SIT Study Abroad alum wins Fulbright to return to the Balkans

Sarajane Blair studied abroad on the SIT Balkans program in the spring 2009 semester. Recently awarded a Fulbright grant to return to the region, Sarajane discusses the deep impact the SIT program has had on her academic and personal life.

Sarajane in front of the United World College in Mostar. While studying with SIT, Sarajane researched the educational realities of the college, including its contribution to the divided city of Mostar.

Why did you decide to spend a semester with SIT Study Abroad in the Balkans?

I knew from the beginning of my sophomore year that I wanted to study abroad with SIT, which offered the most extensive, and in my view interesting, list of study abroad programs approved by Colby College. At the time, I was taking an interesting course on post-socialist Eastern Europe, which encouraged me to look at SIT programs in Eastern Europe; the peace and conflict studies program in the Balkans seemed to fit my personal and academic interests best. The intensive coursework, along with the history of Yugoslavia and our ability to travel within three countries, was more than I could have asked for.

What was your Independent Study Project (ISP) on? Is your ISP research connected to the work you will be doing in Kosovo on your Fulbright?

For my ISP I spent the month in a city called Mostar, located in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The city remains divided ethnically because of the conflict. Ethnic Croats, generally also Catholics, live on one side of town and ethnic Bosniaks, generally Muslims, live on the other side of town. This division means there are two phone companies, water companies, soccer teams and that students attend mono-ethnic classes.

Three years ago, a United World College (UWC) opened in Mostar. Originally created to bridge the gap created by the Cold War between American students and students from the USSR, UWCs offer a two-year high school curriculum.

The UWC in Mostar aims to bridge the gap between students from the two sides of town (as well as students from other parts of the former Yugoslavia) through a rigorous education system, dorm housing, extracurricular activities, and by having students from other societies in conflict (e.g., Israel and Palestine) attend the school.

My research focused on the realities of this educational institution. My main research questions were: does the UWC in Mostar really create inter-ethnic friendships that are sustainable as well as international-local friendships? And, how does the school impact the city of Mostar?

For my Fulbright in Kosovo, I will be working in the city of Mitrovica, another divided city. In Mitrovica the division is between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs. The research from Mostar has given me a great foundation in thinking about divided cities and communities.

What role did the SIT staff play in your experience during the semester? Have you been in touch with the staff since?

The SIT staff in the Balkans are amazing. As American students, we found ourselves in a completely unknown situation. None of us had ever seen or experienced conflict like that which affected the Balkans in the 1990s, and the staff were there for us the entire way. Not only did they continue answering questions and having hard discussions with us, but they made sure each of us felt comfortable in difficult situations.

Furthermore, without SIT staff I would not have been as successful in my research. My academic director, Dr. Orli Fridman, helped me find a wonderful advisor and continued to be supportive throughout the ISP process. I continue to stay in contact with the staff, including with Dr. Fridman, Program Assistant Goga Boric, and my language instructor Marija Bosnijak, all of whom made a big impact on my semester and my final year in college.

How has SIT Study Abroad shaped the way you look at the world?

Sarajane with her host parents in Kumrovec, Croatia

Sarajane with her host parents in Kumrovec, Croatia

The program in the Balkans changed the way I look at conflict, post-conflict societies, and post-conflict studies. I think college students like to throw around words like “post-conflict,” “nationalism”, and “genocide” without understanding the intricacies of these words.

The SIT Balkans program changed and focused my final year of college. I sought out classes focused on topics like nationalism and found ways to tie my research papers back to the Balkans.

My senior honors thesis was a curriculum analysis of the current Republika Srpska curriculum. The thesis examined the intersectionalities between ethnic stereotypes and gender stereotypes, positing that even when ethnic stereotypes are removed because of orders from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other organizations, the same types of sentiments can remain in a culture through gender stereotypes.   

What types of hands on experiences did you have while studying in the Balkans that advanced your understanding of challenges and opportunities in the field of human rights and peacebuilding? How was your understanding of these issues shaped and/or changed after your time in the Balkans?

Every site visit we made and speaker we listened to changed my view of peacebuilding.  One of the most important aspects of this program is that it allows students to travel to three different countries all involved in the same conflict. That continuous movement forced us to continue re-evaluating our ideas about the conflict in the 1990s.  We could not just listen to one side of the story, and these different perspectives brought to light the real complexity of peacebuilding and human rights issues.

Yes, there were some blatant, horrible human rights violations that occurred in the 1990s, but throughout the semester we all learned that it is impossible to say “Croatia” did this, or “Serbia” did that, or “Bosnia” was involved in that. Although generalizations have to be made in some situations, the reality is that every action taken by each individual and group of people occurred because of such complex, scary, and sometimes government-created circumstances that placing blame and forcing reconciliation become unbelievably difficult.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I think it’s really important to add what a beautiful place the Balkans is. It’s also a region that constantly keeps you thinking. For all of the conflict and tragedy, everyone I met was willing to talk to me, to invite me into their homes, and to explain that they, their friends, and their countries are not scary places. I am so excited to be going back to the same region, but a new country.

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