From Belgrade to New York: An interview with Alum Marija Šajkaš

Screen-Shot-2017-04-12-at-1.02.42-PM.pngMarija Šajkaš (pronounced as Maria Say-kash) is an SGPIA alum who is a communications and political consultant based in New York City. Her expertise lie in media, immigration, and transitional justice in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Marija also works as a foreign correspondent for a Belgrade-based weekly publication and her first novel was just translated into English.  

Marija discusses her fascinating experience of moving from post-war Belgrade to New York City in the interview below:

What prompted you to come to the New School?

I moved to New York City almost immediately after the wars ended in the former Yugoslavia. I lived through the wars and reported about the effects of wars. During the 1990s and in the early 2000s, I worked with refugees and with displaced people as well as with people whose loved ones were missing after the wars, likely to be found in mass graves. I experienced conflict, the devastating effects of propaganda, peacekeeping and international aid relief efforts, and at the same time, I had little real understanding of what happened in the Balkans. In retrospect, I think that by choosing to study International Relations, I was searching for an explanation for why my beloved country exploded as well as trying to figure out what I could do to help the reconciliation process. I looked at all Master’s programs offered in New York City, and I felt that I belonged at The New School. SGPIA has offered me the right balance of academic engagement and activism. In a way, it felt that I had landed at home.

Can you discuss your experience in SGPIA?

Almost right from the start, I was smitten with the originality and the teaching styles of New School professors. I still remember [Professor] Natasha Gill‘s classes in conflict resolution, where we got to explore the [Rwandan] conflict between Hutus and Tutsis by role play. [Professor] Lily Ling‘s teaching helped me to grasp concepts that were, until that point, new to me, such as post-colonialism societies or the idea of “the other.” (Remember, I moved from a country that was under international sanctions. We couldn’t travel abroad or host international scholars. Also, my generation was busy figuring out how to survive, so there was very little time for developing abstract ideas!) I still follow [Professor] Nina Khrushcheva with deep admiration. With her sharp mind and particular sense of humor, she was not only my advisor, but my Eastern European “safety blanket.” We could also speak endlessly about media and propaganda.

While I was at The New School, I also took advantage of various non-curriculum classes. For instance, I took a class on assertive speaking. This was particularly helpful because in Serbo-Croatian we don’t have an exact word for assertiveness. We are either active or passive. Like other Eastern Europeans, we usually don’t have time nor inclination for small talk, and we are sometimes overly direct. So, while I was thinking that I am doing my best in the class discussions, I was probably perceived by my classmates as… abrasive. In a way, a big part of the immigrant experience is, if not unlearning previous cultural concepts, then smoothing its edges.

Did anything you did or learnt here help in shaping the trajectory of your life?

Yes! First of all, The New School is truly an international school, and it was a relief to find out that I was hardly the only person with an accent. Moving to the United States from Eastern Europe, where we are very conscious about not only the subject of the speech, but also the form – how we speak, I was encouraged to be who I am and to speak my mind freely. Also, in a way, the school helped me understand American culture, and it also shaped my sense of New York City. Coming from a Communist country, I was truly amazed by the freedom of speech in American media and in universities.

Post graduation, what did you do?

After graduation, I continued to pursue my two main interests, media and immigration. My graduate internship was with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), maybe a year after Mayor Bloomberg opened that office. I was working on the ethnic media directory, and on language access. That experience introduced me to a myriad of community-based organizations in the city, which led me to a job with the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC). In the last 15 years, the NYIC has been a driving force behind many progressive local laws and immigrant protections in the city and in the State. This is where I learned that in democratic societies advocacy and organizing do matter. A year ago I returned to MOIA as a consultant, leading a communication campaign for immigrants in the city. At the same time, I started my own consultancy firm “4 Better Media”.

What are you working on now?

I work with immigration groups on various initiatives and mostly as a public relations, media and diversity reporting expert. I have also become somewhat of a Balkanologist, specializing in politics and media issues relating to countries that made up the former Yugoslavia. Some of my recent research in relation to media and the Balkans was published by Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

At the same time, I am in contact with NGOs from back home. Just recently I worked with the Bosnian Association of Independent Journalists on developing a media manual that incorporates transitional justice and diversity reporting concepts that incorporates transitional justice and diversity reporting concepts. I am also working on a regional project that highlights issues such as accountability, international law and denazification, inspired by the documentary “Nuremberg: It’s Lessons for Today.” When I am overseas, I give presentations and lectures about media in the United States, and about freedom of information and expression. Finally, I still write a lot. For some time now I have worked as a foreign correspondent for “Novi magazine,” a Belgrade-based publication with the regional reach.

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Marija Šajkaš speaks on a panel discussing “Freedom of the Media in Western Balkans” at the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe conference, Vienna, February 2017

Have you been inspired in significant ways by your immigrant experience?

A couple of years ago, I wrote and published “Svastara Esther Jovanovic” or “Esther’s Jovanovic’s Scrapbook”, a novel, and that did pretty well back home in Serbia, and has now been translated into English. In the book, I tried to summarize my immigrant experience and to explore a love for my two cities, New York and Belgrade. I “transported” a fictional American woman in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and let her “learn” all cultural and linguistic differences and nuances between Old World Eastern Europeans and New World Americans. It was actually Esther, and not me who concluded that people in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia don’t have a word for assertiveness, despise small talk, and when they want to pay the highest compliment to a young female family member, they call her “son.” The book could also be read like a New York City travel journal right before the Second World War, told through letters, old photos, notes, parts of actual news articles, food recipes, shopping lists, restaurant menus and other artifacts that you can find in a scrapbook.

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“Svastara Esther Jovanovic” by Marija Šajkaš

What advice can you give to international students considering applying to SGPIA?

Let’s see…Well, my dear expatriate students in the city, if ayou are interested in International Affairs because you are only considering a high-polished career in, let’s say, high-end diplomacy, you should apply for the programs in one of the uptown schools. But, if you are curious about other places and cultures, if you believe that we are all one, if you are an activists at heart, and you are not afraid to change the world… SGPIA is a place for you.

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