By Aly Brown, The Daily Iowan 
University of Iowa and state media experts hope a recent trip to the Middle East will strengthen relations with educational institutions in Turkey — a country they say is not so different from our own.
UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication faculty members, along with Iowa news professionals, visited Turkey June 15-24 to learn about Turkish media and culture. The intercultural trip was hosted by the Niagara Foundation, an organization that promotes global diversity and cultural connection.
While Turkey is in the midst of strengthening its higher-education system, UI faculty found that building connections with Turkish institutions could benefit both countries.
"Just seeing the similarities of our countries, the blending of cultures between the U.S., Turkey, Greece … That was big to me," said Vanessa Shelton, the executive director of Quill and Scroll. "I felt like they are a very ambitious country, trying to improve their country and make their lives better."
Shelton, also a UI journalism professor, said the editor at Today's Zaman — a major Turkish newspaper the group visited — expressed interest in furthering high-school and college exchange programs with the UI.
The UI already has some connections with the Middle Eastern country. Thirty-four Turkish students studied at the UI and three UI students studied abroad in Turkey in 2011.
Shelton said she was enthralled by Turkey's high regard for education.
"They are building some 20 universities a year," she said. "I admire their emphasis on education."
Daily Iowan Publisher Bill Casey said Turkey is investing in not only education but health care and its growing youth population.
"A lot of the things they are doing now, we were doing 100 years ago," Casey said. "… With Carnegie building schools and libraries across the country."
Both the Turkish government and philanthropists are investing in educational infrastructure to support the progressive democracy's growth, Casey said.
Turkey's annual population growth rate is 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of State. Its economy is flourishing, growing from $481.5 billion in 2005 to $789.7 billion in 2011.
The group toured the bustling streets of Istanbul and mosques and palaces still standing after centuries. The Niagara Foundation paid for all costs except for airfare to and from Turkey and the registration fees, which attendees covered themselves, said David Perlmutter, the director of the UI journalism school.
Kevser Sahin Tiras, Emrah Tiras, and Levent Sensoy — three Turkish students in the UI of Physics/Astronomy Department graduate program — hosted the group.
UI journalism school faculty members said that while there are more than 6,000 miles separating the two countries, the newspaper industry provides a link between the two cultures.
Perlmutter said Turkish print publications are particularly thriving.
"I came away with the general impression that Turkey is a booming country with a booming economy," he said. "They are really looking outward. They are interested in being a bridge between the East and West — publicly, educationally, and journalistically."
The group visited several media outlets.
Casey said Today's Zaman's circulation grew from 100,000 to 1 million in 10 years.
Perlmutter said while Turkish media are very similar to that of the United States, it is in a different stage of growth.
"They are not yet facing some of the same troubles American journalism has," he said. "They are looking to the future. They are going heavily into social media and applications. They are not going to just wait for something to happen."