Professor Sanja Bahun, Dean of Postgraduate Research and Education, describes her experience of being a student in war-torn former Yugoslavia, being awarded a scholarship to continue her studies in the USA, and how this has shaped her commitment to giving others similar educational opportunities.
"I knew that whatever was in front of me would be better that what was behind."
Sanja grew up in the former Yugoslavia, now Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia. She enrolled at Belgrade University in 1991 with great enthusiasm and commitment to study for a BA in World Literature, but it took her seven years to complete her undergraduate studies because of the practicalities of studying in a country that was at war from 1991 to 1999.
Sanja said: “Half of my family was living in what is now Zagreb, Croatia, and the other half was in Belgrade, the two sides at war. I count myself very lucky that none of my family was killed or injured during the war, but I did experience walking across minefields, and I witnessed bombings, and lived through everyday experiences of an economic crash like having to run to the market to get food.” Sanja completed her studies in Belgrade against many odds, not least of which was the fact that her university department was closed down by Slobodan Milosevic, the President who was later tried as a war criminal, because some opposition leaders taught as academics within the department.
In 1998 a chance reading of a leaflet about postgraduate education opportunities in the USA, prompted Sanja to think about pursuing her studies overseas. She said: “I can’t explain how out of reach postgraduate study seemed to me at first; to even think about having such an opportunity, let alone put it into practice.” However, following the requirements of several entry exams, Sanja was accepted into Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, USA with a scholarship to study for her MA and PhD in Comparative Literature. She said: “The head of department wrote to me personally, saying that they wanted me to study there, and I was incredibly touched. I left with $100 in my pocket, of loaned money! But I felt optimistic because I really genuinely believe in education. I knew that whatever was in front of me would be better than what was behind me.”
Sanja took her MA and stayed at Rutgers to take her PhD in Comparative Literature from 2000 to 2006. She said: “I was greeted by warm and wonderful people. I stood in awe in front of the library. And I came to realise how many people and effort sits behind such an offer of a scholarship within universities – from my supervisor to the lady who cleaned my room. I am still so grateful to all the people who supported me there. It changed my life prospects, completely.”
Following a role at the University of Sheffield, Sanja joined Essex as Lecturer in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies in 2007. She became a leading international voice in her field of expertise and was appointed Professor in 2014. Sanja became Dean of Postgraduate Research and Education in 2018. About her role, she said: “I want symbolically to ‘give back’. It is vital for universities to invest in scholarship opportunities and continually try to find ways to support students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to pursue education due to limited prospects or finances.
“The University of Essex has a long tradition of both improving access to education and welcoming scholars from around the world - and especially those in need of a sanctuary. It’s important for us as an institution to reach out and extend these opportunities as widely as we can, such as with our two Sanctuary Scholarships that are now supporting two students to study for their Masters with us during 2020-21.
“We hope to build our capacity around these, support everyone to achieve their potential, and serve as an example what an investment in the future really means.”
Professor Sanja Bahun is chair of the MA panel for the University of Essex’s University of Sanctuary scholarship activity, in her role as Dean of Postgraduate Research and Education. She was appointed as a Professor in 2014, within the Department of Literature Film and Theatre Studies. Her research covers comparative literature, psychoanalysis, women’s’ and gender studies, the arts and transitional justice, and modernism and home. She has published 11 books and numerous academic journal articles and essays.