When Gordana Oehmen fled her hometown of Belgrade, Serbia in July 1999 during the Kosovo war, she and her family were armed with only a few necessities.
Along with her daughter, son-in-law and newborn grandson, Oehmen escaped north, to neighboring Hungary, for five months while they waited for their clearance to come to the United States.
“I told my daughter and son-in-law, ‘Let’s see what God gives us,’ and we were assigned to Oshkosh, Wis.,” Oehmen said. “I thought, ‘Oshkosh. Where’s Oshkosh?’ I saw that there was a lake and a river, so I thought it must be pretty.”
When Oehmen and her family arrived to Wisconsin, a Catholic church helped them adjust to life in the United States by providing them with food and a place to stay.
“We stayed with a family in Oshkosh for one month, and then we found our own apartment. My son-in-law and I went to a staffing agency to find jobs,” Oehmen said.
“Even though I had gone to college and had a good job in Serbia, I had to forget who I used to be. I had to start from scratch, and I knew I needed to go to college.”
Oehmen took a series of placement tests, including a high school equivalency test, and passed all eight tests she needed to start college as a foreign citizen in the United States.
“I started by taking an English class at 7 p.m., but it was hard to take a class after working all day, so I tried to drop it,” Oehmen said. “My professor encouraged me to stay, and I worked with my employer to take a morning class instead.”
Oehmen earned her associate’s degree from UW Oshkosh in May 2006 and is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Liberal Studies Leadership Development online degree program. She plans to graduate in May 2013.
“I’m glad there are programs online for people who work, for people who are nontraditional students,” Oehmen said. “It’s very nice to have a program for people of different age groups, so they can continue their education, or start a brand new career — it really is a big deal.”
Oehmen also earned three credits through the Credit for Prior Learning option, which allows students to take a class, submit a portfolio or take a series of tests to earn credit for what they learned in their previous jobs.
“For one subject, I took advantage of the Credit for Prior Learning where you earn you credit for your life experiences,” Oehmen said. “That’s really good for people who have a lot of life experience or [experience in] project planning like I did.”
Oehmen has worked hard to be involved on-campus and was part of the UW Oshkosh Model United Nations team for three years, and is also part of the Nontraditional Student Organization (NTSO). Oehmen’s involvement also extends into the Oshkosh community.
“I have to give back to the community that gave me so much,” Oehmen said. “I volunteered at Christine Ann Domestic Abuse Services in Oshkosh and for the Habitat for Humanity.”
Oehmen said she is thankful for all the help she received, but stressed how important it was for her to remember not to depend on anyone but herself, which kept her motivated to finish her degree.
“Be persistent, don’t quit,” Oehmen said. “Everyone is different, but I think each of us can do it. Hard work pays off in the end.”