By Jake Becker
Kent Schull, an associate professor of history, has turned his passion for Middle Eastern studies into a family achievement.
While pursuing his doctorate in history at UCLA, Schull earned two Fulbright fellowships to conduct his dissertation in Turkey from the end of 2003 to the summer of 2005. A husband and father of three at the time, Schull made his first extended stay in the Middle East a family journey, leaving Los Angeles for Istanbul.
"It was a hard adjustment for the first six months," he says, "but it got us out of our comfort zone in a very good way. It opened a lot of doors for us."
Though they "stuck out like a sore thumb and got a lot of stares," he and his family did not face any cultural discrimination. The birth of a fourth child in a foreign country proved to be an enlightening experience.
"The idea of family is incredibly important there, and the Turks welcomed us with open arms" he says. "Strangers come up to your kids and pinch their cheeks and are very open; kids are absolutely adored. It was odd coming back to the States and not being able to pinch a child's face."
Schull grew accustomed to being on the move before he started a family, leaving his hometown of Southbury, Conn., for New Jersey, Iowa and New Jersey again, he returned to Connecticut to graduate from high school. Though his interest in history developed early, he entered college with a focus on athletics.
"Coming out of high school I was recruited by the Air Force Academy in West Point to play football," he says," but I didn't think the military was for me."
He instead joined Brigham Young University's football program in Utah, but his enthusiasm soon shifted to Middle Eastern studies.
"I started learning biblical Hebrew and in my junior year stumbled into a modern North African history course, which opened up a world to me that I had never thought about before. Then I saw an ad in the paper that said, 'Learn Korean, Chinese or Arabic and we'll pay you to do it.' I called and it was the National Guard."
After two years of studying Arabic in Utah's National Guard, Schull returned to BYU to complete his bachelor's degree in history, to which he added master's degrees in Jewish studies from the University of Oxford and in history from UCLA. At UCLA, Schull continued learning Arabic and Hebrew while studying the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"I'm much more interested in the contemporary period," he says, "so I originally planned on taking my family with me as I researched in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."
The eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000, however, forced Schull to stay in California for the remainder of his graduate studies. As a first-year PhD student at UCLA, he focused his curriculum on Ottoman history and Turkish, traveling to Turkey to take part in a short intensive language program.
In 2003, Schull returned to Istanbul with a bit more luggage, hoping to immerse himself and his wife, daughter and two sons in a foreign culture.
"We didn't go all that way to live in an enclave of Americans," he says. "We sent our oldest child to a Turkish public school, and she became fluent in Turkish."
The initial culture shock that hit the 6-foot 2-inch former college football player and his family has developed into a new outlook on the world.
"I realized quickly that there are a lot of different ways to do things right, and that being a eclectic and having an open mind can change who you are in incredible ways," he says. "We grew so much as individuals and as a family."
Schull worked as a visiting lecturer at BYU from 2006-2007 before receiving his doctorate in history from UCLA in 2007. After serving as an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis from 2007-2012, Schull decided to relocate once more to Binghamton, where he just completed his first year teaching Modern Middle East History, Ottoman History, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
When offered the chance to teach at Harpur College, Schull knew that his family would support the decision to leave Memphis.
"Binghamton's reputation in Ottoman, Middle East, and Turkish studies makes my job one of the best in North America, largely because of my predecessor, Donald Quataert, and what he set up with Professor Rifa'at Abou-El Haj," he says.
Quataert, who died in 2011, was considered a pioneer in archival research in Ottoman history. Schull once met Quataert at an academic conference, which he acknowledged was an uplifting occasion.
"It's a little intimidating to come here as his successor, not just because of his academic achievements, but also because of the type of person he was and the contributions he made to the social, everyday people of the Middle East," he says. "That had an impact on what kind of teacher and mentor I wanted to be. They're big shoes to fill, but it's exciting."
After moving 14 times in 17 years of marriage, Schull believes that Binghamton is where he wants to anchor his family.
"I see myself here for the long haul," he says. "It's hard to imagine a better position to put roots down for my family, who have gone through a lot."
At Harpur College, Schull urges students to spread their knowledge and to avoid typecasting foreign cultures.
"People who have knowledge about an area need to share it and make it accessible to a broader community," he says. "There's a dearth of understanding cultures and too many stereotypes about the Middle East. People need to see the human side of things."
The diversity of Binghamton's students and their intellectual ability give Schull further reason to believe that his post at Binghamton comes at the right place and at the right time.
"The size of the Jewish, Turkish, and international student bodies makes Binghamton a fantastically cosmopolitan area that you wouldn't expect in the southern tier of New York," he says. "My family and I made the leap and it's been fantastic."
Last Updated: 12/10/14