Far From Home: The Tales and Difficulties of International Students, Part Two

This year, data obtained by SEVIS concluded that 1.13 million international students using academic and vocational visas are enrolled at nearly 8,979 schools in the United States. About 6,000 of these students are currently enrolled in the University of Florida. This article is the second part of our efforts to go beyond the statistics by looking in-depth at the hardships and triumphs of international students. This three-part series will highlight three women who attend the University of Florida and have the bravery to share their emotional, unique and compelling stories that involve complete separation from their families and the struggles faced once arriving to the United States. Feel free to check out the first part of this series here.

Name: Verdana DamjanovicAge: 21Country of Origin: Bosnia and HerzegovinaMajor: public relations with minors in European Union studies and German

Verdana Damjanovic was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a small country in the Balkans that is brimming with conflict. Despite being born just as the country’s civil war was coming to an end, Damjanovic lived an ordinary childhood in Doboj. Being the youngest in the family, she earned the reputation of a trouble-maker who would never fall asleep at bedtime and cracked jokes at other kids. Growing up, Damjanovic never realized the severity in Bosnia’s ethnic and religious turmoil, which caused the country to become separated by three ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats as well as their associated religions, Islam, Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox, respectively. As she got older, she was quickly acquainted with the division of her country and the enormous influence the media had on the thoughts of the country’s citizens.

“It was hard to build your own critical thinking, or your own attitude towards that [conflict] because the media would say one thing and your parents would say another,” Damjanovic said.

From a young age, it was clear that she was not going to be complacent with the country's circumstances. She began volunteering at the age of 12 and participated in projects, seminars and trainings in her local community. She recalls being the one who constantly encouraged others to unite and abandon fighting about the differences in ethnic and religious backgrounds.

“I never wanted to escape from my country. I was always a fighter and I always believed in the improvement and in the youth of the country,” Damjanovic said.

Even though she believed that change was possible, she always had the desire to study somewhere else — a desire that was perhaps greatly influenced by the dissatisfaction she felt with the educational system. Although unsure of where she would go, she attended a year-long leadership program in Sarajevo, the country’s capital, during her sophomore year of high school. There she met a young woman who was studying in the International World College in Mostar, a city in the south of Bosnia that was also afflicted by religious conflict. The program the young woman spoke about inspired Damjanovic.

“I knew if I didn’t apply, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” she said.

At the age of 16, Damjanovic packed her bags and moved six hours away from her family to attend the International United World College in Mostar. Attending this college proved to be life-changing. The program later allowed her to apply to any university in the United States with scholarship funds, which is how she ended up at the University of Florida. Prior to her arrival, she believed that she was ready for the big transition being that she had lived away from home for two years and spoke English.

“When I came here, the story was completely opposite. The first semester was the hardest I’ve ever had. It was a huge culture shock,” Damjanovic said.

She began envisioning her new life in a busy environment, but upon her arrival in Gainesville, she realized tha UF was much bigger than what she had imagined. It was a huge contrast, as Damjanovic’s previous school only had 120 students.

“It was too much,” she said, further explaining that the culture shock really impacted her and her views on American life.

“I remember at the very beginning how much I hated everything — how much everything was so different,” Damjanovic said.

Her emotional distress grew as she began to miss her parents and loved ones who were still back in Bosnia, but she never let her disappointment affect her desires to achieve her goal, knowing that these struggles would one day benefit her.

Now as a third-year student, Damjanovic finally feels comfortable in Gainesville, which she credits to her maturity. Despite the gratitude she feels toward the United States, she still longs to one day return back home, hopefully after graduation. Even with conflicts, Damjanovic believes that Bosnia has a lot of potential in tourism, culture, tradition and richness.

Bosnia is so much more than just a country inundated with conflict, Damjanovic said. “It’s not only about the war. It’s not only about the media representing these ethnic issues. It’s about the people — they’re so warm and open.”

“I think four years in the United States is more than enough,” she said. “It’s a great country; it’s a great experience. There’s a lot to learn and be thankful about, but I would really like to go back to Europe,” Damjanovic said. And she won’t go back empty-handed. She wants to use the skills and techniques learned at UF to further enhance the use of social media in Bosnia. Media in Bosnia is currently polarized by the influences of politicians and community elites. She hopes that bringing the use of social media platforms will allow others get the recognition they deserve.

Damjanovic proves to be already making a difference. Having dabbled in radio and editorial work back in Bosnia, she now serves as vice president of the European Union Club at UF and was granted the opportunity to speak at Yale University during the European Student Conference.

Check back in with us next week for the third and final part of this series!

Pictures courtesy of Verdana Damjanovic