From Belgrade to Pullman—Living the American dream
by Scott Holter | © Washington State University
There are times when Radmila Sarac would give anything for a bite of a burek or the chance to watch Nenad Lecic perform again. Nearly six years after coming to Washington from her Republic of Serbia homeland, the 24-year-old Washington State University grad admits she has even had dreams of the flaky Yugoslavian pastry, and she often bends an ear to the subtle sounds of the classical pianist from Belgrade, where she grew up.
"Of course I miss the food and many things from back home," Radmila says. "But if I went home, then I'd miss the things here."
Here is the Seattle suburb of Redmond, where Radmila ('00 Computer Science) lives and works as a software test engineer for Microsoft. Here is also America, where she chose to move for the betterment of her future after graduating from high school in 1996.
She grew up in a residential neighborhood 10 miles from downtown Belgrade, her backyard an orchard of cherries, grapes, and apples. To the Saracs, America was movies, where Radmila culled much of her early comprehension of the English language, and pop music: her parents' collection of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Elvis Presley, whom she calls "my first and only true love."
Radmila and friends avoided much of the popular pop sounds of Eastern Europe for classical music, often gathering to listen to Lecic and to cook their favorite traditional Serbian dishes, such as stuffed peppers and sarma-cabbage leaves filled with rice, beef, and bacon chunks.
"We ate meat, potatoes, and bread-and always dessert-so I don't know how I stayed relatively skinny," says Radmila, whose arrow-straight five-foot, nine-inch frame might help. "On our lunch breaks in high school we would always go to bakeries for pastries."
High school provided Radmila's awakening in terms of what she wanted to do with her future-and where she wanted to do it.
"In one programming class, we would get 90 minutes to do three technical problems," she says, "and the time went by so fast I would get an adrenaline rush. It was almost like a game where I could use my brain. I decided I wanted to work with technology.
"But at the time, Belgrade was down socially, economically, and politically, and everything suffered. I knew the education system would not give me what I wanted and needed in technology, so I guess I followed the American dream."
The dream began in Pullman, where Radmila arrived in the fall of 1996. She began tentatively, living her first year with a family friend in Moscow, Idaho, and ended in a flurry-garnering a 1999 Microsoft Hopper[s]? Scholarship in her junior year. Named for the late computer science pioneer Grace Hopper, the award honors women pursuing a career in technology.
That same year, in April, NATO aircraft attacked a government-run media center in Belgrade, part of an air campaign to force Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo. The bombings were just 11 miles from her childhood home where Radmila's parents still lived, and she made her first visit home in nearly three years.
Radmila has not been back since, but communicates regularly with her parents and brother by e-mail. Her older sister, Marija, attends college in Portland, Oregon, and several of her old high school running mates are scattered throughout the country: New York, Connecticut, and San Francisco.
"At some point I would like to go back to Belgrade every year, and of course I think my parents would like to have me back for good," Radmila admits. "I have strong bonds with my country, but I love this country, too. It's where I grew from teenager to adult. "
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