2012-09-07 / Community

Neighbors

Student has passion to change the world
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Mileva Vignjevic Mileva Vignjevic “I feel like this whole summer has been so crazy,” said Mileva Vignjevic as she boarded a bus from her hotel to the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.

Vignjevic, of South Portland, could be forgiven for some jet lag or road weariness. Since the beginning of summer, she had traveled around Europe from Switzerland to Italy to Croatia to Serbia and since returning she has spent time in New York looking for an internship before her trip to Charlotte.

But if she is tired, Vignjevic doesn’t show it. She plans to volunteer with “Rock the Vote,” an organization that works to involve young people politically. Since she was confirmed the night before the convention as a volunteer, Vignjevic is not exactly sure what her duties will be, but she said she’s excited just to experience her first political convention.

It will be another new experience among many this summer for Vignjevic, who moved with her family from Croatia to the U.S. in 1999 at the age of 12. She spent the early months of the summer in Geneva attending conferences at the United Nations, where she witnessed the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review session.

The Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process occurs every four years, when the U.N. reviews the human rights records of all 192 of its member states. This year’s session was held from May 21 to June 4.

Between the sessions, the Human Rights Council’s main session (held in late June and early July), and side events on more focused topics held throughout summer, Vignjevic said she was in sessions “basically 10 to 6 every single day.”

“After a few weeks you really are tired, but it was so interesting at the same time, so amazing to be there and attend,” Vignjevic said.

Despite the exhausting conference schedule, Vignjevic was able to travel in Europe as well. She and her sister, Bogdana, visited Milan and Rome, Serbia, the coastal town of Dubrovnik in Croatia, and the town they were born in, Topusko, Croatia, which Mileva and Bogdana both visited for the first time since the family moved to the U.S.

“I don’t know how to explain it, it was a surreal experience,” Vignjevic said of returning to Croatia after 13 years. “To see how much has changed and how the people have changed; it’s always going to be home for me.”

Vignjevic said she remembers growing up in Croatia fondly, although everyone in her country was aware of the violence and war around them. Croatia earned its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992, but brutal wars and human rights violations continued throughout the 1990s in many states of the former Yugoslavia, including, Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

When Vignjevic returned, she was happy to see familiar places that had changed since she left, but she saw signs of the tough times her home country is going through now, as the effects of the European debt crisis have spread to her country.

“The economy is not doing well. The youth is definitely having a hard time. They’ve all finished school but no one can find a job,” Vignjevic said. “I’m very grateful and very lucky to do what I’m doing, but I’m sad to know that so many other, youth and young adults don’t have that opportunity.”

Because of her upbringing, Vignjevic said she has always had an interest in international policy and human rights. But her academic experience at the University of South- ern Maine honed that general interest into a path for her to follow in her career.

Vignjevic was able to travel to Geneva through the help of USM professor Julie Edwards and University of Hawaii professor and human rights activist Joshua Cooper.

Vignjevic was a student in Edwards’ human rights and international law class last spring when Cooper came for a guest lecture. Cooper offered to host two USM students at U.N. headquarters in New York City, and Vignjevic was chosen as one.

After returning to Maine for a semester, she left for Geneva. She received credit for attending the conferences as an independent study project for Edwards.

When Vignjevic returns to New York City from Charlotte after the convention, she will begin another new experience when she starts as an intern for the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, which ensures that individual countries are responsible for protecting citizens against crimes against humanity. The credit Vignjevic will receive will complete her second bachelor’s degree from USM. She already has a degree in international business and will receive an additional Bachelor of Science in International Studies.

After that, Vignjevic hopes it’s off to law school and a career in human rights.

“I think when you know exactly what you want to do, and you’re passionate about something, it makes it easier.”

After a whirlwind summer of long plane rides, bus trips, conventions, meetings and conferences, no one can doubt her passion.

About Neighbors

Neighbors is a weekly profile that features a community member from South Portland or Cape Elizabeth. Know someone you would like to see featured in the Sentry? Contact Jack Flagler at news@inthesentry.com.

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