In 1999, only four years after the war that shook the Balkans, the first team of William & Mary student volunteers arrived in Bosnia. Their task: to teach English and nonviolent communication skills to children and teenagers in communities still reeling from conflict.
Seventeen years later, the William & Mary Bosnia Project is the longest running community service project at the university. Student volunteers are continuing to build bridges as they collaborate with Bosnian educators to teach English, video production and cross-cultural communication skills to more than 80 schoolchildren over four weeks each summer.
This month, the Bosnia Project has been recognized with “The Best Practices in International Education Award” for student philanthropy by the NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education) International Education Knowledge Community, the leading association for the advancement, health and sustainability of the student affairs profession.
According to NASPA, the award seeks to “recognize domestic and international colleagues and institutions for exceptional work related to international higher education.”
“We are particularly proud that this award recognizes the outstanding work of our student volunteers as well as the project's commitment to international service,” said Paula Pickering, associate professor of government and faculty adviser for the project. “There is no other initiative at William & Mary in which I've been involved that has had such a profound impact on student participants.”
Pickering, an expert on the region and author of Peacebuilding in the Balkans: The View From the Ground Floor (Cornell University Press), also conducts research evaluating international intervention in post-conflict areas. She brings her insights on promoting cross-cultural understanding to the program.
“Continuity is a critical element of successful collaborative international service-learning programs in post-conflict environments,” Pickering said. “Building strong cross-cultural relationships and working to have an impact that lasts longer than the four-week duration of the summer English course requires conveying strong support for and consistently working with our Bosnian partners.”
The project thrives thanks in part to strong partnerships with the University of Sarajevo and Creativus, a Sarajevo-based NGO dedicated to youth education. Initiated and supported by the Reves Center for International Studies since its inception, the Bosnia Project is now housed at the Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations (ITPIR) at W&M.
The Bosnia Project continues to recruit highly motivated and culturally knowledgeable students into a program that augments their classroom study and offers them a transformative service experience.
“The Bosnia Project was one of the most memorable experiences of my college career,” said Andrea Blazanovic, ‘15. “It served as a perfect complement to my studies as it gave me an opportunity for real-world work experience in a country that I studied in the classroom. Interacting with Bosnian citizens and a local NGO deepened my understanding of the region, as well as allowed me to gain a sense of the needs of the population and the political environment below the state level.”
The Bosnia Project distinguishes itself not only by its longevity, but also by the willingness of its partners to embrace innovative and collaborative teaching methods. In addition to incorporating physical activity, games and crafts into the curriculum, the W&M students and their Bosnian co-teachers guide students as they write, produce and act in short videos featuring strictly English dialogue. These team-building projects provide an outlet for creative expression unseen in the traditional Bosnian curriculum, and reinforce themes of cooperation and nonviolence among the students. A red carpet film premier marks the end of the summer session as students and their families are invited to view the films before they are posted online. The teaching volunteers act as paparazzi for the arriving guests.
In a society that is still economically depressed, ethnically segregated and polarized by the legacy of violent conflict, the Bosnian Project offers a fun, free educational opportunity for Bosnian children, but W&M student volunteers are also reaping the benefits.
“Walking away from this trip, I knew that I would never look at academics, international politics or other cultures in the same way,” said Ben Constable, ‘15. “Having seen and known and lived among these wonderful people, I felt that I had been given a tremendous gift.”
Constable spent much of his time in Bosnia working with three to six year olds, teaching them English grammar and encouraging them to practice the language as much as they could through interactive activities and arts and crafts.
“There truly is no better way to learn about another culture than to throw yourself into the midst of it, open-minded, and willing to be surprised,” said Constable.
While they may be surprised by what they learn in Bosnia, the student volunteers are not sent over unprepared. During the year before their service, Bosnia Project volunteers participate in a two-credit course that gives them an extensive foundation on Bosnian history, politics and culture and includes sessions in classroom management and teaching techniques.
With years of successful collaborations behind them, Bosnia Project participants continue to develop innovative methods to engage meaningfully with students and teachers in Bosnia and to measure the impact of the program. In 2014, W&M students surveyed the student volunteers, Bosnian partners and Bosnian student participants to produce their first impact evaluation of the program. The survey results have been analyzed and will serve as an invaluable tool as the project’s curriculum and methods are continually revised and updated. Future research to measure how the program affects the development of intercultural communication skills is planned for 2015.
“The Bosnia Project has been a signature William & Mary service learning project for many years, but over the past two years Professor Pickering has added a research component to the project,” said Mike Tierney, director of ITPIR.
“The William & Mary students now design impact evaluations – they are using rigorous methods to evaluate the impact of their own work! And they have a perfect mentor in Professor Pickering to guide this research.”
The Bosnia project seeks more permanent funding to ensure its continued success and allow the partners to make long-term plans for the program.
“This seems like an ideal funding opportunity for a donor who wants to make a difference – William & Mary students are learning about another culture, how to teach and how to conduct field research, while Bosnian students are learning English and conflict resolution skills,” Tierney said. “If someone is looking for a project that makes a positive difference in the world, this is it.”