Ten things I learned as an international student in Serbia, USA, and Estonia
How does a student coming from a country that is ranked as the brain drain number one in the whole wide world (yes, believe it or not Serbia is number one — and the dream of almost every youngster is to leave and obtain another citizenship) keep his spirits up while leaving, and moreover, not lose enthusiasm for coming back? Seven years ago, I started my higher education in Serbia, deciding to major in Comparative Literature and Art History, as some would say unsustainable degrees even in more developed countries. However, this decision soon enough took me across the pond, to the United States of America, and from there, back to many internships and academic engagements in Serbia and across the world, with the last long-term adventure being studying for my masters in Estonia. Studying in such diverse environments brings all the pleasure and pain of being an international student, but, more importantly, brings a lifelong lesson that you can constantly implement in your future endeavors.
1. Step forward
Regardless your field of study and ambitions, considering participating in an international study program you first have to step forward in your own environment. Take baby steps, start from local communities, organizations, institutions. You have to show the quality of being engaging, because if you cannot do so in your own comfort zone, it is going to be hard for you to take those steps outside that comfort zone. Look for what is compatible with your study curricula, personal goals, and the international program you are aiming at. Success and progress do not come immediately. I started by editing my high school magazine in English and being involved with a small drama section. During college I went to volunteer at museums and art festivals, and as soon as I expressed a desire to study in the US, I became as involved as I could at the American Corner, an institution that is a center for American culture and art. By volunteering there I met my visa requirements while at the same time having fun and and growing through new experiences. I then left to finish my education in the US.
2. Never underestimate your background
Hard as it sometimes can be, never underestimate your background. It might be difficult observing your friends from other countries having more (or fewer) privileges with regard to scholarships and mobility, especially when it comes to opportunities being open only to students of certain nationalities, but it is exactly what and who you are that carries the specific potential of you being an international student. By stepping forward, you are already initiating your qualities to shine, and what and who you are is a solid base to start from. The immense and a somewhat old-fashioned education in the fields of history, art and literature that we get in Serbia in the end helped me a great deal to excel with more depth in my classes in the US, and landed me a dean’s list recognition, professional museum engagement, and numerous awards.
3. Do your “long-distance homework”
You probably wonder what this might mean, but it is actually one of the most crucial steps before participating in an international exchange program. Locating or successfully enrolling yourself in an international program is not where everything begins. No! It begins way before that. While still being in your home country, do some research on strategies that could strengthen your major opportunity. In the months before I actually left Serbia, once I knew I would be studying in Minneapolis, I researched the city’s art scene, museum opportunities, and festivals. Join Facebook groups on a related subject. Use that good old “I know someone who knows someone” to gain more insight into the experience that awaits you. If you already know which classes you will be taking, introduce yourself in advance to your future professors. They love knowing that someone from another part of the world will attend their class, and this will enhance a sympathetic attitude towards you as well. Don’t be a slave to deadlines, but work ahead of them so that you don’t miss amazing chances!
Not everyone is willing to leave themselves exposed or step out of their comfort zone, but given the fact that you’ve performed the three previous steps, it is time to have fun! By stepping out of your comfort zone, you will inevitably encounter unfamiliar situations, but given the fact that you are already somewhere far away from home, you will naturally have a heightened awareness to find strategies to handle these situations and solve problems. By now, you speak two (if not more) languages, have lived in two countries, and studied at two different institutions. You have to compromise. If your home university is not able to fully recognize your foreign engagement, you have to strike a balance. After all, you are going somewhere to learn something new, not to hear the same thing in a different language. When the pressure to write my MA thesis in Serbia proved overwhelming, I decided to take a break from it by doing a museum internship and taking amazing classes in Estonia. My thesis mentor just told me: “Your university in Serbia has been here for a century, and it won’t go anywhere for one semester.”
5. Reach out
Once you have settled into your new environment and familiarized yourself with the basic aspects of your new life, it is time to reach out and network. Coming from the socially very extrovert, warm and unreserved environment of Serbia, to the physically distant North American lifestyle seemed an initial issue, but I turned it to my advantage. Sooner or later you will inevitably make friends and romantic partners along the way, but what I learned in the US it is to network. Americans are so open and welcoming when it comes to that! Professors are always willing to write you a recommendation letter; colleagues at the museum or your organization will willingly tell someone about your achievements; fellow students will show you extracurricular activities that you can benefit from. You just have to ask. Use different events as platforms to network and put yourself out there. Ask professors about conferences and the possibilities of publishing your work. Subscribe to newsletters, or sometimes just enjoy a spontaneous moment from which you can benefit. By giving tours at an exhibit in Estonia, I was invited by a museum in Serbia to hold a public and professional lecture on Estonian design, something that has never before been presented in Serbia.
6. Use your background as a strength while abroad
This of course doesn’t meant to insinuate any national bias whatsoever. On the contrary, it means allowing yourself to absorb diversity and partake in it. Coming from one country with its cultural code, linguistic system, and values, to a set of completely new ones, you are becoming unique. This leaves space for personal liberation, exploring new things, and being an intercultural ambassador, but also to be the voice of your own country. Is there a specific phenomenon like food, artwork, scientific theory, or a really famous person native to your country that can push you towards more success or friendships?
Probably the most important thing you will learn by becoming an international student. You will go to a country that is different in one way or another , or possibly similar to yours. You will have two tasks — accepting and tolerating the local community in which you find yourself, and different communities of international students from all over the world. In such an environment, you will encounter people of different religious beliefs and spiritual practices, political ideologies, skin colors, body identities and sexuality, some of which might clash with your own perception of those phenomena. However, see this as a positive challenge, not as an obstacle. Being different and unique is what makes you visible to others, and enhances your chances to succeed, don’t forget that!
By going beyond just tolerating the diversity you encounter, by integrating yourself in it, you will expand your views and make more contacts. If the opportunity allows, try to learn a new language through your friendships, or the language of the host country if classes are in English and you do not speak the language. As such, you will be capable of more integration if you really find the new environment stimulating, and you’ll have more chances to aspire to future studies or jobs in that environment.
9. Use your international experience back home
It is only when you come back to your home country that you will see how much you have changed. From national, you became international. And now is the perfect time to claim it! Remember all those organizations, clubs, events, institutions you took part in before leaving? Now you have even more to offer, and after all, you have proof of your success. This of course doesn’t guarantee you immediate integration in desired positions, but don’t forget — baby steps! As my thesis focus is fashion and design history that I could study in the US but not in Serbia, several museums exhibiting fashion material in Serbia were glad to have me involved in their projects. Also, with all the additional experience, never forget to repeat the previous steps if needed. When I came back from Estonia where I had enhanced my knowledge of the theory and history of design, I approached several institutions with that unique knowledge and some of them welcomed me as a guest lecturer.
10. Repeat and upgrade
Of course while having your initial, first international experience you will probably be going step by step. But once you have successfully completed the intended program, there is nothing to prevent you from combining all these steps and taking them in any order you please, reducing them, or even better, creating new steps towards your success!
Stefan Zaric (Stefan Žarić) is currently a graduate student at University of Belgrade’s Modern Art History Seminar, Serbia, focusing on fashion history. Prior to his graduate studies, Stefan studied Comparative Literature and Art History at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, and under US Department of State scholarship at the University of Minnesota, USA, where he interned at Weisman Art Museum. Deepening his knowledge in curating design and fashion, Stefan has co-curated several exhibits in Serbia, and professionally interned at Tartu Art Museum, during his research semester at University of Tartu, Estonia. Stefan is a founder of independent online platform, Curated Couture, which aims to promote fashion studies as an academic discipline in Serbia. His master thesis, exploring connections between Western fashion and Serbian art, is about to be turned into an exhibit, with Stefan being curator in charge and author of publication.