Study abroad program partners American and Serbian students for journalism project

Photo: Aleksandar Skundric

By Anlan Cheney

BELGRADE – Anna and Marija made fast friends.

Just three months after their first meeting during the SIT Study Abroad program in Belgrade, they sat bantering like old playmates over eggs benedict in their favorite cafe in a quiet corner of the capitol city.

Their friendship has a most unusual foundation: challenging homework, free-form brainstorming sessions and an intensive reporting project — but that doesn’t mean there weren’t also shopping trips, movie nights, and long coffees in between.

On a crisp afternoon in early December, Anna Squires — a junior political science major at Colorado College — and Marija Pajkovic — a Montenegrin native studying communications at the Faculty of Media and Communications (FMK) at Singidunum University in Belgrade — discussed the first drafts of the feature articles they helped each other report and write with a sense of satisfaction.

By the time coffee arrived, they were still gushing over the exceptional symbiosis of their camaraderie.

Maria recounted how working with Anna was not only deeply beneficial educationally but felt second-nature.

“A lot of the questions that Anna wanted to ask were also questions that I would have asked,” she said.

Anna put down her filter coffee — a rarity in the Balkans, but as a former barista she knows where to find it — and recounted how she and Marija started to ask questions for each other.

Marija and Anna at the SIT Balkans Farewell Reception.
Marija and Anna at the SIT Balkans Farewell Reception.

As they reminisced, they also began finishing each other’s sentences.

“I was asking about entrepreneurship and you were asking about—,” Anna began.

And Marija continued, “The effect of the 90s poverty problem on her idea of success!”

“It was very cool,” said Anna.

Brought together by World Learning’s School for International Training’s (SIT) Peace and Conflict Studies in the Balkans program, Anna and Marija worked together to complete their Independent Study Project in Journalism (ISPJ) by telling the stories of young Serbians who were resisting brain drain in Serbia.

“Our curriculum is designed in a way that allows students from the United States to spend their semester abroad…not as spectators only but to engage and become part of the lives of local communities in Belgrade,” said SIT Balkans academic director Dr. Orli Fridman.

“We aim to contribute to the societies where we work, and from whom our students learn and grow; having local students join SIT’s classroom and seminar activities is a way for us to do so,” she said.

While SIT Balkans introduced the journalism track into the program curriculum the previous semester, the duo’s partnership was the first facilitated between a study abroad student and a local student.

The young students’ mutual interest in brain drain—the mass economic emigration of Serbian youth– determined the pairing. It also fulfilled SIT Balkan’s goal of connecting study abroad students with the culture and local community in a deeper, more meaningful way.

“We were looking for ways to offer our students more immersive experiences and wider reporting possibilities,” said Andrew Adamek, SIT journalism instructor and managing editor of Belgrade Insight.

“We saw a natural, complementary relationship between our students; the Serbian students brought a knowledge of local history, language and culture while the American students brought experience with reading and writing features that, together, would produce stronger work,” he said.

Anna and Marija also acknowledged the benefit of their partnership in paving the way to better connections, bridging language gaps, and ultimately for equipping them with important journalistic tools.

“Studying journalism teaches me how to listen, and develops my ear to listen to … the subtexts of what people are actually telling you,” said Anna, whose ISPJ was entitled “The Ones Who Stay: Still-life of the Serbian 90s Generation.

She compared the skills she learned through the ISPJ process to “putting tools in your toolbox”.

Anna and Marija presenting their ISPJ stories during the SIT Balkans final presentations session.
Anna and Marija presenting their ISPJ projects during the SIT Balkans final presentations session.

Marija, whose ISPJ was entitled “Bloom Where You are Planted”, highlighted the community aspect of the journalism tract.

“My biggest benefit was working with editors…and peer-reviews, which for me is the best part of the entire program,” she said.

Since the fall semester’s closure, Anna has returned to the U.S. to continue her studies in political science, journalism, and creative nonfiction.

Pajkovic, in her sixth year since moving from Montenegro, resumed her work and studies in Communications and Public Relations.

Anna and Marija’s ISPJs will eventually be considered for publication. Two journalism track students from SIT Balkans sold work to publications, including a piece Anna wrote as an assignment in class, but the journalism instructors are quick to point out that, while publication is ideal, there are other worthy indicators of success.

“The ideal result is creating long-term connections between American and Serb students and have them cooperating in the future,” said Katarina Subasic, a SIT journalism track instructor and a correspondent of Agency France-Presse in Belgrade.

At the end of their cups of coffee, Anna and Marija ponder that very connection.

“Just the other day we were talking about how you guys are leaving…Now I’m seriously sad because this…isn’t one of those things where you’re just put together with some people and you have to take it,” said Marija.

“We were friends from almost day one.”

Anlan Cheney is a SIT Balkans Spring 2015 alumni currently working for World Learning and studying for a Masters degree in the Balkans.