Hi, my name is Tanja. I’m a Senior Lecturer at Curtin university. I teach in the area of architecture. I’m also currently serving as the Director of Learning and Teaching for the School of Design and Built Environment.
I was born and raised in Bosnia, but no, this is not this kind of story. It’s not about the war. I had a relatively good childhood, largely worry-free. Ever since I was very young, I was encouraged to excel in school and this was my mom’s way of achieving things–perhaps what she was not able to—like getting a university education. I was a very good student throughout my schooling days, scoring straight As across all subjects. But things eventually changed as war erupted and we left. We moved to Germany. I couldn’t speak any German other than perhaps say ‘guten tag’ and ‘danke’. My mother tongue, Serbian and Croatian were of no use to me, so I used or relied on English that I learned at school to get by, but I knew that this couldn’t last for very long.
If I had to complete my high school and go to university, eventually, I realized that I had to learn German. I knew that academically I was capable of enrolling and completing high school in German, but it had to master German first in order to do that. So, I had a challenge on my hands, but I knew that I could do it. A kind neighbour who took interest in my education looked for funding opportunities to secure a place at an intense German language Academy.
I attended the Academy for six months every day. So it was very, very intense. Several hours a day. And this intense course enabled me to communicate reasonably. By the time I entered high school, I quickly made friends from my fellow students and proved myself a good student in all subject, especially maths, biology and arts. But then of course there was German. From day one I had a feeling that I won’t get along with my German teacher. I thought about why she and I couldn’t really click or why she rejected me, but I was never really able to fully understand the reasons. She knew my background and that I had only been learning to speak German for about a year, but that did not stop her from seeing me as someone who will never be able to speak German properly. She made it very clear in my mind that this is what she believed and that I will never be able to communicate German to the level that she wanted it. My impression was effectively proved correct when we got to write our first essay in class. If memory serves me right, it was on Ephraim Lessing’s ‘Emilia Galotti’ an example of German bourgeois tragedy.
I wrote a reasonable analysis, but my work was marked zero out of 15 points. Over the next few months I worked really hard to improve my writing, but even so, my essay would only receive two points out of 15. The following one was zero, again. I was curious to find whether my writing was indeed that bad, so ask a couple of my fellow colleagues to read it and they couldn’t find much wrong with it. The penultimate two essays were marked one and two points out of 15 respectively. But my last, my very last essay I scored four points out of 15. I was absolutely ecstatic. I finally got a pass mark. Since I knew that I couldn’t really rely on my essay marks to pass the unit, let alone do well in it, I did my best to be active in class. Every session, commenting on things, discussed, hoping that my contribution would bear some fruit.
And in particular I was active in my last semester of high school as that was the semester that counted. All of the marks would appear on my transcript that I needed to submit with my application for university entry. In spite of all my efforts I only managed to secure a final mark of six points. Other students were absolutely outraged when they hear that and they approached the teacher on my behalf to argue with her for higher mark, but she wouldn’t budge. Anyway, I did end up completing my high school with an overall average of two points and I’d understand that for those who are not familiar with German system, that doesn’t mean much. But just to kind of as a general idea, I finished in the top 15 per cent of my year group
I started studying architecture at a polytechnic school soon after. But not very long into my first semester of study, my family received an approval to migrate to Australia. So just when I thought, great, I’m on top of my, you know, career path if you like, now I’m on a path to get a degree and I’m in command of German language–things, once again, started to change and I had to go back to English, or rather, I had to relearn English. You wouldn’t believe the adventurous sentences that I was constructing using English words in German grammar. It was hilarious at times. I had to let go of German, of course, if I wanted to learn, have paid my full attention to English. I attended a couple of language courses at TAFE when I first arrived here and it was there that one of the teachers suggested I apply for bridging course at Curtin, which I did and it was accepted.
The bridging course was absolutely great. It taught me fundamentals of academic reading and writing. But even so, when I started my architecture degree, I was a bit apprehensive of writing essays. While have done very well in my studies, the voice of self-doubt stemming from my experience with my German teacher was not easy to forget. At first I thought that there wouldn’t be many written assignments as I was studying architecture, after all, it is a very visual and technically driven course. But soon I was proven very, very wrong in my thinking. Three-thousand-word essays were and still are common assessments in architectural history and theory units, and as expected, I was dragging my feet and fretting it. I would do research and write about the topic, but when it came to submitting it, I really didn’t want to do it. Not to mention collecting the essays once marked and reading the feedback. I simply couldn’t make myself open the feedback sheet from fear that once again I would see a zero in it. But I had to muster courage, muster up the courage and pick up at the feedback sheet. And guess what?
I got a distinction. Throughout my university years, I received distinctions and high distinctions for myself. Years later, after completing my degree, I embarked on the biggest challenge of my academic career. I enrolled to do a PhD. My concern, of course was whether I will be able to write close to a 100,000 words document. If 3,000 words were intimidating, try writing 30 times as many words, and then a few more. But I did it. Now that I look back at my journey, it is clear to me that it was always able to excel in the respective language, challenges and barriers. But did I know that back then? Of course not. Many things only become clearer as the year goes by.