Danijela Stajic is a graduate student at the Munk School’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies who works on issues related to minorities, migrants and ethnicity. She shares with us her thoughts on the importance of history and culture in shaping our own identity, and why remembering the past matters.

What are your research interests?

My undergraduate studies had a broad interdisciplinary focus, ranging from literature and the arts to history and politics. I studied subjects such as multiculturalism, immigrant integration and identity formation. Going into my master’s degree at the Munk School’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES), I chose to explore Jewish memory and identity, and more specifically, the experience of Eastern European Jews who settled in Berlin’s Scheunenviertel in the 1920s. The emphasis on Holocaust education has come to dominate the field of European-Jewish history and scholars mostly focus on the destruction of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. My work seeks to draw attention away from images of death and leans towards life – I wish to paint a picture of the world that existed prior to the Holocaust, which was almost totally eradicated.

What’s a global issue that you’re passionate about and why?

I’m very much interested in issues related to minorities, migrants and ethnicity. My experience as an immigrant has shaped my understanding of the differences and similarities that connect a multiplicity of cultures and made me conscious of the difficulties immigrants face as they try to integrate. Over the years, I’ve noticed how different cultures can influence a person and I’m fascinated by how immigrants participate in constructing their identity. It seems particularly important to discuss these influences that shape who we are in order to correct false stereotypes.

Describe your big “a-ha” moment.

When I applied to grad school, I had many different interests and it was quite challenging to bring them together and come up with a single topic that I wanted to focus on. Having grown up in Serbia, I was raised with the idea that the past is never dead. The past is very much alive and plays a crucial part in people’s understanding of the world. Given what’s happening in the world today, I believe it is vital to appreciate the importance of history. Yet even when trying to encourage others to use lessons from the past in order to deal with current issues, we shouldn’t take it for granted that we will learn from our mistakes. We often remain blissfully ignorant or resentful when it comes to remembering the past and commemorating key historical events. Educating people about history is what makes the past relevant.

Who has influenced you most in life and why?

My family’s influence is undeniable – they’re very supportive and always encourage me to be the best I can. I also owe much to the people at CERES. The program is absolutely amazing and has provided me with a solid foundation in researching the dynamics of ethnicity and migration. It’s been an intellectual and professional springboard for me.

What impact do you want to make on the world or your local community?

Researching at the University of Toronto fuelled my interest in learning more about Europe. Between my research and hands-on engagement in the field, I hope I have acquired the necessary skills to contribute to a better understanding of the broader issues facing the continent, from a political, cultural, and social perspective. That’s what motivated me to do in-depth research on how ethnicity and migration are dealt with within a multinational European context, and look at possible strategies to implement policies to address these problems. I’m most interested in discrimination against Roma minorities. I did an internship at the European Roma Information Office in Brussels, working towards recognizing the many challenges these populations suffer across Europe. I hope I can continue to work in the human rights field with national and global actors, but also with civil society, as part of an international organization.

What is your personal philosophy?

Life doesn’t hand us things on a silver plate. It’s the things that we have to struggle with that are the most significant in shaping who we are. Every challenge and obstacle we must confront makes us stronger and more confident for what comes next. Life is defined by setbacks and success is determined by one’s ability to overcome them.

February 21, 2017