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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

COE Grads 2019: Home at Last

Class of 2019 grad Selena Mrkonja.

Selena Mrkonja has gained a lot from her student teaching experience at San Diego State — including, for the first time in her life, a true sense of belonging.

“I had these two twins from Afghanistan (in my class) who didn't speak a word of English and by the time I left, they were having full conversations,” said Mrkonja, who will graduate from her credential program in the School of Teacher Education (STE) this weekend before diving right into her M.A. in teaching in STE’s summer program.

“Look at this impact you can make. You're just one little person, but it makes all the difference in the world to be the adult in someone's life when there's nowhere else to turn."

Maybe it’s because Mrkonja can put herself in those students’ shoes. She’s been in them before.

Born in Bosnia to a Bosnian Muslim father and Serbian Christian mother, Mrkonja was 6 years old when a brutal 3-year-long war broke out in the former Yugoslav republic. At age 12, she moved to the United States after her father was granted political asylum, her family eventually settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. She was safe from war, but she quickly found herself struggling to learn a new language and culture.

"I was like the thing that was foreign in the middle of this homogenous community,” Mrkonja said. “You don't really fit in anywhere."

When she graduated high school, she traded one homogenous community where she didn’t really fit for another. Mrkonja joined the U.S. Marines, which has the lowest percentage of female service members of any branch of the military. She served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, earning her U.S. citizenship prior to her second deployment and leaving the Marines with the rank of Corporal.
This program was the hardest thing I've ever done. But the harder it got, the more into it I was and the more I cared.

After being discharged, Mrkonja earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah before moving to San Diego to become a personal trainer. It was here that a conversation with one of her clients — STE lecturer Dr. Emily Schell — changed her life.

"She asked me, 'Have you ever thought about teaching?’” Mrkonja recalls. “I was like, 'Get out of here.' But I was kind of looking to expand my world. I didn't want to stay in the fitness industry.”

To see if it was for her, Mrkonja went to observe a kindergarten class at Loma Portal Elementary. The class was taught by Mandi Marcus, who would later become her observation teacher. Mrkonja was shocked by how much fun she had, how natural it all felt. With Schell’s blessing, Mrkonja applied to get her credential at SDSU.

"This program was the hardest thing I've ever done,” Mrkonja said. “But the harder it got, the more into it I was and the more I cared."

Mrkonja said her background as a Marine gives her “crazy management skills” as well as an understanding of the experiences of the children of service members in her classroom. She believes the difficult childhood experiences she endured have become an asset as well.

"I think I am a more compassionate and mindful teacher because of it, but it's more than that,” Mrkonja explained. “It's so much easier to be extra loving and extra kind to those kids that need it. I was a tough kid — I got in a lot of fights and I was suspended a couple of times — but I had teachers who mattered, who saw the potential in me.

“I don't think I'd be half the person I am if it wasn't for the people who helped me along the way."