A proud owner of the title Fulbright alumnus, student of the generation of International Burch University, cognitive linguist Eldin Milak is one of the successful and happy young people from B&H who received the learning award far beyond the borders of our country which, although not rewarding, attracts as a magnet, and it is always a place to return to with a pleasure.
When you enrolled in college, what did you expect from the studies and did you immediately aim to be the best?
I heard of Burch back in 2010, after graduating top of my class in high school. I just wanted to check out the university because I was told it offers full scholarships to valedictorians, which seemed too good to be true, but the day I first visited Burch was also the day I enrolled. I had absolutely no intentions of being the best, but I was ready to work hard, and I was very excited to see what higher education had to offer.
Many are students of the generation and there are many who wants to be. What led you to be the best?
Honestly, nothing more than dedication and hard work. Mind you, I never studied with the aim of being the best in my class – I studied because I loved my field and because I would be working in it for the rest of my life. Four years seem pretty insignificant when the ultimate goal is not a university degree, but a mastery of the subject matter.
But what are you different about?
I guess I realized early on that just getting a degree is not enough. It was always my opinion that you earn your degree after you’ve been given the title. After you leave the tightly organized safe space of the classroom is when you truly show what you learned, and learn a lot more in return. I knew that I will need to apply the theory I learned later in my professional career, so I studied with that in mind – exam grades were always just a byproduct of that process.
You are proud of the Fulbright scholarship. What were the reactions of the environment?
While at times I had to explain the significance of a Fulbright scholarship to the more skeptical acquaintances, the support from my family, friends, and co-workers has been great. I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded with wonderful people, so the only difficulty was saying goodbye to them.
You are spending student days in America. What distinguishes studies there and in our country, what is better, what is worse?
An adage of the Fulbright program is ‘not better, not worse, just different’. The more time I spent in the US, the more I realized how true that is. American campus life is very different from university life in Bosnia, and there is a greater sense of independence and self-reliance among US students. In terms of academic programs, the curricula are a lot more flexible and varied, while the academic staff generally cultivates a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere in the classroom, with a focus on student participation.
How much your knowledge can help in practice?
Well, this brings me to my earlier point. Since I always knew that one day I would have to apply my theoretical knowledge into practice, I always approached the material with that in mind. Therefore, it is fairly easy for me to translate theory into practice, particularly when it comes to instruction and teaching, but also with individualized work, such as writing, editing, and proofreading.
Did you ever attend the exam "on luck" or cancel the grade?
Can’t say I have. I never prepared for an exam per se, though. I would go through the material sometimes weeks in advance, so there was no real need for me too, for example, stay up the night before and study. And since I always received fairly high grades, I never saw the need to take an exam again. As I said, grades never mattered much to me.
How long you stay outside of the country, and what does your program look like?
I’ll be spending an academic year in the US, in which time I am supposed to complete a research project in collaboration with my assigned mentor. Additionally, as a Fulbrighter, I am encouraged to actively participate in extracurricular activities, and particularly those which are seen as quintessentially American. Throughout the program, I am also supposed to represent my country to the best of my abilities. Following the completion of the program, I am obliged to spend a few years back home, in order to transmit the skills I gained during my time in the US.
Where do you see yourself in the next five or ten years?
Geographically, I have no idea. Professionally, I hope I will have completed my Ph.D. and found a good university to complete my post-doc studies. I also hope I would be living in a more stable and more peaceful world than the one today.
How can you, as a young linguist, see the way out of the language crisis in B&H?
Personally, I don’t think we’re in a crisis, but rather a stasis. There has been very little development in the academic world of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Professors still teach using outdated textbooks, and there is still a strict hierarchy which forbids any creativity in our schools and universities. Until our education system starts fostering critical and creative thinking and creates a safe space for students to discuss sensitive issues and ongoing problems, there will be no progress. This is why programs such as Fulbright are held in such high esteem – exchange enables the creation of new perspectives, and only when you step away from a setting in which you are a subject, can you begin to observe it objectively. And we are in desperate need of some objectivity.
What in essence should be the basic motive of young people for advancement in B&H?
The need to be the best version of themselves that they can be, and an understanding that the responsibility for their development and growth is in their hands. I believe this is often called intrinsic motivation. There needs to be a realization that the only permanent investment is the one which builds your character, improves your skills, and increases your knowledge. Bosnians, better than anyone else, should be aware of the transience and fragility of material goods.
Can money be a motive? Many learn just to get a scholarship, in sense of opportunism?
Anything can be a source of motivation, but I find that grounding your own value in things that themselves are abstract and unstable tends to affect your personality similarly. This is why developing intrinsic motivation is so clever, because you create a self-sufficient system of motivation. The Catch 22 in this system is that failure, much like success, is always your own doing. This is not something a lot of people can deal with, so they chose the easy way out, which is very rarely also the right way out.