, and Elagoz helped create teaching programs, as there were no textbooks in English. For geometry courses, Elaine helped write both the textbooks and workbooks in English.

The Clermont native is proud to say that 99 percent of the schools students attend a university after graduation. Many of its students have gone on to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and interior design professionals. Many of the students go to school outside of Turkey to attend college, but because of their close ties to their families and their country, the majority of them return home to live and work. The motto of school is “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.” They all strongly believe in the motto’s meaning.

Elaine (Thorson) Elagoz retired in 2012 after a fulfilling 26-year career as a teacher at the American Collegiant Institute in Izmir, Turkey. She and her husband have moved out of the city and have retired to a home near the Aegean Sea. All three of their children and three grandchildren live in Turkey. Elaine beams when she reflects on the good life she has had teaching abroad. Her life in Izmir has been fulfilling by family, friends and country.

That small-town Iowa girl, Elaine (Thorson) Elagoz, may have left Upper Iowa University, over 40-years ago to pursue her dream of teaching abroad, but she will always remember where she came from and how family and friends truly are the most important things in life wherever she may go!

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