Volunteer with Anja

view of Sipan as we left the island

I grew up Catholic and attended Santa Clara University (SCU), a Jesuit institution.  Although I no longer identify with Catholicism, my Jesuit education instilled a value I hold dear—service to community. When I attended SCU, the University’s academic schedule left Wednesdays open for volunteering or engaging in service learning projects. I certainly didn’t spend all my Wednesdays volunteering, but it did create a culture where service was not only considered important, but expected. I owe my academic career to one such experience in college, but that is another story.

So imagine my surprise to be here in Croatia, where just over 86% of the residents are Catholic, that this sense of service to community is nearly non-existent.  In my visit to Libertas University, I met Anja Marković, the Executive Director of Bonsai , who is working to change the culture of volunteering in Dubrovnik. Bonsai is a relatively new non-profit organization that was founded in 2008 and reimagined in 2010 that put volunteering as its center.  Their mission is to increase community engagement through volunteering based on the values of tolerance and respect, active participation, and social sustainability.  

I spent time with Anja on two occasions—a beautiful sunset dinner with the two resident directors of API at Libertas University (Nada and Ivana) and a day trip to Šipan with her and members of other NGOs/volunteers.  Anja is a psychologist very much dedicated to addressing the needs of those who are marginalized within this community, especially those with mental illness and learning/physical disabilities. She works hard to recruit and engage others in service.

One of the things I have loved about my own personal journey here is a connection to family and a better understanding of my heritage.  Family is central and certain structures are in place to support the family.  For example, women are given six months maternity leave with full pay and if she wants to take the entire year off, she can get half of her salary for the remaining six months.  If a woman has a third (or more) child, she is allowed to take three years off with an income of approximately $300 US dollars. I’ve discovered a wonderful website: Expat in Croatia and it outlines more about family leave policies if you’re interested.  But, Croatian salaries are low—an average of 6420 kuna per month (approximately $962 US dollars).  According to the most recent data from Croatia’s gender equality ombudswoman, the gender wage gap is 13.19% (women make less) and that gap has been increasing since 2010. Similar to the US, women tend to be employed in occupations that pay less—education, non-profits, and healthcare (and certainly is true of those who I have met).  But, I digress…the other side of a family-centric culture is that the burden of care for mental or physical illnesses fall heavily on the family–primarily women. Mental illness or learning disabilities are particularly stigmatized so families are reluctant to reach out to those like Anja who can provide psychological support. 

The photos above are from our day at the beach in Šipan where a member of the group found some beautiful starfish! Don’t worry, they were all returned to the sea.

I was also shocked to learn that there is no infrastructure provided for domestic violence or sexual assault.  There are no shelters for domestic violence or support for those who are victims of intimate partner violence.  There is no sex education in schools at any level but it is mandatory to take a religion class (specifically Catholicism). In fact, even at a University level, there are no courses where one can study gender or sexuality, at least in Dubrovnik (my colleagues said that it is different in Zagreb).  I hope to work with Anja and Libertas University to build an event here in Dubrovnik (e.g., Take Back the Night) when I return with study abroad students.

And it’s not true that people don’t volunteer here, it’s the nature of it. One of my cousins gives one hour of her time per week to a church in the Old City so that it can remain open 24-hours a day to visitors (can you imagine taking the 2-3 am shift??).  During busy hours, there is more than one person in the church which translates to hundreds of volunteer hours per week.  I wonder what might happen to the level of volunteering if the required religion classes emphasized the Jesuit value of service to one’s community.     

Studying Abroad in Croatia

I never studied abroad when I was in college.  It scared me. I was raised in a tiny two bedroom house in the middle of my grandparent’s pear orchard.  The town of Upper Lake, CA maybe had 500 residents.  The nearest “big town” was Ukiah with a population of about 15,000.  It took us 40 minutes to get there but they had a bowling alley, a movie theater, and more than one stop light.  Yep, lots to do there!  When it was time to look at colleges, I wanted to apply to UC Berkeley so my parents and I went to visit.  I saw the polka dot man and was on a campus (not even a city) that had more people and buildings than any town I had ever lived in.  I felt anxious and overwhelmed; I didn’t even apply.  If Berkeley was overwhelming then certainly studying abroad was not going to be in my future.

The other reason, I think, is that my family didn’t really travel.  Our vacations consisted of weekly summer camping trips to the coast, which I adored.  The only trip I remember taking with my extended family was a week in Lake Tahoe for Christmas. Maybe traveling was expensive. Maybe traveling was a value my family simply didn’t hold. Or maybe, as an immigrant family, my father didn’t want to leave a country he risked his life for.  All I know is that my father was terrified to return to the former Yugoslavia even after he became a citizen of the United States.

So here I am in the country of his birth and, of all things, working on a customized study abroad experience for my students.

Nada Raic and Ivana Bajurin, API Resident Directors (left to right)

I spent a fulfilling three days at Libertas International University with the two Resident Directors of API (the study abroad organization that the University of Hartford is affiliated with)—Ivana Bajurin and Nada Raic. These two women are described as “being a resource for you” both on-site and in Croatia.  Let me just say that is exactly what they were and remain for me—without their knowledge, support, kindness, and willingness to help me understand the long process of applying for temporary residency, I don’t know where I would be.  Nada is on maternity leave and was still present for all our meetings and activities—seriously, that is above and beyond the call of duty. 

photo of me with the 15th century frescoes above

Libertas International University is a small, private institution located in Old Town (Grad) Dubrovnik located on the second floor of the Dominican Monastery that dates back to 1301.  They have several majors (e.g., International Relations and Diplomacy; International Business and Economics) and host customized study abroad programs like the one I am creating.  Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such, any changes in buildings are strictly overseen by the ministry of heritage—an extraordinary number of permits are required.  For example, in renovating the monastery for the University, some frescos from the 15th century were discovered on some of the walls and great care had to be taken with documenting and preserving them. And don’t expect these buildings to be air conditioned—definitely not approved by the ministry of heritage and culture! Although I will say that the classrooms have portable air conditioners for when it gets really hot and humid.

I was able to sit in on an International Business class co-taught by Professors Janice McCormick (Former Director of PhD at Harvard University, Graduate School of Business) and Iva Adzic.  Their interactive teaching methodology was very similar to my style and I felt right at home in their class.  It made me excited to think about my own students sitting in one of these rooms in the not too distant future. I also had a lively lunch with Ivana, Nada, and Professor Jerko Ban, a Catholic priest, who teaches a course in Comparative Religion. His community and hospital work with those who have dementia, are deaf and/or blind, or in need of palliative care, reaffirmed my growing understanding that there is little to no systems for such care in Croatian culture. Families are left alone to deal with mental and/or physical illness.

As part of my visit at Libertas, I had a wonderful tour of Dubrovnik with Vesna Barišić and met Anja Marković, executive director of Bonsai, a community-based volunteer organization.  I have much to share about what I learned from these women and will write about that in another post.  

I went on an excursion to Lokrum Island with Nada, Ivana, and the current API students studying abroad here.  The island is short boat ride from Old Town and a popular day trip for locals and visitors.  Our tour guide led us through the botanical gardens, the ruins of a Benedictine Monastery, the dead sea (a small lake) olive trees, and gorgeous views of the Adriatic Sea.  If you like peacocks and rabbits, you’ll love Lokrum—they are everywhere! The bunnies are quite peaceful and friendly, you’ll see dozens of them hanging out eating grass while people are sunbathing.  And, of course, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the Kindom of Qarth, as seasons 2 and 3 were filmed on Lokrum. Within the walls of the monastery, a room has been converted to a small museum regarding the series.  And yes, there is a replica of the Iron Throne that visitors can sit on.  Although I am not a GOT fan, I did not pass up this opportunity. 

I did not go hungry! Nada and Ivana made sure that I was well fed (a good Croatian custom!) and that we took time to sit and have coffee (another good tradition).  In fact, I think most of my “meetings” on the first day were in outdoor restaurants eating lunch, having dessert, and drinking coffee.  While visiting Libertas, I stayed at the Orhan Rooms, just outside the city walls, convenient to everything.  If you want the experience of staying in one of these ancient buildings, then Orhan is the place for you; you will not like it if you want modern/new types of accommodations.  The owners also have a restaurant (Orhan Restaurant) where guests are served breakfast. As you can see, the view from the restaurant is one of a kind and worth navigating the small streets to find. For Game of Thrones fans, you will recognize this site filmed on Pile Bay looking up at Fort Lovrijenac (Fort Lawrence). On the second and last night of my visit, we ate at Levanat Restaurant in the Lapad section of Dubrovnik. It sits on the walking trail from Sunset Beach with a spectacular view of the Adriatic; that night I got my sunset dinner with Nada, Ivana, and Anja.

Ivana, me, and Nada (left to right)

If you are a university student scared of studying abroad and choose to come with me or spend a semester here, please know that Ivana and Nada will take care of you!  If I had guides like them when I was in college, my fears would have been allayed.  Even my father eventually overcame his fears and returned to visit his home.