Jeff Barnett / Lantern photographer
An Ohio State teaching assistant who had bombs falling on her front yard in her war-torn country is now making learning Serbo-Croation a blast.
Vedrana Mihalicek, known to be intelligent, direct and fearless by her colleagues and students, is a doctoral candidate in the linguistics department and a graduate teaching assistant.
Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, she first came to America in 2002 to attend Brandeis University on a full scholarship, on a student visa. She came to Ohio State in 2006 for graduate school, and in her second and third years, she taught linguistics classes.
“I was sitting outside on the bench, nervously smoking a cigarette, trying to get myself psyched up to go in there and teach,” Mihalicek said. “Someone, maybe from maintenance, sat down next to me (to bum a cigarette). I’m talking to this guy and trying to make small talk and he says to me, ‘Oh, so did you just get here? Are you a freshman?'”
Mortified at what the maintenance man asked, she was able to pull through; now she professes her love for teaching and her interaction with students.
After teaching for the linguistics department for about three years, she was contacted by the Slavic department to teach Serbo-Croatian because she is a native speaker.
“She’s done wonderfully,” said Maria Alley, graduate teaching assistant coordinator and acting director of language programs in the Department for Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures. “She, right now, is one of our best teachers.”
Mihalicek won a linguistics teaching award in 2009.
Mihalicek’s Serbo-Croatian 405.01 class, with about five students, is small compared to other language courses.
“You do really get a lot more individual attention,” Mihalicek said. “It’s a cozier atmosphere; people know one another.”
Melissa Clark, a second-year in international studies and anthropology, said the students would sometimes write Serbo-Croatian sayings on the chalk board, jokingly, before Mihalicek came to class.
“And then she corrects us on our grammar,” Clark said.
Students said if there is some kind of new activity the students wanted to do, relevant to the course, she lets them do it.
“We watched these cartoons in Serbo-Croatian,” said Ana Tyler, a second-year in international relations, who is in Mihalicek’s class. “Then we (got into pairs) and each pair had to explain to the class what the cartoon was about (in Serbo-Croatian.)”
Mihalicek lived in Sarajevo during the Yugoslav wars, until 1994, when her parents’ old high school friend made arrangements for them to move to Zagreb, Croatia.
Mihalicek said it was about April 1992 when the war came to Sarajevo.
She recalls it being a Sunday, and she was doing her school work when her mother came in from the living room to tell her not to bother, she wouldn’t be going to school the next day.
Mihalicek didn’t go to school for about a year. Eventually, the adults in the neighborhood tried to have some sort of informal schooling for the children so they weren’t so far behind. In the spring of 1993, a school finally opened. But since there wasn’t a legitimate school building, school was usually held in someone’s apartment until a building was made available.
“We were bombed all the time,” Mihalicek said. “We were one of the few houses in the neighborhood that wasn’t directly hit with a bomb. We only had a few fall in front of our house.”
With the result of the war, having to move away from her home, most people might expect some animosity toward the Serbian people, but not Mihalicek. She doesn’t hate anyone and she has close friends in America that are Serbian. She visited Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, in December.
“One of Vedrana’s most evident character traits is fearlessness, probably a useful one growing up, as she did, in war-torn Sarajevo,” said Carl Pollard, a linguistics professor and Mihalicek’s academic adviser. “She talks tough without ever being unkind. She appreciates good whiskey and knows how to hold it.
“But what I like most about her is her cheerfully gloomy outlook on life, which might be expressed this way, my words, not hers,” Pollard said. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket. There probably isn’t much we can do to stop it, but it’ll be fun to watch.”
Mihalicek was taught English at a younger age, was required to take German in high school, and she studied French for many years, but doesn’t consider herself fluent in French or German. She spent her last two years of high school in Italy on scholarship.
She felt as if she was being discriminated against in the western European countries.
“(I was) constantly being judged and evaluated,” Mihalicek said. “‘Where are you from? What’s your name? What’s your last name? What’s your mom’s maiden name? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ I just wanted to get out of there and be treated like a normal human being.”
At first, like many Europeans, she said she was prejudiced against the U.S. This changed when Mihalicek arrived in America. She was amazed at how normal people were. She never felt discriminated against. No one cared where she was from. She found herself appreciating and respecting America. She also found herself defending America to other Europeans.
“In some ways, I’m American,” she said. “In lots of ways I feel more at home, more American, here than I would anywhere in Europe.”
Unsure of where she will end up, but not at all picky, she plans to continue teaching after graduation in June 2011.