Partnership between IUSSW and Croatian agency wins first Global Engagement Award from IUPUI Office of International Affairs


A small Croatian agency that has opened its arms to the Indiana University School of Social Work has been awarded the first Global Engagement Award by the Office of International Affairs at IUPUI.

The award honors an overseas organization that enhances the campus’s international efforts and is accompanied by $3,000 to be used to help strengthen the partnership with the School of Social Work.

“The impact this small agency has had on our students is immeasurable, Dr. Carmen Luca Sugawara, an Associate Professor of Social Work, wrote in her letter nominating PRONI for the award.

“The story of the founding of this organization in 1998 vividly reminds our IU students of why they wanted to be social workers and has led others to aspire to join the Peace Corps and apply to become a Fulbright Scholar.”

What PRONI brings to the table is simply this, Dr. Luca Sugawara explained. As teenagers, they saw their world devolve into chaos and hate. The experience proved to be so searing they came together, created PRONI and have devoted their lives to making sure it doesn’t happen again. To that end, the PRONI staff are willing to share their painful experiences so our students not only learn from their past, but understand the importance of creating communities where all people feel they have a place and a voice.  

“I believe this dedicated group of young professionals deserves much recognition for their contribution to strengthening our Indiana University School of Social Work Study Abroad Program in Croatia and for promoting and supporting our social work research initiatives in communities affected by war.”

For nearly two decades, PRONI has been an instrumental NGO that contributed to the development of different social structures regarding youth issues, particularly the development of youth clubs, of regional information centres in the Vukovar and Sisak areas. This agency with a staff of only 7 full-time professionals has created more than 200 training programs for community citizens in Croatia and developed more than 20 international youth exchanges.

“It is not unusual for these remarkable people to work 15 hours a day, receiving very small salaries and yet they continue to struggle to bring about a collaboration and consolidation among community members, regardless of their ethnic identities.

As busy as they are, when Dr. Luca Sugawara asked for their help in a research initiative that explored ways to rebuild ethnically divided communities through parental involvement, they never hesitated.

 In 2008, PRONI, the University of Zagreb Department of Social Work and the IU School of Social Work began to work on a research study to develop models of practice that are meant to assist in the rebuilding of the social fabric of communities affected by war, through parental involvement in elementary schools. For many years, parents in this region have longed to be more engaged with their children’s education and with their communities. War and ethnic divisions and social structures have precluded this.

“They were the best field research team I ever wished to work with. They were present; connected, and responsive to my research data collection standards, while fully vested on the impact of my research findings on their communities. They taught me a great sense of ethical responsibility towards international communities that agree to be part of new research initiatives.”

In the summer of 2010, Dr. Luca Sugawara invited PRONI to join her in another international initiative – developing an international service learning course for the IUPUI student body. PRONI, again, excitedly agreed to be part of this international study abroad course, regardless of the time and effort it took to accommodate the students schedule, curricula and the logistics of the course. What’s more they did all free of charge – they truly believe in global learning and the power of staying connected to address complex challenges of our day.

This Social Work Practice in War-Torn Communities in Croatia has three major components: academic, leadership and service to our global community. The structure of this course is a combination of pre-departure seminars, in which students get an opportunity to learn about theories and approaches to community reconstruction and community practice; a two weeks service learning experience in Croatia, and a post-trip seminar back on the IUPUI campus. The two weeks in Croatia is structured in a way that gradually exposes our students to the consequences of the war and its impact on communities. Our students are introduced to the real-world experience of community building with PRONI and PRONI’s local partnering organizations. Developing authentic cultural competence is one of the primary goals of this course and of the entire Croatian experience with students. I am convinced that learning in this complex environment, far from home, and from one’s own cultural supports, advances cultural competence in a way that cannot be duplicated in the traditional classroom environment.

“They also are able impart to our students another lesson I cannot possibly replicate in the classroom — the fragility of our humanity through the lenses of the war. PRONI has taught our students that while the past matters the future rests in our abilities of everyone to unite, to take action and remember that when there is will, there is hope for tomorrow.”