Where are they now? RGPP alumnae Jelena Jovanovic and Yanina Fyudr

December 23, 2020

Pride, Confidence, Community, and Opportunities

Jelena Jovanovic  from Serbia, lives in Belgium, finished RAP/RGPP  in 2010/11, Gender Studies tutorial; finished Gender Studies MA  at CEU

Yanina Fyudr   from Ukraine  started RELP in  2012/13, finished RGPP in 2013/14,  Human Rights tutorial; studied MA in Law

Today we introduce two excellent RGPP alumnae, Jelena Jovanovic from Serbia and Yanina Fyudr from Ukraine.

Although they both graduated from RGPP more than five years ago, the enthusiasm with which they talk about the program and their student experiences could not be stronger. They emphasized how the program increased their confidence, how the skills they gained gave them access to a different life, and the incredibly rich and supportive social life they experienced during the program. Having alumni who support other Roma, live fulfilling lives, and influence decision making on all levels is a great sense of accomplishment for us. RGPP is incredibly thankful for their trust, deep personal insights, and positive thoughts.

Please introduce yourselves in a few words to our current and future RGPP students.

Jelena J.: I am a Roma from Serbia and an RGPP alumna. I started RGPP in 2011. I enrolled into Gender Studies, as an Erasmus Mundus student, and I spent one semester in the UK. Now I live in Belgium, I work in the European Parliament as the Coordinator of the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup. I support a group of politicians from different political parties coming together to fight racism.

Yanina F.: I am a Roma from Ukraine, I finished RGPP in 2014. For a long time, I have been involved in our local Roma community as an activist. Currently I work at the Welfare of Zolotonosha Region, a local nonprofit, in a project that promotes Roma entrepreneurship in agriculture. RGPP was a very important time in my life and I grew a lot there.

What is the first word/feeling that comes to you when you hear: "CEU Roma Program/RGPP" ?

Jelena J.: The first word that comes to me is identity. When I talk about the program, I am very cheesy ☺. I really feel that RGPP is the most important thing that has happened in my life. In a way, RGPP set me free. While I lived in Serbia, I had lots of anxieties about my Roma identity. My father experienced so much pain and racism because of his Roma origins that it left a deep negative mark on his self-esteem. He felt like if he didn’t talk about our Roma heritage, he could protect us from all of those negative experiences. Of course, he was not successful. Everyone knew that we were Roma – he was a musician, he had strong ethnic features, and our family name is also very common among Roma. We couldn’t really discuss our Roma roots openly and this created a lot of shame. However, when I came to the Roma Program, I suddenly was able to explore my Roma heritage and talk about it openly. Of course, not all of us had the same experiences, but for the first time I could relate to others and we could understand each other. In Serbia I felt that nobody could have understood this complex issue – even if I tried to explain how I felt. That is why I say the program set me free. Because during my time in RGPP, I turned this feeling of shame into pride.

Yanina F.: Very smiley and very happy people. After arriving at the train station in Budapest, I remember that there was another CEU student who helped me get to the dormitory. When I entered the dorm, and met some of the people I knew, I felt like I arrived home and I was in a kind of family. I remember the support that I received from the program’s leadership, the support of Gina and Tatjana –who were our coordinators. I remember love, and very nice and cool people with whom I spent these years. I have never experienced anything like this, not before, and not after. My kids are the ones who give me the same joy and happiness.

Jelena J.: I think the friendship and the community you are building in RGPP is something really special. It is a very specific space where we all share the same experience and this binds us together.

What is your most remarkable/ favorite memory from your time in RGPP?

Yanina F.: My most vivid memories are the time I spent with friends, the movie screenings that Simona and other students organized at the dormitory, the very interesting seminars with guest lectures, and the conversations I was involved in. I really enjoyed being able to exchange ideas and express my points of view. To me, as a student who didn’t know English at all, being able to learn English with others was a very special experience. I improved a lot.

Jelena J.: I have a lot of favorite memories, a lot! I really valued the social aspect of the program. One of the coolest things for me was the way we celebrated birthdays in the dormitory. The way we arranged secret surprise celebrations with cake, songs and at midnight we appeared in front of the person’s room. That was amazing. We spent most of our free time together, we had so nice conversations.

Can you recall why you applied to the Roma Program?

Jelena J.: I wanted to leave the job I had at that time. One of my university professors told me about the program. At that time, I thought, if I got accepted and graduate from RGPP, I would return to Serbia and find a better job with my newly acquired skills. Soon after, however, I realized that this program was something very different than what I had expected. I am so lucky that I was accepted and continued my studies. I had not expected though that I would be accepted to RGPP. I was also scared because my English was not good at that time. But then I said, OK, I am going to do this!

Yanina F.: I remember that the organization I worked for in 2012 wanted to apply for a grant. Unfortunately, it turned out that the grant application was supposed to be written in English. This made us very sad because we couldn’t do that. Around the same time my sister, who also worked there, attended a workshop in Budapest where she met an RGPP alumni and learnt about the program. I felt that I should really try to apply to RGPP, but I never expected that I would be accepted. A few weeks later I received an invitation for an interview. Weeks later, I was at work when I received an email that my application was successful, oh my God, I was so happy! At the same time, I was so scared because I did not know what to do or how to tell the news to my parents. My sister though was so enthusiastic and always supported me. So, I just went with it.

Jelena J.: At the beginning it was rather difficult. But I felt lucky because Miranda and some others were there for me. Their English was a little bit better, and their native language was Macedonian, which is similar to Serbian. I was relying a little bit on others at the beginning, but it changed over time.

Did the program deliver on your expectations?

 Jelena J.: The program gave me much more than what I had hoped for.

Yanina F.: I didn’t expect that the program would totally change my life. But it did. My views, my understanding of life, and the way I relate to others were totally changed. For example, during RGPP I understood that some of the things I had experienced in my life and tried to tell myself were OK and normal, were not. In fact, they were various forms of discrimination. I just didn’t think about those moments that way. But through the program I learnt more about the various ways Roma people and others experience discrimination. Now I clearly understand how discrimination works. These new pieces of knowledge changed me.

Jelena J.: I didn’t expect many things. For example, I didn’t expect that my English would improve so fast, that I would learn so much, and I would make friends for life. You don’t expect these. It was also very important to me to learn how others respond to, and fight against, discrimination both personally and professionally. The program and this experience gave me more strength.

Yanina F.: The program gave us confidence.

What kinds of challenges did you face during RGPP?

Yanina F.: I was stressed about my English at first because I barely understood English. I was also the only one from Ukraine, so I didn’t have anyone who spoke the same language and to rely on a bit more. But I worked harder and with every day I felt that my English was improving. The improvement I saw in myself also encouraged me to challenge myself further. Applying for a master’s program was also a challenging time, so I also had to learn how to take better care of my mental health. I also had a lot of support, so it got much easier.

Jelena J.: The auditing courses were a bit challenging. I felt a bit anxious when I was first surrounded by master’s students in the audit classes because they had perfect English - which is understandable because some of them came from more privileged backgrounds than us. RGPP is very intense, you grow in so many ways, and you don’t have much time to decide about your next steps. It is sometimes confusing to figure out what you want, how much you can challenge yourself, whether you should take courses on topics that you are not familiar with, or you should rather pick “safer” courses. I remember there were courses that would have given me very useful skills in quantitative methods and doing research, but I was afraid of taking them. I think I should have tried. During the program you can encounter so many things and your growth often depends on your choices. But since the program is a safe place where you talk to your peers and teachers, you learn the expectations fast. In this way you are protected from making big mistakes. I think having committed coordinators like Gina was very important. They get half of the job done.

In your view, who should apply and be in this program?

Yanina F.: In the past I helped some applicants with their applications, and I am so happy that they got in because they were so motivated and wanted to learn so much. Applicants who are  able to show that they want to learn, and that they are ready to push themselves, should absolutely apply.

Jelena J: It is difficult to say because people apply for so many different reasons. I know that from time to time the program also goes through changes. I would highly recommend the program for those who want to pursue a master’s degree in English. If you need help to improve your English, if you need some tutoring, if you need this kind of push in order to be more competitive for a master’s program in an international environment, then RGPP is the program where you should be. Regarding your future goals, it really depends on what you want. You might want to return to the same type of work environment with additional skills, or you might want to do other things. The motivation to study is essential if you are interested in applying.

Is there anything you are really proud of – and you think started with RGPP?

Jelena J.: RGPP helped me with my confidence, and it helped my life on so many different levels. I had difficulties in forming relationship with people, because as I said, I felt not many people understood me. Since the program, I cope better and I am more confident. Also, my entire professional life started with RGPP. After graduating from Gender Studies, I worked within the CEU’s Center for Policy Studies. Without learning English, I would not have been able to work in such an environment; and I wouldn’t have been informed about possibilities I was because by that time people had heard about my qualities and work ethic. Now I am working in the EU Parliament in a position where previously I could not have pictured myself. Last, the program also gave me a very complex social and professional network.

Yanina F.: My life turned to a very different direction after the program. When I returned to Ukraine, I got a very good job. As my financial situation improved, I felt much safer to start my own family. Now I have been teaching English to my kids since they were born. My older son speaks some English. I am really happy that I studied in the RGPP program. I still hope that one day when my kids are older, I will apply to a master’s program. I used to think that I wanted to study human rights in general, but now I have narrowed my interests even further. I am very invested in women’s rights. Roma women in leadership positions and organizations that work specifically on advancing the rights of Roma women are rare in Ukraine. I want to tell people to please apply to the program. It will flip your life upside-down in the most positive sense. You will never feel sorry that you spent your time there. It is totally the opposite. Whenever I think back to my time with the program, I smile. I smile because I was so happy at that time.

-------- And where are YOU now? If you would like to share your story with us, please write us: rgpp@ceu.edu