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Program 0107
February 13, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

JASNA KRUPALIJA: I actually think that my brother is the most Americanized of us all. We’ve both adapted really well, but he is enjoying it much more.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, Bosnians adjust to life in America. Plus the American University in Bulgaria.

NORMA TUCKER: I think the fact that we just exist is a success. Our students come from all over the country. And I talked about their economic status-the fact that all of them-almost all of them-need financial help. I mean, the challenges are great.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Civil war in the former Yugoslavia forced thousands of Bosnians to flee their homeland for parts of Europe and the United States.

MCHUGH: Many have decided not to return to their war-torn homeland, but instead are trying to start their lives anew. For one young Bosnian, living in the United States has fulfilled his global aspirations. Common Ground Correspondent Drew Leifheit reports from Champaign, Illinois.

[sounds of a basketball practice]

DREW LEIFHEIT: It’s a late weekday afternoon at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Inside the massive Assembly Hall the towering members of the university’s basketball team stretch out, run, and scrimmage. For one of these players, a lanky 6’9″ dark-haired young man, being here is the realization of a dream.

DAMIR KRUPALIJA: Five years ago if you would have told me that I’m gonna be doing this right now and going to school here, playing on national television pretty much every time we step on the floor, I would probably laugh at you. I probably wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about when you say “college basketball.” But you know, it’s cool and I’ll take it.

LEIFHEIT: Twenty-one-year-old Damir Krupalija is one of a handful of young people from the former Yugoslavia playing basketball in the United States. In 1992, just before the civil war broke out in Bosnia, Damir’s family was concerned about the increasing amount of gunfire in Sarajevo.

DAMIR KRUPALIJA: I was young. I didn’t know what was going on. I knew there was people fighting all over the place, but kind of everybody was saying, “Oh, it’s not gonna happen down here,” and “Everything down here is cool.” And then you know, one day it was just like, boom-no school; couldn’t even go out. And just kind of like messed up. The next thing you know, we’re going.

LEIFHEIT: Damir’s father, Sead, recalls how he felt before the family decided to leave their home town.

SEAD KRUPALIJA: Like most of our people, we believed it will be over in a couple days, you know. That’s just kind of the games between politician people and it will be over in 5, 6, 7 days. And that, just the day before the day we decide to move they start bombing from the planes. And just one night it was really bad. A lot of fighting around our buildings. And you know, we just sit down and talked, say, “Maybe it’s time to think, try find a way to get out from here and move the kids,” you know.

LEIFHEIT: But the war in Bosnia continued, and the Krupalija family moved to the Czech Republic for three years. Then, Damir’s cousin Adnan started playing basketball for a college in Rockford, Illinois. Even though Damir had never played organized basketball, the tall teen followed his cousin to Rockford. At Boylan High School Damir averaged 19 points a game and became the school’s all-time rebounder. Meanwhile, Damir’s mother, father, and sister sought a way to join him in America. His parents entered the US Immigration Service’s green card lottery and won the right to live and work in the US. And to see their son slam dunk success. They’ve been here ever since. And after Damir’s sister Jasna was also accepted to the University of Illinois, the whole family moved from Rockford down to Champaign-Urbana.

[sound of grocery store conveyor belt and items being scanned]

LEIFHEIT: Damir’s mom, Zora, stands in the checkout line at the grocery store. She says sometimes it’s tough finding the same kinds of food the family ate back in Bosnia. While her kids go to school, Zora says starting her life over has also been tough.

ZORA KRUPALIJA: Now we live just for children. I don’t have pretensions for big job, for big money. It’s not so important for me.

LEIFHEIT: Her husband, Sead also finds the situation difficult.

SEAD KRUPALIJA: Know you know, every time when you look, when we are looking for a job we have to start from the beginning to adapt ourselves in this kind of the business. A way how to do that. And every time when you change a business-because you know, we moved a couple times around the United States-every time when we change that, we have to start from the beginning again. It’s pretty, pretty tough, you know. And by the way, I think I’m a little bit tired of this whole startings from the beginning, over again, over again, over again.

LEIFHEIT: Back in Bosnia, Zora was a supervisor at a manufacturing firm. She recently left a job, where in Illinois for eight hours a day she pushed a button to photograph documents. Zora’s supervisor at that job, Katie Carver, says that although most of the employees at the microfilm processing firm were women, as a new immigrant Zora’s situation was unique.

KATIE CARVER: She stays focused, she gets the photos we want, she doesn’t bother anybody. I mean she’s very, everybody likes her. And she’s a very ideal employee. There’s one other person, which is Danielle over there, she, I think she’s from Germany or something. And she’s moved here. But Zora’s situation, coming with kind of the U of I and that whole thing, I haven’t dealt with anything like that before.

LEIFHEIT: Zora is now in training for a position at a motel chain, which has forced her to work on her English.

SEAD KRUPALIJA EMPLOYEE: She’s trading at 99 to 98, and she’s going down $2,000.

SEAD KRUPALIJA: Okay, the point is, the whole story is, that we have to go down in our price.

LEIFHEIT: Her husband, Sead, meanwhile has taken some risks, quitting his job at a used car dealership to open one of his own.

SEAD KRUPALIJA: I start with a business. I bought my, probably what, about 30 cars? In these two months I sold probably six, seven cars. Most of these cars I sold in the first two weeks and I was very happy about that. I thought that everything will be fine. But in the last three, four weeks, almost nothing.

[sound of computer modem dialing up]

LEIFHEIT: In their spare time, which is less and less these days, the Krupalija’s relax at home. One particular Saturday afternoon, before their son’s basketball game, Sead Krupalija sits in his daughter’s room reading the online version of the Sarajevo daily newspaper, Oslobodjenje.

SEAD KRUPALIJA: Oh, these pages are on Bosnian, English, and Serbian, and Croatian language. You can just click on the, you know, and it will like, what kind of language you want to read. You can find almost everything about Bosnia, like history and also what, you know, updated information about Bosnia, Sarajevo. What’s going on in, what kind of the movie is playing, in which theatre, what’s going on in sports. That’s my connection with the homeland.

LEIFHEIT: Zora Krupalija, meanwhile, wrestles around in the kitchen preparing lunch. She cuts up fresh bread and green peppers, feta cheese, and traditional Bosnian dried meat. After lunch, Zora, Sead, and their daughter, Jasna, drive about 20 minutes to Assembly Hall.

[Sounds of college basketball game]

LEIFHEIT: They take their regular seats in the stands of the packed auditorium to watch the Illini. The fans are decked out in their orange and blue polos or sweatshirts. Some of the students have even painted their faces with the school colors.

[Sounds of college basketball game]

LEIFHEIT: Today the enthusiasm isn’t wasted on the Fighting Illini.

[Sounds of college basketball game]

ILLINI BASKETBALL RADIO ANNOUNCER: Krupalija, the wide-open 15-footer. His first two.

LEIFHEIT: Illinois wins and Damir makes several good plays.

DAMIR KRUPALIJA: Rebound, make smart plays, and provide a little energy on the floor. So, that’s what I gotta do.

LEIFHEIT: After the game, parents and friends pace around at one end of the court, waiting for their sons to come out of the locker room. A group of excited grade school boys huddle around Damir and one of his teammates, vying for autographs. Standing off to the side is Damir’s sister, Jasna. She says that being the little sister of a basketball star isn’t always easy.

JASNA KRUPALIJA: When I meet people it’s not like I say, “Oh, I’m Damir’s sister.” So sometimes people who know my brother, when they meet me they are like, “Oh, you’re his sister.” I’m like, “Yes.” And then they wouldn’t even remember my name. [laughing]. “I’m meeting Damir’s sister.” But it’s not, I like, you meet a lot more people this way. And it’s fun.

LEIFHEIT: When Jasna’s not at the game or at home with her parents you can find her in her college dorm room, studying. Her brother, Damir, meanwhile, shares an apartment with two other Illinois players; Corey Bradford, an African-American; and Robert Archibald, from Scotland.

DAMIR KRUPALIJA: That’s one thing we got in common, you know. We’re from the same old continent. So, you know. And somebody wrote an article about it, too.

LEIFHEIT: Just like his roommates, Damir’s room is a mishmash of influences. A Czech soccer team jersey hangs from the wall. Just to the right of it, a pennant with ornate lettering reads, “Bosnia Herzegovina.” The University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illiniwek, is perched just above Damir’s desk. And the center of his bedspread has a massive Chicago Cubs “C.”

[sound of a sporting event on TV]

LEIFHEIT: Damir’s life, a mix of international influences, is not surprising in this period of globalization. In an article entitled “Jordanscapes: A Preliminary Analysis of the Global Popular,” researchers tracked the universal mass appeal of sports icons like Michael Jordan. Multinational products like Jordan make America out to be a realm of youthfulness, humor, personal freedom, and most of all, leisure. Is it any wonder that global young people like Damir are attracted to everything they consider American?

DAMIR KRUPALIJA: I would love to play in the league down here, you know. The NBA is a dream of every basketball player anywhere now. So, if I can, I’ll, I would love to-when schools recruit you they send you all kinds of information, and they said that only 4 percent of all basketball players get a chance to go to the league. So the chances are pretty slim. But you know, four years ago I was in high school, 6’5″, 164 [pounds], got thrown around a bunch of times. So nobody thought I could make it to a big-time Division I school, anyway. So you never know, you know. Get a lucky break here and there and you never know what can happen.

LEIFHEIT: Considering the success achieved in the NBA by his southern Slav predecessors, Damir has a lot to live up to. Back in 1989 the Los Angeles Lakers lured center Vlade Divac away from the Yugoslav national team so he could try to fill the shoes of then retiring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And Croatian Tony Kukoc enjoyed great success with the Chicago Bulls, despite playing in the shadow of players like Michael Jordan.

DAMIR KRUPALIJA: I kind of knew that coming here, you know, it’s, that’s the way it’s going to be. And you know, growing up watching NBA, you idolize Michael Jordan, Shaq, all those guys, you know.

LEIFHEIT: Players from the former Yugoslavia play a significant role in diversity on US basketball courts. On opening night last year, the NBA featured 37 international players from 25 different countries. Six of those players were from either Croatia or Yugoslavia. Why so many hoop dreamers from what was a fairly small European country before its disintegration? Professor Eric Gordy is a Balkan specialist. He explains that while Yugoslavia did not have professional basketball teams until the 1970s, as an unallied country in the Cold War, the country’s success with the sport began a decade before that.

ERIC GORDY: One of the greatest points of pride of Yugoslavia in basketball, for example, was that between the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and the European Championships in 1962, that the Yugoslav national basketball team had defeated both the United States and the Soviet Union.

LEIFHEIT: Yugoslav basketball embodied many of the values of globalization. Ironically, team sports like basketball or soccer provided a pressure valve for releasing ethnic tensions between Serbs and Croats, according to Professor Gordy. He says teams from Zagreb in Croatia and Belgrade in Serbia enjoyed a good-natured rivalry, and the Yugoslav national teams were like melting pots.

PROFESSOR GORDY: Those rivalries and conflicts were symbolically overcome in the national team, which drew its players from the best players of all of the local clubs. And the national teams came to be seen as a kind of symbol of the multiethnic character of former Yugoslavia, which was a point of pride.

LEIFHEIT: If Damir’s NBA hoop dreams don’t pan out, he could return to his roots, again following his cousin Adnan, who now plays for the Slovenian national team back in Europe.

DAMIR KRUPALIJA: I know I can go overseas back to Europe. Probably play somewhere. So, we’ll see. Talk to me in about three years.

LEIFHEIT: But Damir’s sister Jasna has doubts about her brother straying too far from his American hoop dreams.

JASNA KRUPALIJA: I actually think that my brother is the most Americanized of us all. We’ve both adapted really well, but he is enjoying it much more. [laughing] I mean, he has been in the spotlight for so long-he likes it!

LEIFHEIT: In contrast, Jasna says she likes to maintain her Old World identity. After she finishes going to school, she plans on returning to Europe. Despite being designated the most American in the Krupalija family, Damir insists that he is Bosnian, and says he doesn’t think that will change anytime soon. For Common Ground, I’m Drew Leifheit in Champaign, Illinois.

MCHUGH: The American University in Bulgaria, next on Common Ground.

MCHUGH: What was once the headquarters of a regional Communist Party is now a flourishing campus, shaping young Bulgarians into future democratic leaders and free-thinking journalists.

PORTER: The American University in Bulgaria, commonly known as AUBG, is nestled in the hills of a small town in southwest Bulgaria. The program started in 1991 as an outgrowth of the changes taking place throughout Eastern Europe in countries formerly aligned with the Soviet Union. Common Ground’s Hélène Papper spoke to several AUBG key players to get a full picture of this intriguing institute.

NORMA TUCKER: A number of people thought that the best way to train new leadership and young leaders would be through an American-style education and a liberal arts curriculum. And the then president of the country, as well as some officials from the United States were, had a meeting of the minds and that started the ball rolling.

HÉLÈNE PAPPER: Norma Tucker is AUBG’s Director of Development and University Relations. She says the University’s curriculum mirrors that of a small liberal arts college.

TUCKER: That’s the basis of it. There is a particular emphasis in a couple of areas. And one would be in business and economics, because that was an area that, for which there were distinct differences between the education that students got in universities in Bulgaria and the kind of curriculum that we have in a Western-style institution. And the other area was in, is in journalism and mass communications. And with the opening of the media and a push toward free press, that that became a priority area for the curriculum. We focus a lot on mass communications and technology and really the future of communications. We’re going to be starting a European program. We have a minor in European studies and we have a major in Southeast European studies. And those are going to be refashioned into a European programs study, which is very timely and very important with the changes that are taking place in Central and Southeast Europe in terms of European Union and NATO and accession and all the issues around European integration.

PAPPER: So is your goal to bring these students to a level of understanding different ideas, different ways of thinking, for them to implement these ideas in their own country?

TUCKER: The idea is to have free discourse, to open inquiry, and for students to experience a variety of opinions and feel free to express their opinions and enter into honest dialogue. And yes, and take those kinds of ideals and discourse back to their own, to their own settings.

PAPPER: Did you find you had to special tailor the university structure and courses offered to fit the Bulgarian mode?

TUCKER: I don’t believe so. I mean, there’s always a fitting that has to take place in any kind of cultural exchange. But, basically if you look at the curriculum, you look at the textbooks, and listen to the conversations that go on in the classroom, it sounds like a pretty standard US university classroom.

PAPPER: All the courses offered at the American University in Bulgaria are offered in English. Do all the students speak English?

TUCKER: All the students speak English and all students, as part of their entrance requirement, must pass a TOEFL exam.

PAPPER: The TOEFL is an English proficiency test for foreign students hoping to study at an American institution.

TUCKER: And the TOEFL, the level is very, very high.

PAPPER: American universities are traditionally expensive. They cost money. How about the American University in Bulgaria?

TUCKER: Tuition, room, board, and books is a little over $12,000. That’s for a whole year. Now by American standards that’s a very, very economical way to get an education.

PAPPER: So how do the Bulgarian students afford to come to this university?

TUCKER: Bulgarian students receive tuition waivers, a stipend. And then the university has a package that includes tuition waiver, student loan, work study. And then the student bears some part of the tuition. And part of our job here in the states, and we have an office in Sofia, is to raise money for scholarship support. That’s our priority.

PAPPER: Do you find most students who enter your university in Bulgaria do so because they hope to later go on to the United States to find a job?

TUCKER: No, I don’t think so. I think they come to the university because it’s a fine university. It has very, very high standards. People throughout Bulgaria, when you say, you know, “I go to the American University of Bulgaria,” there’s recognition and there’s the recognition that this is a very prestigious and a coveted place to be.

PAPPER: What have been your main successes and failures since the opening of the university?

TUCKER: Successes? I think the fact that we just exist is a success. Our students come from all over the country. And I talked about their economic status-the fact that all of them-almost all of them-need financial help. I mean, the challenges are great, you know. Helping our students, having facilities in a country that, where there are limited facilities, overcoming attitudinal barriers to Americans and then American education. But we persevered and we are respected. And we turn out wonderful students, wonderful graduates. They are accepted at the most prestigious universities in the world. But the challenge is to keep the, for the future of the university so that it stays a viable institution for many years.

PAPPER: The United States is sometimes criticized for trying to be the big brother-politically, socially-of many foreign countries, and trying to inculcate its values in foreign values. Have you run into any problems or criticism while setting up this university in Bulgaria?

TUCKER: I personally have not, no. But I came to the university in 1996. So the university had been in existence for a few years before me. And there could have been some of that feeling prior to that.

SAUL POLANSKY: I’m a retired foreign service officer. My last assignment was in Sofia, Bulgaria. And I was there before the change, during the change, and after the change.

PAPPER: Saul Polansky is a former chair and board member of AUBG, and now serves on the University Council.

POLANSKY: And I think what’s important to understand is that the US did not come to Bulgaria and say, “We’d like to set up a university.” What happened was Bulgarians said, “If we really are going to make a change and be able to develop our country and be part of Europe, what we need is an American-style university. And so essentially the initiative for the university came from the Bulgarian side.

PAPPER: You were there before the change, during the change, and after the change. What have you seen in terms of education that has changed the most.

POLANSKY: I think what is important is that the Bulgarian educational system itself, they’re coming around, I think, to the idea of a four-year undergraduate system and then graduate schools. They’re looking at the idea of accreditation. And I think it’s important for American listeners, if they’re interested, and that is that AUBG is accredited by the University of Maine system. So that any American student who wants to go to Bulgaria will have in effect course credits that count. We’re also recognized under the Bulgarian national legislation, so we’re in a sense part of the Bulgarian educational system.

PAPPER: So you do have American students that go study at the university as well?

POLANSKY: Not anywhere near as many as we would like to see.

PAPPER: What’s the ratio between Bulgarian students who attend the university and foreign students?

POLANSKY: It’s changing. I think our goal is to have 70 percent Bulgarian and 30 percent foreign students. And I’m not sure what it is now. I think we’re about 30 percent foreign students, primarily from Eastern European countries, and 70 percent Bulgarian students.

ROSITZ TODOROBA: It’s a wonderful experience. I would never, ever exchange it to anything else. Four years of my life where I learned so much.

PAPPER: Rositz Todoroba is a recent AUBG graduate who now studies at George Washington University. She is one of many Bulgarian students hoping to use her educational experience to shape Bulgaria’s future.

TODOROBA: Right now I am realizing going to the Elliot School at GW that I have such a solid academic background that it really helps me proceed in graduate studies and do really well. And besides I, all my friends are from AUBG, and we keep in touch right now. And it’s incredible.

PAPPER: Did you find it difficult to adapt to AUBG when you transferred from high school?

TODOROBA: Well, the first semester I would say it was a shock. It was totally new. Everything was totally new. The whole system of education. But yes, we did adapt very quickly.

PAPPER: What’s the main difference? What shocked you the most when you started there?

TODOROBA: Well, all the quizzes and the papers that we had almost every week. And you had to really study and go to sleep 3 or 4 a.m. And, yes, but and participation, class participation, is very important at AUBG, which is very different from high school, our Bulgarian system. And, but we learned. We learned a lot.

PAPPER: So you think that you learned more there than you would have at another Bulgarian higher education?

TODOROBA: Definitely. Absolutely. Right now we have huge problems in Bulgaria with widespread corruption. And it’s even in the educational system. So, many people doubted that the Bulgarian education right now is at the same level as it was during Communism.

PAPPER: Do you feel that you can use what you’ve learned at the university? Do you feel that you can use theories, maybe of democracy and new ways of thinking to adapt to the Bulgarian lifestyle?

TODOROBA: Well, we’re trying really hard. Yes. And definitely I would say that my experience from AUBG-and other students, too-would definitely help us if we stay in Bulgaria and if we work for the government or nongovernmental organization. But if we try to help this country democratize and build this open market, it definitely helps because we have the, we have the perception of how it works here in the US. And we’ve studied that at AUBG and some of us who are overseas here, we can see that working. And we can go back and apply these concepts in our home state.

PAPPER: Where do you see your career take off after you graduate from GW? Do you want to say in the United States or do you want to go back to Bulgaria?

TODOROBA: I definitely want to structure my studies in terms of European Union and Bulgaria trying to achieve membership, full membership into the European Union. I really want to go back there and help a lot in this direction.

PAPPER: Rositz Totaroba is a recent graduate of the American University in Bulgaria. We also heard from AUBG officials Norma Tucker and Saul Polansky.

For Common Ground, I’m Hélène Papper.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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