PSD Spotlight: Vera Dragisich

August 5, 2020

August 2020

Vera Dragisich in a green scarf and dark coat.

PSD’s August spotlight is Vera Dragisich, PhD, Senior Lecturer & Director of Academic Programs, Department of Chemistry. Vera has been with UChicago for 27 years.

Vera was nominated for the “EDI Champion Award.” This award recognizes a staff member who acts as a true diversity and inclusion ally and proponent. This individual is a local diversity and inclusion leader who takes action and shows initiative in promoting diversity and inclusion in their unit. 

A member of the PSD community had this to say: “Vera is constantly aware of nurturing an inclusive atmosphere and she is always working to make the department as strong as it can be in this regard. She does this by employing  an institutional knowledge of tradition (of inclusion) and what efforts we have made in the past. She also speaks up for groups of students who may be underserved by a particular policy. She always has this in mind, and is a strong advocate in many ways.

I think where Vera goes above and beyond is that she is completely fearless in her advocacy. She is not afraid of ruffling feathers or even risking her own neck when she feels that it's important. She is a very valuable ally in this way.

Vera is a pleasure to work with, and always has the best interest of the department in mind."

We interviewed Vera about her interests and experiences below.

Where are you from?

I was born in Melrose Park, IL, and grew up in Bellwood, IL, the near west suburbs of Chicago. I am first-generation American born and I identify as Serbian-American. I consider Chicago home but I also consider the mountain villages back in the Old Country where my parents and ancestors come from as home, too.

What do you enjoy about being a part of the PSD community?

I enjoy being surrounded by so many intelligent, creative, and unique individuals. It is stimulating to know that whenever I talk to someone, that I will learn something new, and not just scientifically, and that is what the PSD community provides me on a daily basis.

Tell us a bit about you. 

I am first-generation American born and I am defined by the difficult experiences that my parents lived through during WWII in the former Yugoslavia and that my ancestors experienced living in beautiful but rugged mountain villages in the Balkan Powder Keg, where each generation has experienced a war and been displaced. After the last set of wars in the 90’s, all the inhabitants of my dad’s village were displaced and, sadly, it is now a dead village with no one living there.

I have the life that I have today due to the resilience and faith of my ancestors. This is humbling and fills me with gratitude. I also believe this allows me to be in tune more deeply to the suffering of others and it also gives me the strength to advocate for others.

Who inspires you?

My father and my mother inspire me. My father was the eldest of eight children and 20 years old when his father was killed by communists and his mother died of typhus. He fought on the side of the Allies and was able to leave the county. He supported his siblings and others in his village for the rest of his life. My mother was the eldest daughter of six and took care of her younger siblings. As an only child, I learned love of siblings and family through my parents. This has allowed me to be close to my cousins, who I have only met a few times in my life, and to feel the strong bonds of family and the importance of friends and community.

What is the most interesting thing that you are working on right now?

The most interesting thing that I am working on right now is work related, but also community related. I just learned that a paper that I wrote for a special “teaching during COVID-19” issue of the Journal of Chemical Education has been accepted and I am looking through the final galley proofs for publication right now. The paper is entitled “Wellness and Community Modules in a Graduate Teaching Assistant Training Course in the Time of Pandemic.”

What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?

Diversity and inclusion means a strong community. It means people of different backgrounds coming together to learn from each other and to help each other become the best that they can individually be, so that they can continue to enhance the community and to pay it forward. 

What I learned from my parents is that survival in a mountain village could not occur without community and the support of each other — diverse individuals embracing and accepting each other and helping each other in support of their community, even if they do not always agree with each other, is not only the best way for each individual to thrive and survive, but, in my humble opinion, the only way.  

Who would you most like to swap places with for a day and why?

My dad as a young freedom fighter in September of 1942 in the mountains of the tri-border region of Bosnia, Dalmatia, and Lika — known then specifically as Srpska Kninska Krajina in Yugoslavia, now modern day Croatia.  

What have you seen lately that made you smile?

When my mom first came to this country, she came to her uncle’s in Western Pennsylvania where we still own the farm. My husband and I visited the farm last week and watched, literally, thousands of fireflies/lightning bugs light up the open fields in front of me. I thought this is better than any fireworks and remembered watching the same thing with my dad as a child — this made me smile more than I have in a long time.

Who had the most influence on you growing up?

My mother and father.

What three words best describe you?

Passionate, Loyal, Honest.

If they made a movie about your life, what genre would it be and who would play you?

It would be a Western and I would be played by Noomi Rapace.

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