5 Questions for Prof. Josipa Roksa

Original posted by Debbie Mosley with Hoos Network, U.Va. Alumni Association

Professor Josipa Roksa is a woman who sees reality when others around her are unsure. Much of this is a result of her life experiences.

Roksa_Josipa-412.jpgProfessor Roksa is originally from Croatia, but moved as a result of a Civil War (the war which dissolved Yugoslavia into many countries, including Croatia) in the 11th grade. In Croatia, Roksa explains, her town became occupied during the war, provoking her family to flee. Roksa remembers watching her city burn from across the river.

“We left with only the clothes on our backs and our identification cards. I don’t have a picture of myself under the age of fourteen.”

Roksa’s family believed that the war wasn’t going to last long, but it seemed to go on forever. Roksa moved to Alaska, where a host family welcomed her and two other students from former Yugoslavia.

“I know it’s not a choice destination, but it was a wonderful experience. In the winter it’s dark all the time, but in the summer you get 24 hours of sunshine, and the nature is beautiful. I lived there for two years.”

After her time in Alaska, Roksa went to Mount Holyoke College with the intention of becoming an M.D., after being trained as an EMT in high school. She changed her mind (as most college students do) and pursued a Ph.D in Sociology instead from New York University.

Currently Roksa is a joint Associate Professor in the department of Sociology and the Curry School, Special Adviser to the Provost, and the Associate Director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Roksa has co-authored two powerful books:

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011) and
Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates (2014).

Now that I knew Roksa as a child, young adult and academic, I felt that it was important to know her as a professor, especially since she was very close to becoming a doctor instead. I sat down with Roksa and asked her the following six questions:

What are you favorite things to do in your spare time/what is something you’re passionate about?

I love reading fiction! I used to write fiction in high school. My husband always laughs at me and asks “how can you read for fun when you spend so much time reading for work?”. It is different.  Fiction is food for the soul! I enjoy getting into characters, their lives and the challenges they face.

I also like traveling. I go to Croatia every year, which is one of the top tourist destinations, but it’s home too. We do lots of shorter trips, like going hiking, because I grew up on the farm and I love nature. I love San Francisco! I love New York – the energy of that city doesn’t exist anywhere else!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Do not run through life so fast that you forget not only where you have been, but also where you are going”.

It’s about vision and mission and purpose. You have to know where you are going, but you can’t be so absorbed with where you are going to forget where you come from. Be visionary, but be grounded.

Having grown up in Europe…. Europe overall is very focused on the past (especially the wars) and people spend a lot of time talking about that. When I came to the States, it struck me how futuristic this country is. It’s so optimistic, but sometimes it seems lost because we forget the past.

What is something that you wished your students knew about you?

People say I’m very matter of fact. When you live through a war, you’re very matter of fact. You just think about life differently… I get impatient with frivolity. You take life much more seriously when you live through a war.

What is something that you wished parents knew about you?

Since the first book came out, I’ve had parents contact me… parents with students who are deciding on the question of “where to go to college?”. What I would say is that the main argument of the book is: what you do in college matters.

You can find hard classes and hard professors. You can spend more time studying and doing research projects, you can also engage in extracurricular activities and internships that can help you learn what you may want to do after college. Parents often contact me wanting an answer (“what school do I send my kids to?”), but it’s not as much about the school as about what students do while there.

It’s amazing to me how many parents have no clue what their kids do in college! Parents are increasingly focused on practical majors and clear careers, but even students in humanities do well. It’s about building skills and leaving college with a set of skills, knowledge, and experience that prepare you to embark on the next phase of life. If you just sort of go to class and sort of do your work and graduate it’s not going to look pretty afterwards…so talk to your kids.

Most rewarding moment as a Professor?

Most of the time I teach Statistics and Methods to graduates and undergraduates. Students enter statistics with a mix of dread, dislike, frustration… all kinds of negative emotions… “I’m not good at it,” etc. it’s fascinating to see what happens by the end of the semester… I would say the majority of students would say “I see the point of it”, “I see how I could use it” or even “I like it!” I even hear students saying….”I may want to do something with this and study it further”. To me, that’s education: to be exposed to something you may not like and to learn how to appreciate it and see it’s value and use and potential and relevance. I love teaching statistics because I love seeing that transformation!