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Dr. Hikmet Ucok and Marilyn Finch Ucok '74 image
Dr. Hikmet Ucok and Marilyn Finch Ucok '74

Cultural Exchange: Endowed scholarship for Turkish women established

Holy Names University has announced the establishment of the Ucok Family Endowed Scholarship for Turkish women, made possible through a generous gift from Dr. Hikmet Ucok and Marilyn Finch Ucok ‘74. The Endowed Scholarship will offer undergraduate study opportunities to young Turkish women in the U.S. while also providing financial assistance to HNU students to participate in student exchange programs in Turkey.

It’s hard to conjure up more disparate backgrounds bringing two individuals together for a busy lifetime of education, work, travel, family, and giving back—and it all started at Holy Names.

Marilyn Finch Ucok ’74 grew up in sunny, semi-rural Camarillo, California at a time when the population hadn’t yet broken 20,000, and the landscape included sprawling citrus orchards and a new freeway running through town. By contrast, Dr. Hikmet Ucok hailed from the ancient city of Istanbul along the famous Bosphorus strait in northwestern Turkey, where 2 million residents trod cobbled roads.

Hikmet’s aspiration for graduate education soon set them on an improbable, yet happy encounter on the Holy Names campus. There, a Turkish classmate introduced the pair, leading to friendship, followed by tutoring assistance, then love. They’ve now been married more than 40 years, including 16 spent working and raising two daughters, Ayla-Louise and Ayhan Marie, abroad in Indonesia, England, Azerbaijan, and Thailand.

Marilyn could predict none of this, of course, when she arrived at 3500 Mountain Blvd. in her senior year of high school for a weekend visit paired with an HNU student. She knew only that what she encountered almost immediately felt like a warm embrace from family.  “It was really love at first sight,” says Marilyn about Holy Names. “It was almost surreal. I just knew: This was the place I wanted to go to college. I felt safe and comfortable, yet I was in a large metropolitan area.”

Academically, Marilyn wanted a major that would prepare her for a career in education. At Holy Names, she learned about a field called speech pathology that checked all her professional boxes.

Speech pathology is a profession that allows her to work in a variety of settings such as schools, hospitals, clinics, consulting and assisted living. Marilyn and her classmates were encouraged to consider graduate studies. So that became the plan.  

“That’s the beauty of Holy Names. They really motivate students to reach for the stars,” Marilyn says. “That opened many doors for me and I was also able to practice my profession overseas.”

Around this time, Marilyn’s future husband, Hikmet, had completed his engineering studies in Turkey and was planning ahead for his own career. He recognized that graduate education and English fluency would fuel his success. He applied for, and received, a scholarship to study in the U.S. While scouring a local bulletin board at the American Embassy in Istanbul, he spotted one for Holy Names’ English as a Second Language (ESL) Program. “It was a shot in the dark, really,” Hikmet said. “The location was good: San Francisco. I decided to apply for it.”

He arrived on campus in January of 1974, Marilyn’s final semester. Like her, he instantly felt comfortable and happy. He improved his English, while learning to navigate what would become his adopted homeland.

It’s an opportunity the couple, now retired from successful careers—he in engineering and consulting, she in special education and administration—want to pass on to other Turkish students. Through a recent generous gift to HNU, they have established the Ucok Family Endowed Scholarship Fund.

Hikmet had suggested the idea of creating a study abroad scholarship for Turkish girls, a concept Marilyn enthusiastically supported. The main reason for the scholarship is to improve their access to post-secondary education in another country, experience a different culture, and ultimately bring that unique experience back to Turkey. 

Just as it was for them decades ago, the Ucoks believe HNU remains a perfect launch site for thoughtful young people into the broader world.

“We were always interested in doing something with Holy Names,” Marilyn says. “We both felt we had such magical experiences there.”