Graduating To America

For Ivan Skopovi, completing his studies at UMBC for today's graduation was a battle. But it was nothing like those he left behind in Bosnia

Class of 2000

Portraits Of Inspiration

May 25, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

When he starts graduate school next fall, Ivan Skopovi will study how fluids react under extreme physical conditions. Engineers call that the problem of "instability in turbulent flow." The subject should come as no problem to Skopovi, a 24-year-old native Croat who graduates today from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The future engineer, a newly minted U.S. citizen, has spent the last eight years forging remarkable order out of chaos.

At first things didn't seem that difficult. Ivan, a bright student and cheerful boy, grew up in the suburbs of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the former Yugoslavia. His father, a Volkswagen engineer, and his mother, a bank officer, provided Ivan and his brother, Boris, with a comfortable life. "It was [a] communist country," says Ivan, "so nobody was really rich. But we did very, very well by those standards."

Ivan's grandfather, an inventor, mesmerized the boy with such colorful tales of spaceships, airplanes and machines that at 15, when it was time to choose a vocational school, Ivan opted for one of Sarajevo's mechanical-tech institutions. "I didn't even know at first what mechanical engineers do," he says, "but I was always fascinated by the word `machine.' I knew it meant something respectable, vigorous and powerful."

He tackled such classes as kinematics and technical drawing and trained as a lathe operator.

It all changed in 1992. Serbia, the most militarily powerful of the six republics in the former Yugoslavia, invaded Bosnia in an effort to establish a wider Serbian nation. Shortly after Ivan turned 16, his hometown fell under siege.

For four months the Skopovis -- Croatians living in a Serb-occupied part of the city -- lived in danger and deprivation. Mrs. Skopovi couldn't get to her job downtown for all the shelling. The family had no clean water, electricity or even income, surviving on a single can of food per day. War, says Ivan, had driven the family "from the middle of society straight to the bottom." As he tried to sleep on some quiet nights, he could hear the screams of torture victims in a nearby concentration camp. "It was terrible," says Ivan grimly. "If you were Croatian, you thought they were coming to take you next."

That August, rather than face the prospect of a bleak winter, the family became refugees. They moved to Biograd, Croatia, a town 150 miles to the west on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. But they couldn't escape a widening war. Within six months, the Serb army had closed in there, too, and commenced shelling the town. Bombardment was almost constant, forcing terrified citizens to crowd for hours in safe houses and cramped, underground bunkers. Ivan remembers seeing family friends who had lost hands, legs or feet.

Even as the family was forced to move twice more -- first to the town of Zadar, then to the island of Pag in the Adriatic -- Skopovi finished the 11th grade and most of the 12th, still pursuing what he calls "my fragmented educational odyssey." A sort of bleak optimism kept him going. "The fact that there's a war on," he says, "doesn't mean you stop living. You think, `If I die, I die.' You go about your business as much as possible."

The Skopovis had long since applied for refugee status so they could come to the United States. When their papers came through in 1994, they moved to Adelphi, to live with an uncle of Ivan's. There, at High Point High School, he faced a new hurdle: He spoke only Croatian and a little German.

"I'd come home at night from classes and my head would hurt from so much new information," he says.

But the tolerant ways of his new country made things easier. "After all we had been through, I never saw language as a big obstacle. I had never really enjoyed the socialist system anyway. The culture here is so open, so accepting of different mentalities" that even as he strove to learn the native tongue, he felt at home.

Skopovi has never forgotten that in this land of opportunity "the potential for fulfillment is contained in the word `education.' " After yet another family move, he graduated from Annapolis High School in 1995, gained admission to UMBC and, drawing on his vocational-school background, chose to major in mechanical engineering. Professors say that even as he was immersed in intensive classes of English as Second Language, Skopovi established himself as a superlative scholar. Says professor Charles Eggleton, who has taught the former refugee twice: "I didn't even realize what his background was. Right away, he was one of the top students in his class."

Superior motivation, a near-perfect grade-point average and a capacity to translate life experiences into personal goals helped Skopovi land the most coveted award in his department, the Danaher Scholarship, in 1997.

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