This is the fifth installment of a series highlighting exceptional student contributions to the Global Research Institute, in celebration of Undergraduate Research Month.
By: Rosemary Ketron ’23
Bosnia-Herzegovina is a breathtaking country with a rich culture. Its beauty includes epic mountains and gorges, bright turquoise rivers, and grand flowing waterfalls. Sarajevo, the country’s capital, is home to architecture that has roots in several different cultures, quaint shops, and a buzzing city life. While some damage remains from the Bosnian War in the early 1990’s, the city is not at all obstructed from expressing its vibrance and its resilience.
The people of Bosnia-Herzegovina are the same way: resilient. The Bosnian War was tragic, spanning from 1992 to 1995. The parties involved were the three ethnic groups of the country — Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats — as well as the Yugoslav army. The conflict did not end until Western countries backed by NATO imposed a cease-fire and peace treaty in Dayton, Ohio in 1995. 100,000 lives were lost and 2,000,000 were displaced in these three years due to the war. This tragedy left many marks, but the people of the nation are picking up the pieces.
One of these marks is the pervasive ethnic cleavages found in the modern Bosnian education system. Academic curricula for young students vary between the ethnic groups of the diverse nation. School buildings, textbooks, history, religion, and even some playgrounds are separated and distinct based on ethnicity. Many parents in the country worry that these differences in learning experiences and subject matter could produce prejudice in their children.
Accordingly, the local community has a desire for the skills of intercultural competence and intercultural communication to be taught to combat these prejudices and promote cooperation between younger Bosnian generations. Students from the University of Sarajevo take courses on and are taught how to teach intercultural competence to local children, and each school year, a group of William & Mary students in the ABC Project learns intercultural competence right alongside them.
The American Bosnian Collaboration (ABC) Project is an initiative that brings together students from the University of Sarajevo with students from William & Mary to teach children in Bosnia-Herzegovina the skills that are relevant to the local community’s desires and needs. Starting in July, we will be living in Sarajevo for two weeks and hosting an educational camp which focuses on intercultural competence skills. However, in order to teach these skills in a setting that will be foreign to us, we had to learn how to be interculturally competent ourselves.
To prepare for our teaching efforts overseas, my three classmates and I have participated in a semester-long class taught by Professor Paula Pickering in which we have learned about the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina, different skills and methods of pedagogy, and of course intercultural competence — how to teach it and how to be it. We had to think critically about how we perceive cultures that are different from ours and about what we truly mean when we say this word “different.” My classmates and I have had to insert ourselves into situations that are out of our comfort zone so that we could check ourselves for any implicit biases we might have and practice ways of squashing them.
I was initially compelled to apply for this program because I believe in the power of children’s voices. The reason schools are divided in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not because of the students who attend them, but because of the adults who established them. As children are exposed to forms of expression that represent the opposite of division, the more likely they are to question and fight against the institutions and laws that spark hate. While many children have grown up to accomplish this on their own, the ABC Project only seeks to give them more tools to support them on their endeavors to push for change.
This year, the risks of Covid-19 have pushed the ABC Project’s trip to begin in July rather than June and have also opened the door for a new style of teaching. For the class of 2022, the ABC Project will be held outside instead of inside classrooms. The first and last weeks of this summer camp will be held over Zoom, and the two weeks in the middle of the session will be in the in-person and outdoor setting. Whether over the computer or out on the pavement, University of Sarajevo and William & Mary students will co-teach classes of students aged 8 through 15 and discuss intercultural competence subjects, such as compassion or the effect of stereotypes, in a manner that is adequate for each of the different age groups.
The second component of the ABC Project is research. The college students will be researching the impacts of outdoor learning on children’s development of intercultural competence. We are hoping that being outside will allow greater incorporation of all five senses into the teaching regimens and the students’ learning exercises. The research adapts with each new year and group working for the ABC Project. For example, the cohort of 2021 researched the impact of online teaching on children’s intercultural competence engagement and development. However, its core goal to observe the effects of intercultural competence teaching remains.
The American Bosnian Collaboration Project has been successful in past years, not only due to the trained and passionate college students, but due to the kindness, talent, and curiosity of the children of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I feel so lucky to be learning these important skills of intercultural competence. I believe they will make me a more compassionate and empathetic person. Spreading kindness and working to understand other people seems like it is intuitive, but it is not always that. After my studies on intercultural competence, I have already noticed a strong difference in my thoughts and words when I discuss cultures or ideas that are different from my own. I hope to see the day that these skills will be a dominant component of academic curricula all over the world.