Passport photographs of Mileva, Milijana and Mara Sretenovic when they first immigrated to the United States in 1951. The three sisters have recently established the Sretenovic Family Scholarship.
Photo courtesy of: the Sretenovic Family
(Top row: Mileva, Mico, Mara, Mira; Bottom row: Monika, Christa (Mom), Milan (Pop), and Millie holding Monika’s son) A family photo of the Sretenovics taken in December of 1976 – the family’s 25th year in America.
Photo courtesy of: the Sretenovic Family
Feb 11, 2016
By McKenzie Powell
In December 1951, the Sretenovic family arrived on Ellis Island as immigrants in a foreign land filled with strangers speaking an unfamiliar language. On Christmas Eve, the family arrived in Piketon, Ohio, a small Appalachian Village approximately an hour west of Athens.
Despite not knowing a word of English and the relentless struggle to combat poverty, the Sretenovics worked tirelessly, never doubting that their children would one day earn college degrees.
Today, after years of receiving generous support to attend Ohio University, Milijana, Mileva and Mara Sretenovic – three out of six Sretenovic children – have decided to give back to other students in need through the newly established Sretenovic Family Scholarship.
“OHIO enabled me to be what/who I am today. I am forever indebted to those who were generous and kind enough to help us earn our degrees and this is a way of paying it forward,” said Mileva, AB ’68, who spent 38 years in the U.S. Navy, both active and reserve, post-graduation.
Although their parents never once doubted that their children were going to college, the prospect of a higher education didn’t always seem so likely to the children.
“My father was in a Prisoner of War Camp in Germany,” explained Mileva. “He was from Yugoslavia and, before becoming a Prisoner of War, he was serving as an ally soldier in Germany. “
When World War II ended, their father was released; shortly after the war, he met his German wife Christa. Mileva, Milijana & Mara were born in Germany. At some point the family had to make a move.
“Because Papa had been a Prisoner of War, he had a choice. He decided we would move to America,” said Milijana, BSC ’69 and MA ’70, owner and creator of The Office Professionals, a full-service office employment agency.
Under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the Sretenovics moved to the United States. They were sponsored by the Piketon Methodist Church. Their father began learning how to speak English at a feed and grain mill and their mother began learning English through soap operas, but German remained the language of the household.
“They made so many sacrifices when you think about the hardships that they had coming to a country where they didn’t even speak the same language,” Milijana said. “We had absolutely no money for anything – even the basics.”
Affording college wasn’t easy for Milijana, Mileva and Mara, and it might not have been possible if it weren’t for scholarships similar to the Sretenovic Family Scholarship. Due to scholarship money, work-study programs and several jobs each, the sisters were able to attend and graduate from OHIO.
“We all worked very hard. I was never even able to go to football games because I was always working,” Mileva said. “Going to class was like the break between work.”
Although the sisters had to persistently work their way through college, their experience as Bobcats still resulted in strong OHIO ties and memories.
“Ohio University, for me, was a very good experience in a lot of different ways,” said Mara, BFA ’71, who worked in the telecommunications industry for 40 years, in positions ranging from customer service to marketing. “I was very fortunate that I was able to go to college and it did have a really big impact on me. I’d like to see other people have the same opportunities.”
Despite their circumstances, Milijana, Mileva and Mara persevered with hard work and dedication to their education and their futures.
“OHIO was so good to us; they made it happen! It all came together and the three of us graduated from Ohio University.” Milijana said.
Because people had been so generous to the siblings throughout their college careers, Milijana, Mileva and Mara decided it was time to create the Sretenovic Family Scholarship, to give other students like them the opportunity to attend OHIO.
“It’s our way of paying back and maybe in the future we’ll be able to give more. It’s a blessing to be a blessing,” Mileva said. “I know I’ve been blessed.”
The Sretenovic Family Scholarship will provide awards to full-time undergraduate students with demonstrated academic merit who are enrolled in or have been accepted for admission at OHIO.
The scholarship also qualified for the OHIO Match program, which commits to matching 50 cents on every dollar donated to scholarships established under the program’s criteria. The OHIO Match program has dedicated $25 million towards OHIO’s endowed scholarship program as a part of the Promise Lives Campaign, which exceeded its primary goal and raised over $500 million in gifts and commitments in 2015.