Remember, being different can mean being better: Just lead by example and keep reaching up
Last but not least read 3 stories of outstanding people from Serbia.
I always counted myself lucky to have had real role models so close to me: my parents, who - given their own professional success - created an environment in which education is an absolute must. My dad was a doctor and my mom an economist and I cruised through elementary school.
Nevertheless, I lost some of my academic focus later on and did not get into the high school of my first choice, which was medical school here in the city of Novi Sad, but attended grammar school instead. Still, the gravity of my dad’s medical career kept on pulling me, too, towards needing to help people and my first higher qualification came from the physiotherapy polytechnic. That’s what role models do, they influence one’s choices by example.
My first formal job, however, came in the role of a coordinator for Roma inclusion into formal education, namely elementary school, with a local non-governmental organization.
I admit, this job gave me the chance to see for the first time in my life what life is like in an informal Roma settlement. You see, I realized then just how lucky I was to have grown up with the privilege of a real home, a stable family and surrounded by relatives who all had a formal education and could be looked up to.
You see, most people readily consider the “them and us” challenges in the context of inclusion and relationships between the Roma ethnic minority and the majority population in the country. What is less obvious is the “them and us” challenges within th Roma community itself. I was supposed to assist children from an informal Roma settlement to access school and not drop out of it. One cannot do this without the trust and confidence of the parents, who in this case were not initially sure if I was one of them, given my comparatively privileged background.
Further, I worked with internally displaced Roma children from Kosovo, a vulnerable group within a vulnerable group.
To this day, the main thing that comes to my mind is that trust and confidence is only won when leading by example – a point of which parents of my children like to remind me in the dusty and muddy settlements: “you keep telling us that education is our children’s way out of this mud, but you are the one who keeps coming back to us!”
Teaching assistants became formally recognized by the education system in 2010 and I have been doing this ever since. It’s not just that I need to help people, but I also cannot escape the feeling of responsibility, given that these Roma children, as well as their parents, can surely identify with me, a Roma like themselves, with ease and in a way that achieves a relationship that works for the kids.
But let’s get one thing right – a school is a place where we are friends to all children, not just the Roma kids. So I say it again, leading by example is the safest strategy for a role model to perform his or her role successfully.
All these years in our school, I have been living with pupils, got excited about their first love, suffered with them their first broken hearts, grew into the extended family that we are. But lead by example I must, and that means always learning and moving forward.
I myself needed to grow got an economics degree and am now close to completing my Master’s degree in business management. I am hungry for more and am looking forward to competing for the advisory post in the Novi Sad city secretariat for social and child protection in Roma communities.
Love your work
Come to think of it, it is really not that hard to be a role model. They mostly are people who do what they love. I love my work. When you do something you love, you become the best version of yourself, and that means you made it in life!
Remember, being different can mean being better: Just lead by example and keep reaching up
Three exams short of a master's degree in law, Marina Simeunović can boast a flourishing career in the civil society sector in Serbia and a job at the Vojvodina Provincial Office of the Ombudsman, where she works to break down institutional stereotypes to enable more Roma girls to follow in her footsteps and blaze their own trails to education and opportunity.
“A graduate degree was simply not something Roma did, especially not Roma girls.”
When I think back about my academic journey, I must start with my family: people in my native Ljubovija, a municipality in Western Serbia, knew us all for our hard work, inquisitive nature and drive. For my family, a committment to schooling was a given, so it was not really a surprise to anyone that I should complete all eight years of my elementary schooling with straight As and thereby earn myself the prestigious Vuk Karadžić diploma, named after Serbia’s famous 19th century language reformer.
My dad was so proud of me. My success became the talk of the town, the "straight As gipsy girl" earned herself a reception at the mayor's office to collect recognition and congratulations.
But of the six Roma pupils in my school, only two of us completed elementary education. For Roma, challenges start early.
- Although I had to leave town for high school I kept and excellent academic record and became more independent…
- Had no idea if I wanted a higher education degree…
- Roma simply did not go through that door…
- Least of all Roma girls…
- But hard work and dad's support...
- Got me into top 10% of entrants into Faculty of Law at Novi Sad University.
If there was one deciding moment at which I also came up against the mountain of stereotypes and challenges faced by Roma students, it had to be the end of third and beginning of fourth and final year of high school. I felt unfairly treated by one particular teacher who hardly contained his displeasure at this Roma girl’s progress and marked my work below what I felt was fair.
But all stories have good guys as well as bad guys. Early on in the fourth year, my head-teacher, who noticed my loss of focus and enthusiasm came up with the new rule of random oral exams, where students out of touch with curricula get a minus, and three times minus earns them the lowest, no-passing grade.
I was called out on first day of the new rule and was not prepared, having earned my first minus. During the class immediately following this bad start, my head teacher called me out again, unprepared and depressed as I was. I was thinking about just how unfair can he be to pick on me twice out of 33 students. Third class of the year, he called me out again and this time I made sure I complained: “If you are determined to fail me, please go ahead, you don’t have to call me out all year round.”
“No”, he said, “I am determined to make you be ready and prepared all year round, from week 1 of the year, for each and every class you attend with that other teacher who makes your life difficult in her subject. Promise me you’ll do that? You must get into university!”, he said.
Run the extra mile, that’s what I was inspired to do. Run the extra mile, that’s often exactly what’s needed to break out of comfort zones and persistent patterns of low expectations of many Roma students.
This is an important lesson for an aspiring role model and one that helped me deal with the challenges of life later on.
Moreover, this was one lesson that served well also my subsequent work on networking, support services and solidarity between the 209 Roma students who today form part of our Facebook support group dedicated to helping more Roma students reach for the stars by pursuing and persevering in their academic aspirations.
You tell me: whoever heard of a person not facing any challenges in life? One comes to realize that all of life is a path with joys and challenges. Some realize this sooner, others later, but in my family’s case, challenges are accepted as facts of life. We always faced them head-on with faith and love, and found we overcame all that life throws at us.
There is truth to that story of Pandora’s box, you know, but in spite all of the evil released onto the world and amongst people, faith, love, hope and wisdom will give you strength and help you achieve a brighter future, whatever your circumstances.
I love singing and singing loved me back. With love, the right things in life can chose you, rather than you having to figure out everything by yourself. I always sang in the church quire in Bežanija, Belgrade, in our local church of St. George. Still, I never thought singing will be my career. Today, as an accomplished and recognized opera singer and as a teacher of singing, I can look back and say love, again: for me, singing was love at first note.
My own role model has always been my mom. She fought hard for all three of her children, often not understood by people around her and sometime I feel like this is still the case today. Still, she got us all through school which proved to give us great start in life for each one of us.
When I think of her, my own role model, I kind of see what people find worthy of following in my own journey: perseverance and sacrifice, hard work, learning and love: love towards all people, love towards what you do, towards one’s family, love for one’s children, love!
And if you love your children you must do whatever it takes to get them through school. Only when we are literate and educated can we succeed. Enough with wandering aimlessly. It’s long past time for us Roma to walk though life with our heads up high and be just role models in society, not just Roma role models.
For this to happen, parents needs to learn and know one thing: children belong in school! I know poverty, I know hardship, lack of clothes, shoes but our future neither sees nor cares for our looks or status.It only cares if our children have support and love, first by parents in the home, then in the school by teachers.
Remember, if one can make it, all can make it. Just make sure you do not quit at the first hurdle that comes your way. The success of jumping over each hurdle will warm your soul, shine through those dark nights of doubt and give you the clear heart and smile for the day ahead.
Remember, you can do anything!