The other side of the world

An administrator describes how she has balanced work, family and study since arriving in Australia as a refugee

Fleeing war-torn Sarajevo in the 1990s, Ranka Videnovic, then in her late twenties, arrived in Australia with her husband, her five-month-old baby and $200 in her pocket. She has never looked back.

“During the war, my husband and I decided we didn’t want to live in Bosnia-Herzegovina anymore,” she says. “We didn’t want to raise our children there. We came to Australia as refugees. The most significant event in my life was coming here – deciding to go to the other side of the world and then being so beautifully accepted in society.”

With her three children getting older, Ranka, assistant school administrator at the Australian National University’s Research School of Management, is at another turning point, dealing with some unfinished business. She always wanted to complete her mathematics education, which was interrupted by the war. Now, having just gained accountancy qualifications, she hopes to pursue her interest in numbers through a career in finance.

Ranka originally wanted to live in Melbourne or Sydney, where her husband, an information and communications technology specialist, had business contacts. “We got a call from the Australian Government, asking if we wanted to go to Canberra because they had a spot for us there,” she says. “That’s how we ended up here. We love Canberra. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Ranka focused initially on improving her English before gaining work experience as an administrative assistant at the University of Canberra. “I somehow drifted over to accounting,” she says, adding that she enjoys the maths in the discipline as well as pondering “how it works and how it relates to each other”.

She moved into paid work, mostly in finance. She worked as a collector of public monies at the National Science and Technology Centre (Questacon) in the late 1990s, a job that covered everything from banking to liaison with an external armoured cash delivery and pick-up service.

She then took up a position as a support officer at the Toora Women’s Incorporated, a refuge for homeless women. The job included records maintenance, support and advocacy services, facilitation of groups, meetings and interviews, crisis assessment, policy development, participation in community forums, and security and safety maintenance of residents.

The job was a detour from her roles in finance, but work with social dimensions has been a recurring theme in her career. When she had to abandon her maths education due to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, she worked as a financial officer, translator and operations officer at the aid agency, the International Rescue Committee, in central Bosnia.

“During the war, the humanitarian organisations started to arrive in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” she says. “I could speak English. I helped with the displaced people and interpreted for our international staff members.”

She says that part of the attraction of the job at Toora was her passion for “working with people and helping them”.

Later, in Canberra, Ranka worked as a financial officer at the Family Court of Australia before moving to a job as a financial officer at the University of Canberra. She was retrenched from the UC job and jumped at the chance when a post at ANU came up. It offered an opportunity to work on a campus again.

“I love it when the students are on campus and everything is buzzing,” she says. “After being retrenched, we all had to take redundancy packages. But I love working here, even though there isn’t much finance involved at the moment. It was the idea of working at a university again.”

In her current position as the Research School of Management’s assistant school administrator, a job she took up in 2008, she fields student inquiries, supervises the student office and coordinates the school’s timetabling program. She handles some financial tasks, including the monitoring of staff and postgraduate research budgets. She also coordinates travel arrangements for staff and oversees maintenance requirements for equipment and stores.

A colleague in the research school says she is “much loved by students and academics for her professionalism, thoughtfulness, cheerful personality, cooking talent, and above all, her loving and caring nature”.

“I have not seen her without a smile, which always brightens anyone’s day,” says lecturer Vinh Lu. “It is very clear that Ranka has tremendous enjoyment from interacting with people whilst successfully attending to and managing a wide variety of student matters. Her people and organisational skills are absolutely amazing.”

Ranka says that balancing work and life is “a challenge” but her life has so far revolved around her family. “My life was my family – my children,” she says. “I put my career to the side. I didn’t study, I didn’t undertake professional development. I supported my family.

“I have enjoyed every moment of living in Australia. I started with a few part-time jobs, with everything fitting around my family life. I now work five days a week but my position is part-time. I can’t do full-time work. I have three kids. I have a high achieving husband who is career-oriented. He works long hours and travels a lot.”

Ranka says planning is the key to success. “The one thing I’m good at is organising,” she says. “I organise everybody around me in my house. It is a juggle. We don’t do take-aways. I cook daily. I help the kids with their maths homework. I work long hours. I start early and finish late.”

Ranka says her mother has been her main role model. “She is a housewife but is still able to do so many things,” she says. “But I have learnt from everybody – from my supervisors, my colleagues, from my friends, my first next door neighbour – just ordinary people. I am a good learner. I observe and pay attention all the time.”

She says gender has not been an obstacle in Australia, which, she says, contrasts markedly with her home country. “Where I come from there’s a very male-oriented society,” she says. “Women were usually at home, and would raise the kids and do the housework while the men would go and earn a living. It is much nicer here. I’ve got the opportunity here to have a wonderful job, to finish my degree, to have a career – not that I’m a career-chasing woman. I want to be there for my kids first. My career comes second for me.”

And the future? Ranka began a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and programming at the University of Sarajevo in the late 1980s, studying subjects including pure maths, physics, and data processing. She has always lamented the truncation of her maths education.

“I’ve always loved numbers,” she says. “I studied for four years. I was just about to do my exams when the war started. I want to finish that chapter in my life.”

So, at the end of 2012, she completed a graduate certificate of professional accounting at the University of Canberra, notching up distinctions. Now she hopes to move into an accounting job on campus. “But it would be very hard to leave this job,” she adds.

She also wants to take things easier and indulge her many interests. “The kids are growing up now and they can do things by themselves,” she says. “I have to try to relax – slow down a little. I have been on the go for many years.

“I enjoy sewing and knitting. I’ve got a lovely group of friends that I like to meet. I enjoy gardening as well and riding my bike. I want to find time for the things that were kept on the side because there were more important things for me to do.”

In Ranka’s view, people born in Australia take the country for granted. “You’ve got electricity, you’ve got running water, you’ve got freedom – they’re all normal,” she says. “Where I come from, everything is complicated. Life is difficult. I really appreciate living here. I just love this life. In this country and this workplace, if I have a dream, I can fulfil the dream.”

She returns to her home country at times to visit her mother. “I feel I don’t belong there anymore,” she says. “The place has changed. I have changed. I go for a visit but I always come back here. This is home.”



Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute