Resiliency: Our Story

The REAL program is not just about those students who are later attending school; it is about those who took longer to get here because of these societal roadblocks and so we see a pattern of resiliency. REAL students have made it past these various obstacles to enter one of the tiny windows into a university education. They also have to be resilient once they get here when arranging their adult lives to the life of a university student.

Edita Zlatic

Q: I would like to start with your arrival in America. Why did you come to the United States?

A: I really don't want to tell the whole story. I am originally from Bosnia. I was there during the war. After the war, my family moved to Germany where we stayed for five years. In Germany, they had this special law, rather a contract, saying that when the war was over, the Bosnian refugees had to either immigrate to another country or go back to Bosnia. It was not an option for my family to go back to Bosnia, so we decided to immigrate to the United States. The other option was Australia. At the time when we were supposed to go, my mom was not capable of traveling. The doctor said that she would not survive the flight. So, we decided that one of the sisters would come here. Long story made short, I came in September 2000. The plan was that the rest of the family would come afterwards when my mom was capable of flying. However, Germany changed the laws saying that Bosnian refugees with post-traumatic stress disorders can stay. So, they could stay. But I could not come back because I had already left Germany before the law changed.

Q: So, you came here on a plane, and I know that your trip over here did not go as it was supposed to go. Can you tell me about the trip from Frankfurt, Germany, to wherever you were supposed to go? And where did you actually land?

A: I was supposed to fly to Phoenix, Arizona. And when I was in Chicago (first U.S. stop), they took my passport and my documents. I had to check in. I had this bag from the international organization and a big brown envelope and they took everything from me. They said: "Oh yeah, we just made short notice changes because we figured out that Phoenix was not the safest place for you to go." Because originally, I should have gone to Los Angeles and stayed with my friend’s sister, who would have been my sponsor. She would have paid for my school, she would have let me stay with her. Everything would have been fine, but the organization in Germany denied it saying that because I am alone and criminality in Los Angeles is high, I should choose another city. And then I chose Phoenix, Arizona, because my other friend was there. I could stay with her family, go to school. Just do my thing. Everything was booked, everything was settled. My friend and her mom were waiting for me at the airport. But when I landed in Chicago, they (immigration) decided that Portland, Oregon was a much better place for me than Phoenix. They said it was for my security reasons. I had this police guy making sure that I was boarding the right plane to Portland, Oregon. They made sure that I was not going to Phoenix.

Q: So, why didn’t you fly from Portland to Arizona? Don’t tell me that there were police officers waiting for you again?

A: There were other people waiting for me telling me "Welcome to America" and that I would actually not stay in Portland, Oregon but go on to Vancouver, Washington, which was just across the border from Oregon. At that point I just thought screw it. I was tired. I was exhausted. It was in the middle of the night. I was crying all the way from Chicago to Portland not even knowing where Portland is. And when I came there, there were these seven guys with huge beards waiting for me. It was kind of scary. So, they put me in this host family in Vancouver and said that I would stay there and wait for my mom. When my mom comes, I can do whatever. But until she comes, I have to stay with this family and follow the rules. I was there for three months until I found out that my mom and my sisters were not coming. I had to endure this awful woman. She would make me cook and clean and take care of her kids. And she did not want me to go to school. She wanted me to stay there. Almost every night, she would bring the guys that I should meet because I could potentially marry them.

Q: How old were you?

A: I was 19.

Q: When you got to know that your mom and family were not coming because the laws have changed again, what did you do?

A: Yes, they could stay. And it was actually better for them due to my mom’s health problems. Germany is much better organized than here in this matter. So, they decided to stay and I had to figure out what to do. I got myself online looking for schools because I knew that I could not stay in Vancouver. I hated the weather, I needed my sunshine. Actually, I wanted to go to Phoenix to be with my friend. But at the same time, I was interested in international studies, security, conflict resolution and so on. I found this program at San Diego State University. The description was perfect for the things I wanted to be, to do, to study. I talked with the professors asking them about the program and the procedures. And they were very welcoming and saying that it would be great to have me around. But I should also check with the admissions office. So, I started to look for a job and for an apartment. I was not to waste more time. I had wasted three months of my life; I was not going to do that anymore. So, I came to San Diego all excited. Finally, I could continue where I stopped. I went to the admissions office, and they said no.

Q: Why did they say no?

A: They did not accept my high school from Germany. I left when I was in the 12th grade. Well, I almost finished it up. I was in the middle of finishing it up. Remember that it was September when I left. I had only a few months to finish it actually. So, technically I was not done. But still, I was supposed to qualify. But their basic argument was that Germans don’t recognize our schools, why should they recognize theirs. And I just thought what about me, the individual? "Can’t you make an exception?" And that did not work. They told me to go to a community college in San Diego, the Mesa College, and start all over again until I would have the sixty units for transfer. I should come back in two years. So, I started to go to Mesa College and worked three jobs.

Q: What kind of jobs?

A: I worked as a sales associate in a retail store. I worked as an administrative assistant in PsychCare, and also as a webpage designer. I was kind of busy. I slept only three hours a night sometimes.

Q: How long was this going on?

A: Almost two years. But then I lost one of the jobs. I was laid off. But I was getting tired of it anyway. I was exhausted; my body was burning out. I thought that I needed to change my life. So, I lost one job, quit another, and tried to normalize myself. I tried to find a job that would allow me to concentrate on my schoolwork and not work too much. I wanted to have some free time so I could socialize since I had not been doing much of that. I became a barista at Starbucks. And things started to go well again. I changed my apartment, went to school so I could transfer to San Diego State University.

Q: Had you been attending full time?

A: No, I could not. I did not have time for it. I had all these jobs needing to pay the bills. And then, I was not a resident so I had to pay full fee which was expensive.

Q: What made you move from San Diego to Boston, and eventually to Tufts?

A: In San Diego, I met my boyfriend Jon. I was trying to get my life under control so I would not only be this working machine. I was living in this beautiful city for over a year and did not manage to go to the beach once. I could not go on like this. Especially since I like the outdoors so much. Some time after I met Jon, he was accepted to MIT graduate school in Boston. He asked me to come with him.

I did not feel comfortable with my English at that point yet. So, I decided to come here with him and look for a school. Boston has so many schools. I already knew about Tufts then. The peace and justice department was something that was really calling me. But I thought that there was no way I could pass the SAT with my English skills. I had to prepare myself for the high academic level at Tufts. So, I ended up going to Fisher Junior College for a year improving my English. I was there for three semesters when I decided to email professor Paul Joseph at Tufts. And I told him that this was my dream that I would like to do and that I would like to meet with him. And he said: "Sure, come on over. Let's talk." And we talked. It was supposed to be a half an hour talk and it ended up being a three hour conversation. Mainly me talking about my life, things that I am interested in, things I want to do, things I did. And then came the financial part of going to Tufts. I told him that there is no way I can afford it, it is too much. I had no financial support from anybody but the things I could do myself. And he said:

"Another option would be you are a little bit young for the program, but since you have so many experiences you might qualify to go to the REAL program." I thought: "REAL program? What is that?" And he picked up the phone while we were talking and called Dean Herbert. He left her a message and sent an email. She emailed me saying that we should meet. When I came to see her, she was so nice. I felt really welcome. She asked me which schools I am applying to and I told her that it was Tufts and Harvard. And both Dean Herbert and Professor Joseph said that I should come to Tufts. It is a much better school for me. And yeah, I am at Tufts.

Q: Why did you choose Tufts?

A: Because I love it.

Q: What do you love about it?

A: Pretty much everything. Especially because it is international. There is such a diverse student body here. People come from all possible backgrounds, different cultures, different languages. I love my classes. When I go in, I have this room filled up with students, who are younger than me, and sometimes older. We are all there listening to the professor’s lecture. Later the discussion is opened up and everybody brings in something from a completely different perspective that I have never thought about. I always come out learning something even more from my co-students than my professors. It is really an enriching experience. I like the fact that professors are there for you. Unlike at Harvard. They will always take their time to meet with you. Even if they are busy, they will squeeze you in somehow. Even if it is just emails, they are still communicating with you. They are interested to hear where you are going, what you want to do. And the campus is so beautiful with a warm atmosphere. I have no problem getting in touch with the younger students and hanging out with them. I think it is a great exchange with them. We have the book-smarts, and then we have the life-smarts meeting together.

Q: What happened?

A: Oh boy. Well, I wanted to do peace and justice and was very engaged in social justice and human rights. I wanted to change the world for better based on my experiences. But coming here, I realized that I am not strong enough to do it on the level I want to do it.

Q: What do you do now?

A: I have changed to something less confronting. Not really, I am an international relations major with focus on Middle Eastern Studies. I’m studying Arabic and Arabic culture hoping to understand it better. I want to contribute to a better understanding of the Arab world. Because coming from my background, I still understand how easy it is for people to misunderstand each other. Especially when you have the Western world, the United States, with completely different values and traditions. We have ours, and they have theirs. It is so much easier to clash. Like my country with different nationalities.

Q: Doesn't this relate to your summer plans?

A: Yes. I am leaving in a couple of days for Morocco. I am going to be studying Arabic and volunteering with local NGOs on a role development project. I want to make a private study how NGOs are working inside Morocco. How and what kind of help they can get from local government and international organizations. How they measure success; how they decide what to do; where and when. It is kind of an ambitious project but I am also interested to see the women, the traditional role of a woman in the society; how it is changing in the society. I assume that they will be participating in building up the communities as well as the males. But is this change going to be just temporary or is it going to continue with the trend? Is it going to be accepted that women need to be educated and deserve equal opportunities, equal rights as males? I am also interested in the struggle within the religion and how it influences the personal religious perception.

Q: I know another thing about you. You just became an American a couple of months ago. How does it feel?

A: Excellent. It was a wonderful experience. Especially after all the struggle being a refugee in Germany, and always being a second class citizen, not having the same rights. That bugged me a lot. But coming here to the United States, it was like a new beginning. New hope that things can be done. Right now, the sky is my only limit. It's a nice feeling that I can do pretty much anything that any other American can do. The ceremony itself was remarkable. There were over two thousand people saying the oath. It was a huge melting pot right there. And the judge said that we are coming from different countries bringing our traditions that we should not leave behind because we are citizens of this country. This is what makes this country what it is. Yeah, things are going well right now. There are good people, and good people are going to make good changes. Hopefully.

Q: What are your plans for the future, after your graduation?

A: I am hoping to go to Egypt for a year to improve my Arabic. My aim is to be absolutely fluent in Arabic and hopefully speak the Egyptian dialect. After I come back, I will probably work for a year or two in the private sector or governmental, or non-governmental institutions. Later, I want to come back to academia and get my masters. Maybe here at Fletcher in law and diplomacy. Maybe a Ph.D.