Bosnia Project: The gift W&M students keep giving

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William & Mary students don’t just participate in the Bosnia Project each summer. They own it. They protect it. They grow it. They run it.

“It’s not like they just they go into this program and disappear,” said Weingartner Associate Professor of Government and Bosnia Project advisor Paula Pickering. “They have much larger connections to it than that.”

From inception, the goal of the student-run project has been to teach non-violent communication to children scarred by the brutal war that raged from 1992-95 between the government forces of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and extremists who wanted to separate from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“When this first started it was a reaction to the war and an attempt to teach non-violent communication,” said Amelia Bane ‘12, a summer 2011 participant. “These kids we’re teaching now weren’t part of the war, but the war is still part of Bosnia, part of Sarajevo, definitely.”

The last couple of years have seen the introduction of media and video into these lessons because they are considered proven kid-empowering tools.

“Even though we are quite a ways away from the end of the war, the political system in Bosnia remains very dysfunctional,” Pickering explained. “It is seen as very closed and only rewarding self-interested politicians. There’s a lot more corruption there and youth, especially, feel like there’s very little opportunity for them to make a difference. The students have really felt that new media helps them show that they can create things, that they’re talented, that they can actually make a difference.”

The Bosnia Project students have forged a partnership in Bosnia with Creativus, a non-governmental organization dedicated to helping children and youth. Among its other responsibilities, Creativus recruits the schools where the lessons are taught, and the Bosnian students. It finds housing for the William & Mary students. It also places an advisor on site who last summer reviewed lesson plans.

At the same time, Creativus seeks to give University of Sarajevo students interested in becoming English teachers practical experience in the classroom to help them qualify, while also showing them a perspective on teaching from outside Bosnia.

“Bosnian students are used to more traditional pedagogy where the teacher stands there and says ‘copy down this vocabulary,’ ” Pickering said. “It’s a more passive style of learning.”

The W&M students’ mission was to inject an interactive, fun learning style by using art, crafts, games, talent shows – even movies. They co-taught these lessons with Bosnian student-teachers.

The latest quintet of students worked with four Bosnian student teachers and about 70 students between the ages of 6-14. The result was seven short films, conceived of and written by the students, filmed and edited by Bane.

Bane knew little about Bosnia or the project until Project alumnus Adam Stackhouse ’04 spoke in her video production class last fall.

“I really loved working with the students in Bosnia,” she said. “It was cool because it let me use film production, my expertise, in a different way – in teaching, which I had never thought of before.”

The Bosnian students let their imaginations run wild. One group wrote a movie about zombies. Another focused on an all-girl band. One of Bane’s favorites was “Snake Island.”

“My job was to work with all of the students in the four teachers’ classes,” Bane said, “getting them familiar with film terminology and the cameras and helping them write the films. Some of the films you can’t even tell they’re not native English speakers, and there are some films where someone’s feeding them the line every take.”

Bane will continue the Bosnian Project tradition and help choose the 2012 participants. That’s part of a significant nurturing process installed to make sure each summer is successful.

“It comes down to team dynamics,” explained Meagan Taylor ’11, who went to Bosnia in summer 2010 and helped train the 2011 participants. “How is the team going to come together and work off each other’s strengths? We also looked for personalities and how they’d mesh. Did we get a sense from them that they were looking to grow personally from this project? Would they be open to taking feedback? Would they be willing to learn the culture and understand it?

“This isn’t a project of ‘Let’s go save the world.’ We’re going to learn from Bosnia. We’re going to partner with Bosnia. We were looking for a give-and-take attitude.”

So how did the oldest, student-run international service project at the College begin?

A visiting professor of Yugoslavian descent got the ball rolling in 1998. Why didn’t a few students – between five and seven -- travel to Bosnia in the summer and spend a month or so working with student teachers and their pupils teaching conversational English?

The professor left. The program he suggested remained, and developed into a source of seemingly unending pride among those who have been involved in it.

“The lessons and insights I have gotten out of this project could fill up pages,” wrote Lauren Billingsley ‘11. “The kids are so full of life and energy, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

“I love the idea of blending international relations with service, so the Bosnia Project was something I really wanted to become a part of. The project is a gem of William & Mary service projects.”

Taylor, who called the project “everything I was looking for,” grew up in Richmond. She remembers a large Bosnian enclave in that city, especially during the war. Many of those refugee students joined gangs and continued living the violent life they’d been meant to escape.

“The focus on non-violent communication spoke to me,” Taylor said. “Also, I have always been passionate about education, and am making that my career now. The Bosnian Project combined all of my interests, even English as a Second Language. I’d also studied linguistics in racial minorities.”

Taylor and another student served as teacher assistants last year to Pickering, who has been involved in the project since 2001. A prolific author and sought-after lecturer on Bosnia and the Balkans, Pickering was first approached by W&M students familiar with her reputation. They wanted her to educate them on the political situation in the country.

Then in 2007, there was a discussion within the College on the need for more formal learning before engaging in international service-learning projects. The fear was that students could do more harm than good if they didn’t understand the politics, society and culture of the countries where they were volunteering. Interested students in the Bosnia Project were encouraged to incorporate an official course segment to help them prepare for the project and to maximize its positive impact on the community. Through its Sharpe Community Scholars Progeram, the Charles Center supported Pickering’s study of service-learning philosophy in 2007-8.

Pickering now teaches a once-weekly class in the spring that exposes students to an analysis of the war, international attempts to reconstruct the country and promote reconciliation, the Bosnian education system, and community partnership.

One other day a week, Bosnia Project alumni/teaching assistants educate the new recruits on communicating with their local partners, teaching strategies, staying with host families, preparing for the trip, fund-raising opportunities (the Reves Center for International Studies and the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship help with generous funding, but students are responsible for their expenses), and what they can expect when they get there.

“While Bosnian students are learning a lot, it’s important to remember that our students are learning a tremendous amount, too,” Pickering said. “This personal experience they’ve had in this land that has been through much has really had a profound influence on our students.”