Local students visit new nation in ancient place

For many students, their first chance to study abroad might be in college, if they ever get that chance at all. Jillian Harkness of Dagsboro got her chance this year as an 11th-grader and a member of 4-H.

Harkness was the only student from Sussex County to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this month through 4-H, a youth organization administered by both the Cooperative Extension System and the United States Department of Agriculture. Joining her were three students from New Castle County and one from Kent County, as well as students from the University of Delaware.

The U.S. State Department initiated the Bosnia Youth Leadership Program in 1999 to train the future leaders of Bosnia as it continues to recover from the war that ravaged the area in the 1990s.

According to the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, the purpose of this program is to help participants understand the concepts of civic participation, what citizenship in a democracy means, develop leadership skills among secondary-school students in Bosnia and build personal relationships between Bosnian and Delaware teens.

Each year since, selected Bosnian teens have traveled to the U.S. for a month-long stay.

After receiving a three-year grant, Delaware 4-H became responsible for organizing and executing the program in 2006. Delaware 4-H families started hosting Bosnian teens and chaperones while they were in the U.S. that spring.

In 2007, Delaware got to send representatives to Bosnia. That trip marked the first time that the State Department has permitted U.S. teens younger than 18 to travel to Bosnia. Fellow Sussex Countian and local teacher Kathy DiSabatino, made the trip last year, after hosting teachers from Bosnia and Herzegovinia.

Harkness and her family hosted a student from Bosnia this May, and she decided in early June she wanted to make the trip over there. She applied and, after taking pre-departure classes, learned she would be able to go. She and the other student ambassadors were selected to go based on an application, essay, interview, recommendation and their academic standing.

The group started their trip in the city of Zagreb and also visited Livno, Tomislivigrad, the city of Mostar and the capital, Sarajevo. All in all, they visited 10 cities in three countries, including nearby Croatia. They stayed with three different families during their 14-day stay.

Harkness, a native of Delaware, said one of the most amazing sights of her trip was the mountains, plus the dichotomy of an ancient place with newfound freedoms.

“The landscape was amazing,” she said. “But even though their war ended in 1995, you would be walking and seeing beautiful buildings and then you’d see one with bullet hole or evidence of bombings,” she said.

The students went to school each day and also gained an education outside the classroom. They packed their days visiting Catholic churches, Orthodox churches and Muslim mosques; they visited opera houses and museums, and saw castles and memorials. In Croatia, they visited Diocletian’s Palace, which was built for a retired Roman soldier in the second to third century. They also met and spoke with representatives from the U.S. Embassy.

One of the main differences Harkness noticed between U.S. students and the Bosnian students was the fact that all spoke at least English and that many spoke several languages – even though their resources are scarce.

Overall, Harkness said, she was glad that she went and grateful for the opportunity to learn more about a “new” country rich with ancient history.

“It really taught me a lot about what we have. It was the chance of a lifetime, and it helped me to appreciate all that we have here.”

Bosnia is one part of the former Yugoslavia, located in Eastern Europe. Bosnia and Herzegovina, as defined after the war that ended in 1995, have three main ethnic groups, referred to as Bosnians; Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. The largest city and capital is Sarajevo.

The 4-H (Head, Heart, Hands and Health) Club is for girls and boys 5 to 19. In Delaware, it is sponsored by the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Delaware and Delaware State University. Nationally, it is part of the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As part of the club, 4-H members pledge “My head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, my health to better living.”

For more information about the program, visit http://ag.udel.edu/extension/4h/about/join4H.htm online or call (302) 856-7303.