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Class of 2021
McMullan Award honors Djukanovic for creative commitment to lifting others up

From book-worthy research on Serbian ethnicities to developing training for the Liberian National Police to tutoring Atlanta-area refugees, Tara Djukanovic has thoroughly embodied the “extraordinary promise” of a McMullan Award winner.

Growing up in Iowa as the daughter of Serbian immigrants, Tara Djukanovic entered Emory College four years ago with the goal of honoring the people whose sacrifices created her opportunities.

Beyond devoting herself to coursework, she also mentored fellow students through Residence Life, tutored Atlanta-area immigrants and refugees and even crafted a training program for the Liberian National Police.

The joy she felt with each effort confirmed for Djukanovic, who graduates with highest honors, that she should pursue a career focused on human rights advocacy. She starts Harvard Law School in the fall, armed with the unrestricted $30,000 that comes with earning the McMullan Award.

Made possible by a generous gift from Emory alumnus William Matheson 47G, the highly selective award recognizes Emory College graduates “who show extraordinary promise for future leadership and rare potential for service to their community, the nation and the world.”

Dilek Huseyinzadegan saw that talent in Djukanovic, a double-major in international relations and philosophy, political science and law, in her freshman seminar examining 18th- and 19th-century writings on freedom and oppression.

“My first instinct: Tara will be secretary of state in 20 years,” says Huseyinzadegan, an associate professor of philosophy.

“It’s not just that I can see her advising presidents,” Huseyinzadegan adds. “There is nothing she feels she can do to pay back the labor, care and attention given to her, so whatever she is given and learns, she immediately turns it around and shares. That is how to truly influence people and policy.”

Dedicated advocate

Djukanovic’s interest in elevating others began at home. She credits her parents, an engineer and biologist, with emphasizing both education and service. Living half a world away from relatives and a culture that emphasized tight family connections, they worked hard to ensure stability for her and her younger brother, who has a disability and is fully dependent.

For a time, she thought becoming a public schoolteacher would honor them and the educators who encouraged her intellect in class and helped develop her confidence to speak up through debate.

Her first taste of advocacy came in high school when, as a member of the Iowa Youth Advisory Council, she worked on an antihuman trafficking law.

She was intrigued, when searching for a college, that Emory would afford her the chance to conduct research necessary for thoughtful advocacy and policy. Spotting Dooley clinched it.

“I knew I wanted to focus on the voices that hadn’t been heard, and I saw that I could do that here,” she says. “I love Halloween, too, so when I saw Dooley, I knew this school was made for me.”

Complex Director Cathy Marques has watched Djukanovic effortlessly juxtapose such seriousness and silliness in advocating for first-year students and fellow Residence Life staffers for two years.

Other students praise her efforts, attention she is so uncomfortable with that she will turn off her Zoom camera when it comes up in a meeting. Other RAs remain undeterred, some showing up for the defense of her senior honors thesis on how ethnically diverse migrants affect existing ethnic divisions in Serbia.

Other students included volunteers from Students Helping in Naturalization of Elders (SHINE). Djukanovic was a four-year volunteer with the group — Emory’s signature engagement program with Atlanta’s refugee, immigrant and new American communities — and served as co-president this year.

“Praise from your peers is probably the most difficult thing to achieve, and Tara gets all their respect and love,” Marques says. “She brings a great sense of humor and balance to everything she does, with this incredible ability to meet people where they are.”

Learning by listening

As her thesis suggests, Djukanovic has long thought big when it comes to social justice and policy. Still, her consideration started small: watching how people would ignore her nonverbal brother when trying to help him.

That interest led her to The Carter Center, known for its dedication to underserved populations around the world. There, she learned how to provide humanitarian aid by allowing those being served to guide the process.

As an intern with the Rule of Law program, she helped get dispute resolution and gender-sensitive training approved for Liberian police by listening to stakeholders there about their professional interactions. She also helped create an alternative justice framework for women in Bangladesh.

“If you ever think you want to help, if you come with a sense of respect and listen to the people at hand, you can learn more and you can do more,” Djukanovic says.

That experience informed the thesis work she originally planned to conduct in Serbia as an undergraduate fellow with the Halle Institute for Global Research.  

When the pandemic shut down travel, she used the funds to design a survey  that was sent to a mix of Serbians — Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats — to see how they felt about each other and the recent influx of migrants from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The survey showed progress toward reconciliation among the different ethnicities in Serbia. Serbs also demonstrated an amicable view of the recent migrants, perhaps a reflection of Serbia’s relatively recent wave of emigration that included Djukanovic’s family in the late 1990s.

Scholars at the Midwest Political Science Association meetings in April were so taken with her original research that they suggested she publish a book from it.

“Tara’s unceasing dedication to producing research that is not only top-notch but also has the ultimate goal of improving the lives of underserved populations demonstrates how effective she already is,” says Holli Semetko, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Media and International Affairs in the Department of Political Science. “I think that Tara has the compassionate leadership qualities to become a real problem solver on a global scale.”

Next steps

Before tackling the world and even law school, Djukanovic has far simpler aims. First, she must move out the jungle of plants she tends in her dorm room.

Though she plans to use most of her McMullan Award money for law school, she is setting aside some for her family. She hopes travel restrictions will ease enough for her to also pay for her parents to visit family in Serbia.

“My parents sacrificed for me to feel safe, and it was also my grandparents who gave up so much for that to happen,” Djukanovic says.

“My life has been made possible because of the people who did service in my name,” she adds. “There is always someone who needs help. Everyone is deserving. Emory made me feel like I was smart, and I belonged. Everyone deserves that.”

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