From war-torn Croatia to Harvard, by way of FDU

Ivana Viani, FDU graduate and Harvard Med student, stands with some of the University faculty and staff who inspired and encouraged her educational pursuits. They are top row, from left: Marion McClary and Gary Johnson; middle, from left: Ellen Spaldo and John Santelli; bottom, from left Mary Mornhineway, Cynthia Radnitz and Anna Debska-Chwaja.

By Kenna Caprio

She lived near a dirt road in a war-torn, formerly Communist country. She starts medical school at Harvard University in the fall. This is the incredible story of FDU alum Ivana Viani, BA’09, in her own words:

FDU: Can you discuss your upbringing and life in Croatia?

Ivana Viani: My family was very poor. We lived in Treštanovci, a rural area of eastern Croatia, then under Communist rule. In 1991, a violent conflict arose. My education was interrupted and I spent many days in bomb shelters.

By the time I was a teenager, I knew what hunger was, I knew what inequality was, I knew what war was. Because of this kind of intimate encounter with hardship, I gained the ability to understand and appreciate the suffering of others.

FDU: What was your experience of arriving in America?

IV: I came here in 1999 as an au pair and didn’t know a single person. I tell people I came here with a hundred dollars in my pocket, but it was a little less than that. It took my father three months of working two jobs to come up with that sum.

I struggled to stay here and support myself. I had many jobs — sometimes at the same time!

FDU: Why is receiving an education critical?

IV: Through education, we learn to look at the world from different perspectives. We gain the ability to question the world and understand that we can influence what happens in it. That is the purpose and value of education.

My parents completed only eight years of school. They had a profound understanding of how this lack of higher education limited their options. They saw that people who were better educated moved up in the world and could afford to buy things for their families, while my parents struggled to afford a quart of milk per week.

FDU: What drove your desire to pursue higher education in the U.S.?

IV: Education in Croatia is mostly free, but that doesn’t mean everybody gets it. I would still have to relocate and pay for living expenses. My parents struggled to keep our lights on. Supporting another household wasn’t an option.

It might sound naive, but I truly bought into the idea of America as the land of opportunity. People laughed at me. You don’t just get up one day, leave your house in a communist country and go to Harvard Medical School. That’s just not done.

But the idea of America as the land of opportunity, that’s not a dream. That is reality. America isn’t equal. It isn’t fair. But it struggles so hard to be, through people set on creating equality, justice and freedom for all. I am proud of many things, but I am most proud of being an American.

FDU: When did you decide that you wanted to go into the medical field?

IV: My grandmother died from a broken leg before I was born. Technically, she died from tetanus, but really she died from lack of medical care. The nearest doctor was hours away. She didn’t get necessary immunizations, and when she finally reached the hospital with an open fracture, it was hours before anyone even looked at her. I grew up in the shadow of this death and others who could have been saved had they been afforded adequate medical care. These experiences stay with you. From an early age, I wanted to help people, to stop their suffering.

Chemistry professor Anna Debska-Chwaja encouraged my love of human physiology and pathology. She said, “Why don’t you study medicine?” I automatically responded, “Oh, I can’t do that!” Such education was financially out of my reach for so long, that even when I finally qualified for student loans, I still accepted the “educational glass ceiling.”

She said, “Sure you can.”

The rest is history. Dr. Debska-Chwaja is a great educator — someone who picks up on students’ natural proclivities and takes the time to help them realize their full potential.

FDU: What kind of medicine are you interested in? Where will you practice?

IV: I’d like to go where I am needed. Right now, we have an impending health care crisis in the United States. Compared to other developed nations, we spend — by far — the highest percentage of our GDP on health care, yet we rank last or second to last in life expectancy. We have poor health outcomes.

Additionally, the worldwide population is aging. More than 20% of Earth’s people will be over the age of 60 by 2050.

We have to make changes to accommodate the increase in expenditures and the decrease in availability of care coming our way. I think it will be my cohort’s responsibility to find solutions and redefine care. We have a lot of work to do.

FDU: How did your higher education experience unfold?

IV: Circuitously. I went to Bergen Community College first. There I obtained an associate degree in liberal arts and planned to transfer to a four-year college.

But I just couldn’t afford to continue. I was devastated. So, I worked and saved enough to start at FDU as a junior three years later.

At first, I worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and took evening classes, five days a week, plus I had class on Saturdays and online. I slept very little.

By the end of my first semester in 2007, I had become a citizen, qualifying me for student loans, and my faculty advisor John Santelli told me to quit my job. He said I deserved to have “a college experience.” I respected and trusted him, so I quit my job in January 2008. It was bold advice.

FDU: How do you feel about Santelli’s advice now?

IV: Looking back, it was one of the best decisions I made. Had I not quit my job, I would never have had the time or confidence to apply for a fellowship at University of Pittsburgh, work at Professor Steven Pinker’s lab at Harvard University or travel to Dominican Republic with Professor McClary’s animal behavior lab — experiences that shaped much of who I am today and influenced everything I managed to accomplish since.

FDU: What did you do after you graduated from FDU in 2009?

IV: After I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I planned to complete pre-medical coursework, but again, couldn’t afford it.

To say that I was devastated is an understatement. I worked five part-time jobs to make ends meet, and I looked for a position at an educational institution where I could qualify for an employment tuition grant.

In January 2010, I started work for the FDU Public Safety Department. By the summer, I qualified for a tuition grant, and I completed my premedical coursework in one year.

After finishing classes, I took the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test).

Then you applied to medical school?

IV: Yes. I didn’t apply to Harvard initially because I thought, “No way are they going to accept someone like me there.” It’s not that I didn’t believe I deserved to be there, but I didn’t think that they would recognize the significant obstacles I had to overcome.

Then at a medical school interview Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, a doctor asked me if I had applied to Harvard. I told him I hadn’t and he looked shocked! I couldn’t believe it. Was there a chance of me getting in?

I submitted my application. They called me for an interview and I got accepted! They received nearly 5,800 applications this year and interviewed more than 900 students.

I feel extremely proud and optimistic, knowing that at leading medical schools, the administration and faculty understand and appreciate the diverse backgrounds of their applicants.

FDU: Have you enjoyed your time at FDU receiving a global education?

IV: I absolutely love the emphasis on global education at FDU. While interviewing for medical school, this was the main source of my pride as I spoke to students and faculty from other institutions about my undergraduate education.

Now I can say that I have friends in Pakistan, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Bahrain, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Oman, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Peru, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, Australia, Israel, Slovenia and Saudi Arabia. How many graduates can say that?

From classmates, I learned how to say “olive” in Turkish and “mother” in Telugu. It’s like going to class at the United Nations!

FDU: Who are some of the professors and staff that have had an influence on you?

IV: No matter what I say about the individuals I mention here, it won’t do them justice. They personify mentorship and leadership.

They are: Mary Mornhineway, Anna Debska-Chwaja, Ellen Spaldo, Irwin Isquith, Cynthia Radnitz, John Santelli, Marion McClary, James Dougherty, Gary Johnson, Kerri Majors, David Kiefer, James Rana, Marie Roberts, David Miles and Cecil Allen.

Without their support and understanding, I would not have been able to complete my preparation for medical school. They wholeheartedly and unremittingly believed in me and in my ability to succeed. They assured me that not only could I get into medical school, but that I belonged there.

FDU: What kind of research have you worked on?

IV: I did any type of research I could: social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, genetics, ethology, protistology, neurobiology, medical history and ethics. Right now, I am most interested in health policy and social medicine.

FDU: How has volunteer work shaped you into the person you are?

IV: I wish the definition for volunteering was, “helping those around you and being a good neighbor and friend.”

Growing up, I saw my mother come home early from work to put eye drops into the eyes of an elderly neighbor. I went with her on the bus to visit an elderly relative and bring her produce from our garden. She always seemed to be aware of who needed help and she just gave it. Yet, if she were to apply to medical school, she’d have nothing to put down as “volunteer experience.”

I try to emulate her behavior. While I’ve volunteered for some great organizations, I think it’s just as important that I took the time to be a good neighbor and friend.

FDU: You’ve balanced a lot — school, work, volunteering and research projects — how do you handle it all?

IV: I am one of those people who, no matter what I accomplish, always wants to do more. I think that’s an outgrowth of my experience growing up in unstable times. That kind of background conditions you to hustle. Things can change quickly.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed and I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it.

FDU: How do you spend your downtime?

IV: I love hiking, traveling, photography, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. And I read. A lot. It educates you.

FDU: What advice do you have for other students?

IV: First, don’t quit. You can’t do everything you want, the way you want, when you want. But you can do everything you want eventually by being persistent, overcoming obstacles and working smart. I never want to say that I didn’t do something because it was hard. Never. It's just not the person I want to be. Think about what kind of a person you want to be.

Second, don’t take naysayers seriously. Consider their qualifications. Never did a person that reached the place I wanted be tell me that I couldn’t too. But you know who did? People who didn’t. People who knew nothing about medical school admissions told me that I would never get into a school in the U.S. Learn to evaluate your critics and be inspired by the great people who came before you who were also told they wouldn't amount to much.

Third, get perspective. Talk to others. Have the courage to solicit feedback and change the limiting aspects of your behavior. Travel. Read. Understand how you fit into the larger world. Only then will you see how your challenges give you unique tools with which you can fix what’s broken.

Get to work!

FDU: Are you excited about Harvard?

IV: I am thrilled! Harvard Medical School has amazing faculty and facilities. I will be given every opportunity to make a difference in the world. It’s a great privilege to be selected as part of their incoming class of medical students and it’s a great responsibility, too.