An Interview with Alumna Una Blagojevic (BA 2013)

Una with the partisan women in Zagreb, Croatia (Credit: Personal Archives)

Una Blagojevic, a Serbian 2013 BA graduate, has been around the world. Currently residing in Budapest, Hungary and beginning her master’s thesis at the Central European University, Una looks back on her time at Bard Berlin, then ECLA*, with great fondness. I sat down for a late-night Skype chat with Una to discuss the transformative and orienting powers of core courses, her shift from Berlin to London to Uganda to France to Budapest, and the consistent and enduring eccentricities of Pankow wildlife.**

Tell me about your time in Uganda.

My Uganda trip was quite amazing! After I left ECLA, I was planning to stay in Berlin for my  master’s, but the program I applied for was all in German, and my knowledge of German was not high enough. I also couldn’t find any scholarships to do my master’s in England, so I was quite unhappy and disappointed. And then, just totally coincidentally, a friend of mine saw that there was a safari company in Uganda looking for interns, which was a totally new thing for me because it had nothing to do with my undergraduate education at all.  

Right. After four years of doing school, this is something completely different.

Yes, totally different! Sometimes when I tell people that I spent a year working for a safari company they think that this was some kind of place where people go to shoot animals, and I would never do something like that. I didn’t do that and this was not that kind of company. They had some lodges all around Uganda, large lodges in the savannas of a national park called Kidepo Valley. I spent approximately four months there. It was so beautiful. I was always in nature, helping out. My tasks also included working in an office and helping with boring administrative stuff, documents, calculating budgets in Excel. I always wanted to escape from this sort of work after finishing my Gymnasium. There, in Serbia, you usually go and work or study in a department, like natural sciences, math or physics After I finished Gymnasium  I said ‘Never again!’ and then I turned to humanities. It was nice to do it again in Uganda, though.  

What was the community in Uganda like?

Even though the administrative work was boring, I was very close with the staff, helping out as much as I could and also hanging around with the guests. It was a very small, intimate approach to work, so we would all eat at a big table and they would serve us and we would all sit and talk about which animals we’ve seen and things like that. Sometimes I felt like it was strange because it was a place where very rich people would come and spend time in a ‘wonderful African, Ugandan experience’. Sometimes I was kind of not sure what to think of myself being there. But I had this great time where every day was filled with new and crazy experiences. I lived in a small hut, too, made out of wood and leaves and such: They tried to make it as natural as possible to give an ‘explorer’s experience’. I lived in one of these, and in the morning I heard animals making such crazy sounds, and, even though the hut was off the ground for security reasons, we would get woken up by screaming animals. It was always wild boars.

Do you miss it?

Recently I got an email— of course there you meet a lot of people, it was incredibly social—   and I got this email from a lady who I met there who was also a lodge manager. She asked me, ‘Una, a friend of mine is searching for someone to manage her lodge in Tanzania! I don’t know what you’re doing at the moment, but if you would like to help her let me know!’ For a moment I considered it, but I’m doing my master’s now, and I’m planning to do my PhD, so I said no.

Do you feel like going to Uganda influenced how you thought of school or your education, or changed your focus in any way, since it deviated so much from what you did in college?

It definitely helped me reflect on these questions. I totally changed my environment and was faced with totally different problems to solve. I would never be faced with the same situations at ECLA, which was so nice and secure and comfortable an environment and where you aren’t worried about eating or animals eating you. I was comfortable in Uganda, obviously, but there were those little things— like electricity was run on a generator and sometimes it would stop working, and you had complaining guests and such. The skills that I needed or that I found helpful definitely came from my experience as an RA at ECLA, and also, luckily, I had some computer skills from when I worked at the Max-Planck Institute.

After these eleven months I started my master’s in philosophy in Belgium, and that is just sitting, library, sitting, reading, and being inside the whole time. It took some time to get used to this again after spending my whole day outside.

Speaking of Europe, tell me about ECLA! When did you learn about it and what brought you there?

It was actually the same friend who told me about Uganda! She spent a year at ECLA doing her Academy Year program. I applied, not really knowing much about what liberal arts stands for, or what it really means.  I came right after my Gymnasium in natural sciences, but I was always interested in humanities, even though I was always studying that other stuff.  So I was really lucky to get accepted and to get a good scholarship, which was the main factor that allowed me  to come. When I was applying for my undergrad degree, it was really difficult to find places that would give me scholarships, and I still have problems with this today.

It must have been pretty small when you were here?

It was tiny!

Tell me about this community.

I got accepted here as an Academy Year student, too. My original hope was to be accepted to ECLA and get some scholarships for places to go next. This friend was fascinated by an installation art course that was being offered, taught back then by professor David Levine. My idea was that I would do this AY program, learn German while in Berlin, and then do political science in Vienna. I applied there, but I actually decided to stay. Being in this environment that is so small, I very quickly and easily met all these wonderful people coming from— I mean, I can imagine it’s still extremely diverse now.

Yes, I think we boast 60 countries? It’s an incredible amount of people from an incredible amount of backgrounds.

This was exactly my impression, coming from a totally different educational background, you know, where basically the way where I was educated was that you have to study and really learn the books, and just retell them. None of this ‘what is your opinion?’ No critical thinking. This was really hard for me, so the first year was me trying to figure out what was happening. I remember having a really tough time reading Plato’s Republic. I had a philosophy course in high school, but we didn’t really read texts; we didn’t discuss. We just learned schools of thought, philosophers — when they lived, when they wrote — which was very different. But what we did at ECLA was hard. But I realized that I wanted to stay and continue, and be with those wonderful people, so at the end of my AY I applied to stay and continue as a BA student because I was already seeing the transition and I felt more confident.

Did you live in the dorms?

Yes, in K24.

That’s my dorm! We have no common room any more.

Is that party room still there?

It is! But it’s under construction to be a common room now.

The common room is an important part, at least for me, of school. We would watch films there, and sometimes Zoltan would organize international nights with dinner and films from our own countries. Those kind of events make a lot of difference. I don’t know your experience in comparison to other places, but it was unique because we wouldn’t just study together, but we would live and eat together.

Tell me more about your time at ECLA. Do any classes stick out that impacted your education after undergrad? Any favorite teachers?

Well, one of my favorite classes, and I don’t think I’m the only one to think this, was the Renaissance Art and Thought core course…

With Geoff Lehman?

Yes, Geoff! I took a lot of courses with Geoff, and he was my advisor, and he was great. This course, Geoff was teaching, Aya, Tracy— oh, I miss the classes! I haven’t really been able to experience that after leaving ECLA. For a long time I kept thinking I wish I could go back! I wish that classes would look like they did at ECLA throughout the rest of education! The way the courses are structured is something very unique. I really liked the Identity and Property course. It used to be a core course. We just looked at the concept of property and we approached it from many different perspectives. This was the first time I actually read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. These ideas about nations and community stayed with me for a long time.

Tell me about your time in Leuven.

KU Leuven, in Belgium, was more lecture-based. It was a bigger school. We had one seminar with 20 people. In Leuven I was reading Timaeus’ Dialogue, of Plato, and it was a very traditional approach. You have to take ancient philosophy, renaissance philosophy, all the philosophies. I was lucky because I liked reading Timaeus. At that point I was also working at a Pizza Hut to survive!  I was working, and studying, which was quite funny because somehow it was connected with Timaeus, which is about the creation of the world and mixing to make planets. I felt like my experience of making pizzas at Pizza Hut was the same. I said, ‘I’m creating — I’m very Timaeus right now.’

You mentioned that you’re headed towards your PhD?

I’m about to start applying to universities to do my PhD. I applied to Goldsmiths in England, I was accepted, and I applied for this big scholarship. I got it, but because I am not a UK citizen and not an EU citizen, I didn’t end up qualifying. So I asked Goldsmiths if I could defer until next year, but I don’t think I can find scholarships for next year to study in London, because it’s just crazy — really, really expensive. Then I applied here, to CEU, which BCB has a close relationship with. Tracy actually told me that he knows students coming from Bard that did their master’s at CEU or started their PhD. So I started my master’s, but then they decided I needed to do this one year program in comparative history before I applied for my PhD. This was a good idea because I do lack this history background, and it’s really important for the studies that I am interested in. I’m also planning on applying here for my PhD, but at the moment I’m focused on writing my master’s thesis.

What’s it about? Give me a little peek.

It’s about Socialist Yugoslavia in the 60’s. In my studies, I am used to reading philosophers, and my master’s topic at Leuven was on Foucault. But then I read about this group called Praxis that is made up of humanists from socialist Yugoslavia. What I found really interesting was how they organized a summer school on an island in Croatia, in August, and they invited philosophers and socialists from all over the world — very famous people like Habermas and Bostrom. All these people were coming on this small island in this little town and discussing alienation, progress, the meaning of revolutionary subject. So my idea is to look at Praxis’ journal, where they publish various articles. I’m not really interested in writing about the history of this group, but I’m more interested in looking at the division between Eastern Marxism and Western Marxism—  I’m planning on looking at the articles published in their journal and examining the dialogue between the philosophers from the East and the West.

At least your mandatory comparative history year will serve you well.

Yeah! I also feel like it follows from ECLA, because at ECLA we did a lot of intellectual history. CEU is also all about that, so it has some continuity for me.

Una, two final questions. Firstly, what are your plans for the future?

Ok, easy to answer, but hard to think about. I really hope I will manage to stay here and do my PhD. I really like CEU. I was quite surprised — there is something similar to ECLA here, an emphasis on seminar discussions. It’s the closest to home I’ve been in years. I will also try to find some PhD positions in Germany because I found some professors where my topic would correspond with their research interests. I graduate in June, and I would love to come back to Berlin! Berlin is my second home: I never felt like a foreigner there. When I was in London as a third year, I romanticized London so much— the big windows, the brick houses… but it was really unapproachable in the sense that everything was so expensive, and somehow I couldn’t really feel at home. Berlin, so far, was really one of the places where I felt most comfortable, and I’ve spent the most time living there compared to other countries outside of Serbia.

And, secondly, what is your favorite neighborhood in Berlin?

Back then, because we always felt like we were only spending time in Pankow, on campus, it was so exciting for us to go to Kreuzberg. It was like an official ‘event’ for us. It was like going really far, even though it wasn’t really far. We also ended up in Prenzlauer Berg a lot, to go and study in cafes and such. Neukolln is nice, too. I did a lot of gallery hopping.

As our conversation came to a lull, Una asked me one final question: “Do you still have a fox running around campus?”

I am glad I was able to answer with an affirmative.

Many thanks to Una Blagojevic for the conversation.

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*ECLA was the historical name of Bard College Berlin until November 2013

**Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity