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UVU: Students learn profound lessons in the Balkans

By Barb Smith - Special to the Daily Herald | Jul 9, 2022

Courtesy UVU

A study abroad group from Utah Valley University poses for a photo in front of the Kosovo Academy for Public Safety.

“I told my students that it would be life-changing, and I believe it was,” said Chris Lindquist, assistant professor of Emergency Services at Utah Valley University.

Lindquist and Nichole Berge, an Emergency Services lecturer, organized a study abroad trip to the Balkan region of Europe, with stops in Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Serbia. The trip was designed to help students compare disaster response systems and approaches to homeland security, but the lessons were far more profound.

“You hear about all of these places and the history, so you have some kind of an idea of what you are going into, and then you get there, and while some of those expectations are met, others are far exceeded,” said Amy Eddington, a university studies major seeking a secondary bachelor’s degree in emergency management. “My biggest takeaway would be how different cultures are, but how similar they are at the same time. When you stop and look at it, we all want the same things. We want safety, we want to know our family is going to be protected, and we want to have fun with our friends and family around us.”

The students learned that safety is a relative term in the Balkans. UVU students Jordan Newman and Mary Bennett, who are studying emergency management, worked on a research project on evacuation and refugee response. Newman says emergency preparation is virtually unheard of in the Balkans.

“We found that there is a predominant attitude in the Balkans of ‘if it happens, it’s meant to happen.’ A handful grasped the logic of [72-hour preparedness kits] right away. They would pledge on the spot to gather the items to assemble their own kit,” Newman said. But higher priorities took precedence.

Darko Vojinovic, Associated Press

A Serbian flag waves in front of the statue of Serbian Duke Lazar who was killed at the Battle of Kosovo in June 1389, in northern, Serb-dominated part of ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.

“We were informed, for example, in Tearce, they don’t yet have their own fire station or ambulance. In fact, the closest responding resources are 40 minutes away at best,” Newman said. “If something serious happens, they don’t have a choice. They just die.”

Newman, a paramedic, is now working with fire departments in Utah to explore the possibility of providing old, outdated emergency services equipment to our Balkan neighbors. “One gentleman, in reference to the potential of receiving American EMS hand-me-downs, made the comment, ‘If we could partake of the crumbs at the table of America, we would be forever blessed,'” she said.

Bennett says training is also desperately needed. “Several mayors we talked to are already activating their evacuation plans and helping develop their own kits. They have requested that we come back and teach. They don’t have an understanding of basic life support skills.”

For Amy Eddington, what began with one trip, has now become a long-term relationship. She is already planning another trip to the Balkans. “A lot comes down to resources. It makes me want to work a bit harder, so I can go back and offer those kinds of training and improve response.”

The stark comparison between the conditions in the Balkans and the United States and the kindness and love shown to the UVU study abroad students inspired the students to do more and make a difference in the lives of the people they met.

Boris Grdanoski, Associated Press

People walk in the main square of Skopje, North Macedonia, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

“I feel the responsibility to step up and help the Balkan members of our world family,” Newman said. “Although I personally am not in a position of authority to make decisions of any direct consequence, I can do my part in spreading the word in hopes of finding those who can.”

Participating students want to thank Lindquist and Berge for providing a transformative experience. “How they organized it and put it together was incredible,” Bennett said. “They were able to pack [in] all of these countries throughout the Balkans, all of these meetings with government officials. They were able to coordinate and put this all together with a group of people, which isn’t easy to do, and honestly, I think they knocked it out of the park.”

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