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Giving Back

Cal Alums’ Tradition Supports Education for ‘the Children of the World’

When Kaya Tuncer ’62 opened Space Camp Turkey in 2000, he hung a plaque out front that reads, “A Gift to the Children of the World.”

February 10, 2020
by Heather R. Johnson
mary mills tuncer and kaya tuncer with space camp turkey students
Mary Mills (left) and Kaya Tuncer with Space Camp Turkey participants. Image courtesy of Mary Mills Tuncer.

Tuncer and his wife, Mary Mills Tuncer ’63, gave many gifts to the young people of the world, and in ways that transcended borders and perceptions: A daycare in a developing country. A youth camp that brings rival nationalities together. And two substantial gifts designed to give historically underrepresented students the means to attend UC Berkeley.

In 2017, Mary gave the first of two gifts to The Achievement Award Program (TAAP). TAAP provides scholarships to high-achieving, community-minded, low-income students. Of the more than 260 TAAP Scholars the Cal Alumni Association (CAA) has welcomed over the past 10 years, 59 percent are underrepresented minorities. The gift allowed TAAP to effectively double the number of 2018 scholarship recipients.

In 2018, Mary donated an additional $1 million to TAAP, this time, to support underserved students at Cal. That includes students who are Chicanx/Latinx, Native American/Alaska Native, and African American, groups UC Berkeley has identified as underrepresented in its student body.

Managed by the Cal Alumni Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, this substantial gift will allow extra scholarship funds for fifth-year continuing students and help provide support programming to TAAP scholars. It will emphasize junior transfer students, who have a higher diversity rate than incoming freshmen. TAAP will also establish an emergency fund to help when students need money for food, medical bills, mental health issues, or rent.

“We can provide aid to more students that deserve to be here, and get them into a program that supports them while they’re here.”

—Melina armstead, director of donor relations
mary tuncer and achievement award program scholars

Tuncer (top, center) with recipients of The Achievement Award Program scholarship in 2018. Photo: Katherine Fiordalis.

“When we have donors like Mary, we can provide aid to more students that deserve to be here and get them into a program that supports them while they’re here,” says Melina Armstead, director of donor relations for CAA. “For many, it’s the first time they’ve been away from their city, so coming to Berkeley is a cultural and emotional shock.”

“We can provide aid to more students that deserve to be here, and get them into a program that supports them while they’re here.”

Mills Tuncer decided to support Cal in a big way to honor her husband’s memory. He died in 2012. The gifts—the largest given to TAAP to date—mirror the Tuncers’ values as well as their life experiences.

“You just told me Kaya’s story,” said longtime friend Larry Hymes, personal attorney to the Tuncers and 30-year board member of Kaya Tuncer’s business, ESBAS, when he learned the specifics of the TAAP gifts.

An American Success Story

kaya and mary tuncer
Kaya Tuncer receives the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his work with Global Friendship Through Space Education. Photo: Courtesy of Mary Tuncer.

A nineteen-year-old Kaya Tuncer immigrated to California from Turkey with $50 and not much else. He spoke limited English. Various sponsors in southern California gave him a bed to sleep in while he worked odd jobs. He scraped together enough money to put himself through two years at Santa Ana College before transferring to UC Berkeley.

At Cal, he found refuge in International House, which provides a home for scholars from around the world. He worked his way through college—sleeping on the International House sofa when he had to, according to Hymes—and sent money home to help cover his sister’s education.

Meanwhile, Mary Mills pursued her final year of college at Cal. She had attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, followed by a year-and-a-half at University of Grenoble, France. When her parents moved from New York to California, her mother enrolled her at Cal.

While she finished her French degree and secondary teaching credential, a roommate set her up on a blind date with Kaya Tuncer. They married in 1963—the same year she graduated—and remained a formidable team for 49 years.

Mary taught middle school French and social studies while Kaya earned his MBA (USC) and developed his career as a structural engineer. From 1977 to 1983, they lived in Saudi Arabia, where Kaya helped lead the development of the Saudi Arabian Industrial City of Jubail, and Mary raised their two daughters, Deniz and Ayshe, cofounded a preschool, and started a travel business.

“We’d take groups on weekend trips to Bahrain, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, all the Gulf countries, and two big trips to Turkey,” Mary says. “I developed a reputation for being a good tour leader and organizer.”

Her organizational skills helped her assist Kaya when, in 1990, he launched ESBAS (Ege Serbest Bölge Kurucu ve Isleticisi A.S.) to develop the Aegean (Ege) Free Zone, an industrial park in Izmir, Turkey. Designed to promote export-focused investment, Free Zones are 100 percent exempt from customs duties, corporate income tax, real estate tax, and other taxes.

aegean free zone
2006 view of the Aegean Free Zone. Image: Andre Rolle, cc-by-sa 3.0

Over time, the Aegean Free Zone became the leading industrial zone in Turkey and employed nearly 20,000 people. In the early 1990s, however, it was barren. While Kaya built the business, Mary gave it life. She oversaw the landscaping, managed much of the administrative tasks, and started a daycare center.

Mary ordered cribs and had supplies shipped from California to Turkey. She also taught English to some of the kids. Hymes thinks she may have started one of the first daycares in the Middle East.

“It wasn’t a huge success at first,” he says. “But through Mary’s energy and effort, it slowly made inroads. Now we have families even outside the Free Zone that want their kids in that daycare. With its Western learning, they know it will give their kids an advantage in today’s society.”

July 10, 1989: Kaya Tuncer establishes ESBAS as the developer and operator of Turkey’s first privately developed free zone. Image courtesy of ESBAS.

As the Aegean Free Zone prospered, Kaya found other ways to help the employees. He gave nearly 20,000 people high-level jobs with good benefits. He established a mortgage program so employees could own an apartment.

“At the time, Turkey didn’t have a mortgage system,” Mary says. “People had to buy properties all cash. They’d have to wait until they retired and got a large chunk of money before they could own property.”

In the late 1990s, the Tuncers got an opportunity to give in an even greater way. The couple had met Ismail Akbay, a Turkish-American scientist who worked for NASA. Akbay had an idea.

opening ceremonies for Space Camp Turkey
June 12, 2000: Ismael Akbay and astronaut Scott Carpenter officiate the opening ceremonies for Space Camp Turkey. Image courtesy of ESBAS.

“Ismail explained what Space Camp was, and that he very much would like to see one in his home country of Turkey,” Mary recalls. “And without much thought, Kaya said, ‘Well, I think I’d like to do that.’”

Launching a youth Space Camp isn’t an easy or economical endeavor. The Tuncers had to purchase equipment, find a location, and obtain licensing from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Education Foundation.

Kaya moved ahead with the vision anyway, and launched Space Camp Turkey in 2000—right before Turkey’s 2001 banking crisis—on Aegean Free Zone property. To promote attendance, Kaya founded Global Friendship Through Space Education, an organization that provides scholarships for Space Camp Turkey’s summer program.

Over time, children from all over the world applied to Space Camp Turkey. They’d learn to work together despite the fact that they had learned Greeks, Armenians, or Turks were “bad” or “dangerous.”

More than 250,000 children from 60+ countries have attended Space Camp Turkey, one of only three such camps in the world.

“We purposely put different nationalities together so kids would learn that whatever differences they’ve been taught to have, they’re not really relevant,” Mary says. “When we put them together on teams, they forget they’re not supposed to get along. They’re just part of the Earth team or the Sun team.”

To date, more than 250,000 kids from more than 60 countries have attended Space Camp Turkey. It’s one of only three space camps in the world, and encourages STEM and space education.

Young adults—mainly education and aerospace scholars—also apply to Space Camp Turkey to teach. One of them, Justin Hogenauer, is a UC Berkeley student and TAAP Scholar who benefitted from Mary’s generosity. Hogenauer learned about Space Camp Turkey during an event held in Mary’s honor and successfully applied.

“I’m hoping it’s a positive experience,” Mary says. “I’d like to get more American counselors for our summer program. Many of our students say they like having native English speakers so they can practice the language. Also, Turkey, to me, is so terribly misunderstood. I’d like more Americans to visit and see that it’s not the dangerous place they perceive.”

Defining Success Through Empathy

deniz and mary tuncer
Mary Tuncer (right), with daughter Deniz ’93, at International House, February 2019. Image: Cal Alumni Association

Mary Tuncer remains heavily involved in Space Camp Turkey, Global Friendship Through Space Education, and ESBAS. She also continues to support both her domestic and Turkish communities.

In California, a state with the fourth-highest income inequality in the nation according to an Oxfam report, more executives would do well to follow the Tuncers’ value system: “work hard, create something of value, and use your success to support the community.”

Money is only one of many metrics to measure success. “But if you do have financial success,” Mary says, “give back to something you feel passionate about. Be involved and be informed. And vote.”

Images (used with permission):
2006 Aegean Free Zone, Andre Rolle, cc-by-sa 3.0.
1989 Aegean Free Zone, Space Camp Turkey, courtesy of ESBAS.