Imagine being a high school student from a small Eastern European country, with a history of human settlement dating back thousands of years B.C. (possibly to the Stone Age). Then you come to the U.S. and find that many of your American high school contemporaries don’t know anything about your country, or where it’s located.
Bosnian students recently visiting Delaware through a 4-H Youth Leadership Program accept the fact that their country was easy to miss on a world map — it’s smaller than the state of West Virginia. But they were less comfortable after learning that some of their American counterparts couldn’t locate major European players like Italy or France, either.
“They think ‘Anna Karenina’ is an athlete, or a movie star,” said high school student Darko Suljic, in some disbelief. (Apparently, some Delaware teens mix up what many consider author Leo Tolstoy’s famous work with tennis star/model Anna Kournikova.)
Of course, these were no random students — this group, gathered at host-mother Kathy DiSabatino’s place near Clarksville on April 20, represented the cream of the crop. Their English was perfect, their intellectual curiosity apparent. They all had backgrounds in volunteerism — at orphanages, kindergartens and youth organizations, in distribution of medicine to the elderly and in environmentalism.
Most were student council members. “They’re already leaders,” noted visiting teacher Natasha Vucenovic. As high-schooler Igor Gavric added, “We came as ambassadors, also, to represent our beautiful country.”
And they especially highlighted what they considered their country’s top-notch educational system.
Bosnian students study between 14 and 17 subjects, Gavric pointed out (different schedules on different days). If they fail in any one of those subjects, they have to repeat the entire year.
Homework? High school student Berina Ahmetovic groaned, indicating about three hours’ worth a night.
“They have to read a lot on their own, in order to be prepared when they go to class,” noted DiSabatino, a second-grade special education teacher at East Millsboro Elementary School. “That’s why having jobs while they’re in high school just isn’t possible.”
As Vucenovic, pointed out, “High school students are expected to go college, not to work.”
“When you’re young, it’s better to spend the time with your friends, to train, try and learn more about as much as you can,” Gavric noted. “Life is too short.”
Bosnia-Hercegovina tries to hold the costs of higher education to a minimum, especially for its most promising, Vucenovic said. With good grades, and extra points from activities like participation in the 4-H Youth Leadership Program, she said $200 — just a little more than one month’s median income salary — pays for an entire year at university.
(B-students might have to hit up their parents for full tuition — maybe $500 per year, and a medical degree or studies in the information technology field are a little more expensive, the teachers explained. An art degree costs most of all, and only a handful of art prodigies are accepted in any given year, the students added.)
It is traditional that parents pay for that higher education — but on the flip side, the Bosnian students said very few of them got their own cars when they reached driving age, at 18.
If they want to use one of the on-average two family cars, they’d have to wrangle the keys away from their mom or dad, the students explained. But Bosnia-Hercegovina is a small country, they added, and homes were typically are in closer proximity to schools and shops.
“Here, you use a lot of cars and people are in a great rush all the time,” Gavric noted. “We’re more relaxed.”
Although they displayed nothing but pride in their home country, these students have survived early childhoods immersed in turmoil of a sort not seen in this country since the Civil War.
Indeed, the Lonely Planet Web site (www.lonelyplanet.com) describes Bosnia-Hercegovina as “A beat-up country in the process of healing.”
Just a hop and a skip northeast of Italy, across the Adriatic Sea, the West and East had wrestled over the borderline region for centuries, Lonely Planet pointed out. The former Yugoslavia was embroiled in one or another military conflict for basically the entire 20th Century.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook (www.cia.gov, Library & References), military conflict displaced more than 300,000 Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Muslims, within Bosnia-Hercegovina’s borders, between 1992 and 1995. Small sections along the borders are still in dispute.
According to DiSabatino, one of the visiting teachers had been among those displaced, and all of the students had talked about those times.
She said many of the students blamed politicians and religion for the war, and many seemed to have pulled away from religious affiliations themselves.
“You’d be neighbors, with schoolmates from other cultures, of different religions, and nobody made a big deal over it,” DiSabatino pointed out. “Then, war broke out and one group or the other was targeted for atrocities. People started looking at one another suspiciously.”
Cities have fragmented somewhat since the war, with like ethnic groups predominantly (although not exclusively) congregating with like, she added. While the youth leadership program focuses primarily on civic participation and citizenship in a democracy, DiSabatino noted a special focus on avoiding stereotypes.
Vuãenovic and the other teachers, Daniela Seremet and Edena Salcinovic, expressed optimism, even confidence, that their students were mature and responsible enough to do so.
They come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, from groups that had been at war with one another just a few years prior. But taking a brief break from their whirlwind itinerary near Clarksville last week, they evinced the easy friendship of fellow countrymen ready to move beyond the past and become tomorrow’s leaders.