My brief story is that I was born in in the United States in New Jersey where my family lived across the river from Manhattan, New York City. I remember seeing the Empire State Building from my window and thinking I’d like to live in New York City one day. Not necessarily in the Empire State Building, but in the middle of all the excitement there. While living some other places in between, I did my Ph.D. studies at Columbia University in New York City and now am happy to be back here teaching and doing research at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
I grew up speaking English, and, from a very young age I was interested in learning foreign languages. When I was 8 years old, I was fortunate to be in an experimental class where they taught us Spanish. That began my ongoing interest in learning languages and seeing other parts of the world. Some highlights of these travels have been spending a year studying in Italy and, most recently, going to Croatia three different times. I also recently spent time in Colombia South American, where I was teaching and doing reserach for a while. Along the way, I’ve learned to speak French as well as Italian and Spanish and now am trying to learn Croatian, which is more difficult than the others. It’s even more difficult than Chinese, which I started to study about 10 years ago.
I enjoy spending time with my family. My favorites are my mother and father who are 83 and 84 and my son who is 21. It’s fun to live and work in New York City where friends, students, and colleagues come from all over the world. In addition to spending time with them, I take different kinds of dance classes (ballet and Latin dancing) and go to cultural events like poetry readings and different ethnic festivals. When Maja Turniski was here last time, we went to see a band called the , which was great and really fun to see with her. Last week I went to a Ukranian festival, where a friend of mine showed his film about the Orange Revolution, and tonight there’s a at the university. It may sound strange to have a book party but it’s one thing that scholars in New York City do for fun to share their work, to socialize, maybe even have a beer.
In my work at the Graduate Center, I teach psychology to Ph.D. students who also want to become college professors and researchers. I feel fortunate to have this job, and my mission is to create a kind of psychology that is rooted in social activities that help children and youth grow up in positive ways. My research projects and the books and articles I write are also devoted to that larger goal.
You wrote several books and numerous articles. What is the main object of your research?
The main goal of my research is to increase understanding about how we grow into the people we do. In particular, I’m interested in how a person’s individual history in a family, neighborhood, and group of friends interacts with the history of his or her society. Most previous research on human development has focused either on individual history or societal history, but I am interested in how these two work together. Since I began my research program in the 1980′s, I have found that we can learn a lot about human development in the context of meaningful social activities, like working with friends to solve a problem. It is in these situations that we are motivated both personally and socially, so we bring our individual resources to connect with others who can help us achieve goals.
Several of my previous research studies revealed some interesting insights about human development. In one study with children from different ethnic backgrounds in city schools in the U.S., I found that while children were exposed to new subject matter and rules from their teachers, they learned these facts and rules better after they applied them to solving problems with their friends. When African American, Latino, and European American children worked together to write news reports about the countries they were studying, for example, they learned more about history of those countries and their writing skills improved much more after they had co-authored reports with peers than after they had coauthored reports with the teacher. The significance of this study was that the adult teacher could share the facts and the rules of writing a good news story, but working with children their age was valuable because, in that context, they could more easily express their own understandings, questions, and concerns. In addition, when children worked with peers from a different background, they gained even greater understanding, perhaps because they had to explain themselves in more detail for the other to understand.
How come that a Harvard and a CUNY Graduate Center professor came to Gvozd?
Certainly, Maja is my first and main connection to Gvozd. I met Maja at the Graduate Center, and she always told me and my colleagues about Croatia, Gvozd, and the kind people here. I must admit to being attracted by the beautiful scenery in the pictures Maja sent me and by the importance of the work you are all doing with young people in the community. And, since this all connects with my research over the years, I decided in 2004 to see if we could do something together. We designed a story-writing activity as part of Maja’s first internet club for girls, and that was so successful that I began writing some grant proposals so we could extend the reserach I had been doing in New York City to Croatia.
As I hoped to explain with a previous example, my work as a developmental psychologist has focused on the interaction between the individual and society. This means trying to understand how our social lives in nations, institutions (like schools, community centers, soccer clubs, etc.), families and friend groups influence our knowledge and identity, while at the same time the personal history of our character and motivations (goals) are also important. During years of research in U.S. cities, I have studied how national policies are expressed in educational curricula and, in turn, how different cultural and linguistic traditions play a role in young people’s individual interests and skills, especially as they face challenges in the activities of daily life. Because my research on child and youth development focuses on the role of the social context, societies like Croatia and others in the region are important places right now where the society is transforming along with its youth. It is important to learn about how young people view the future within a society that has changed its political system and is finding new ways to live after a very difficult war. This is much more difficult to do in the U. S. right now because the society – the government and other public institutions – a much more stuck than they have been in many years. For this reason, my current project in the U.S. is with people who have recently come from other places and thus bringing a more dynamic (and challenging) vision to the American scene.
Although I continued to learn from my research, I thought it would also be interesting to explore these ideas of individual and social development in a place where the society and the individual young people were expecting to develop and change. Certainly after the break up of the Soviet Union in 1989, many people were interested in how countries in the region would change. Similarly, after the countries of Yugoslavia became independent, the nation is in an active and deliberate period of growth, and young people will interact with the changes in their own ways. I had always been interested in Yugoslavia and then as I learned more about it from Maja’s important dissertation research, I thought it was a dynamic place to be. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, it also helped that she sent me photographs of the beautiful countryside and information about the amazing work at Suncokret and the wonderful people who participate in the center and the town.
You are the leader of the project. Is this project going to be helpful in any way regarding the attempts to understand young peoples’ views about the future of the countries they live in?
I have worked for almost two years now to design the project, to get funding for it, and to involve participants in different places, so I have high hopes for the project. With the great start we had in Gvozd in April, we are already seeing that young people have goals and questions about the future and ideas about what they think is important and how they want to participate. By focusing on young people’s stories and questions about other people’s stories, we hope to create a context for their thinking and action about the future. This project fits within the ideas I mentioned earlier.
Are you satisfied with the group that has participated in the workshops in Gvozd?
Both last summer and this spring, I have been impressed with the intelligence and commitment of the young people who participated in the dynamic story-telling workshops. There are many possibilities for young people in a nation like Croatia that’s creating some new ways of living, but there are also challenges, especially for the youth in small villages like Gvozd. One of our goals is to provide activities where they can develop these ideas through communication with youth in other areas also undergoing change but from different points of view. In some ways, the international network is also young people’s community. While it’s possible to chat with youth from Zagreb, New York City, Belgrade, and other places via many internet channels, being able to do so in a more focused activity like story-telling and youth research will help them better use inter-cultural communiation to promote development.
How well do you know the work and activities of American NGOs in small places such as Gvozd? What are the differences and what are the similarities between our NGOs and American ones?
Non-governmental organizations are not a major part of civic life in the United States, as they are in the rest of the world. I am working with an NGO in New York City as part of the Dynamic Story-telling by Youth project. That organization was helpful to adults who came from the former Yugoslavia and we are trying to find motivating activities for their children, who have become American but still want connections to their ancestral areas. The young people here will, by the way, be interacting with the youth in Gvozd. Unfortunately, however, community centers are not such a major part of the life for young people in the U.S. Most of the youth activity here occurs through school, sports organizations, cultural clubs, and religious activities. One problem is that adults in the U.S. have organized the youth world more for individual self development than for participation in societal development. I think we have a lot to learn from Suncokret, CCD!
Last year you participated in the International Volunteers Camp in Gvozd. How do you feel about Gvozd today? Is anything different? What do you like or don’t like about it and is there anything you would like to change?
The International Volunteer Camp in Gvozd was an inspiring experience for me. I had been to Gvozd before and we had done the democracy workshop a week before the 2006 Volunteer Camp, so I had already started making new friends in Gvozd and feeling part of life there. Participating with the Gvozd children of all ages to paint the railing at Suncokret, to clear brush at the small lake, and to make many many sandwiches for the volunteers was a great way to feel part of the community. To see such immediate results was also thrilling. The progress in my teaching and research is slow, so these quick results in a social context was unusual and enjoyable.
At the end, do you have any piece of advice you would like to share with our ?
My only advice to Suncokret is to keep doing what you are doing! I think you have created a community center where people respect one another, work hard together, grow individually, contribute to the development of others, and enjoy life You also welcome people from all over the world to participate and to make some very special new friends. Hvala ljepo from this friend, Colette