It may have happened well over a decade ago, but Djuradj Stakic recalls the life-altering decision he made as if it were yesterday. Fearful of the tyrannical dictatorship in his home country of Serbia and in search of a better life for his family, Stakic, his wife and two children fled their homeland for the United States, uncertain how their futures would unfold.
"It was just chaos," Stakic said about Serbia's social disorder. "So, honestly, I escaped. I wasn't brave ? I was afraid."
The professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Brandywine recalled the corrupt dictatorship that many people endured after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Due to the oppressive reign of Serbia's new President Slobodan Milosevic, friends that Stakic knew for years became desperate and were forced to do whatever it took to make ends meet in the country's frail economy.
"I saw many people that I knew who changed their minds and behaviors in just a few years," he explained. "They became something that scares me to the bone. I didn't want something like that to happen to me."
That's when Stakic decided it was time to pick up and leave his home in search of a better life.
Even though Serbia's social structure was unstable, this was not an easy choice to make. Stakic's family lived in a beautiful home and he had a flourishing career as an award-winning full professor at the University of Belgrade, the largest and oldest university in Serbia. However, deep down, he knew evading the dictatorial government was best for his family's future.
Through several tough years of adjustment in the United States, Stakic and his family found success in the foreign country. Still, he often thought about Serbia and his friends and family who had struggled. That's when he knew he needed to give back.
"Deep in my soul, I felt some guilt about leaving friends, family and young people I used to work with in Serbia while it was still in chaos," he said.
In 2002, Stakic returned to Serbia serving as a special adviser of the ministry of social affairs. He worked on two projects run by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) dealing with child protection and juvenile justice system reform. He did such great work that he became more involved with the projects and was named a senior international expert for UNICEF.
Today, nearly 15 years later, Stakic remains dedicated to his mission. Each summer, he returns to Serbia and several other countries throughout Eastern Europe to work with UNICEF, helping the countries transition from totalitarian systems to democracy. He also helps countries meet the childcare and juvenile justice standards required to join the European Union.
"I don't feel any more guilt about leaving Serbia," Stakic said. "I now feel like I really can help."
Ultimately, he plans on including students at Penn State Brandywine in his research, bringing them on his trips as part of a multicultural exchange program.