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  • Writer's pictureBranwen Defren


Updated: Aug 29, 2018

Hear all about my friend Alena's adventure studying abroad in the city of London in the United Kingdom and Belgrade, Serbia.

Me (right) with Alena (left) in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovnia

This lovely human and I were roommates during our dialogue* trip to the Balkans during the summer of 2016. The more we got to know one another the more I realized I’d hit the lottery with a once in a lifetime “realist” roommate.

Alena did everything humanely possible to make sure I felt as comfortable as possible while I was intensely sick during this trip. She helped carry my “drug mule” backpack, encouraged me to get fluids when I looked like death, and never hesitated when I asked her to leave the room so she wouldn’t have to hear me get sick.

Alena is not only incredibly kind and generous with her time, but she's also incredibly well traveled and has multiple work experiences under her belt despite only being a sophomore in college. And not to mention also takes amazing photos and articles for her blog, Travel She Writes. (Psst, check out her amazing website and follow her Instagram here – trust me, you won’t regret it).

The questions and pictures below are about her unique personal experiences working and living in Belgrade, Serbia this past spring and her current life now living and working in London, England. Oh, and she’s done all of these things before she can legally drink in the U.S. – told you she was cool… Learn more about Alena and her travel experiences below!


Age: 20

Major: Political Science, International Affairs, Social Activism

Current Study Abroad: Hansard Society Scholars

Past co-op: CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies

Favorite book: Tie between All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque or Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller


Your first ever co-op was in Belgrade, Serbia. What made you decide to go here for your first major job?

When applying for co-ops I received offers for positions all over the US and across the world, but the opportunity in Belgrade drew me in for a number of reasons. I had visited the city before on a summer program with Northeastern. During this program we met with representatives of the nonprofit I ended up co-oping with, and I was drawn to their mission. I also liked the idea of living in Eastern Europe as it is the region where I have focused my studies.

What was your job while you were here?

I served as an Analytical Researcher for the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, a nonprofit that works to educate the public on social actvism and train activists to better stage successful nonviolent movements.

What was the biggest difference you found from living in Serbia than from living in the US?

The most obvious difference was the alphabet- Serbia officially uses both the latin alphabet like the US and the Cyrillic alphabet. Perhaps the most startling difference, though was the sense of camaraderie: in Serbia I always felt like even complete strangers would have my back if I needed them to. Like I could borrow some change or turn to a friendly face and it would be offered without question. There's a similar sense of belonging in New York, and I'm sure in many other parts of the US, but this instead amounts to a mutual respect of privacy-- that if I don't bother you, you won't bother me.

What are some things you wish people knew about Serbia and The Balkans in general that you want to vocalize?

There's a list that's miles long, but first on it is probably just where and what it is. Many people didn't even know that Serbia is in Europe or that it used to be part of Yugoslavia. I swear there are people out there who really think I spent six months in Siberia.

Are you happy you have the chance to work in Serbia? If you could go back to your first day what would you have told yourself to look out for? (leaving this one out) Would you do it over again?

I will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to live and work in Belgrade and would absolutely make the same choice again if given the opportunity. While my work experience was invaluable, I learned even more outside of work. Over those six months I grew academically, professionally, and personally in ways I don't think would have been possible anywhere else.

What was your favorite part about living in Serbia? What was the worst?

The worst thing was definitely the time difference. Living six hours ahead of all of your family and friends is simply inconvenient. Also the lack of iced coffee: if you order an iced coffee in Serbia you'll be served a latte with ice cream in it. While a fun surprise at first, it gets disheartening.

The best thing was probably the people I met there, including my roommates. Though American, we did not know each other before arrival, but have come out lifelong friends.

How affordable was it living in the Balkans?

The Balkans are incredibly affordable (except maybe Croatia) as the exchange rate is in favor of the dollar and the price point is generally lower for things like housing and groceries.

Were there ever any instances where you didn’t feel safe living in the Balkans?

I always felt very safe in Belgrade, even at night. It was refreshing not to feel nervous walking home at night. Part of this is because cat-calling isn't so much of a phenomenon there. In fact, I never encountered it except for during a visit to London in March.

You’re currently in the midst of your new study abroad experience – how’s it going? What are you doing for your current classes and mini co-op?... How do you spend your free time?

I am currently living in London and will be here for a total of four months, considerably less time than my last stretch abroad. Perhaps the most telling story I can share about how it's going is that I accomplished all of the "settling" things that took me weeks in Serbia in a single afternoon here in London. Having lived so far outside my comfort zone already, moving to London felt entirely simple.

My program is composed of courses with the London School of Economics and Political Science and an internship in Parliament. I begin my internship placement, with to SNP MPs next week, and am hoping to tie my work into my dissertation topic.

What is your favorite part about living in London? What’s your least?

I'm not sure i have a least favorite thing, aside from the usual gripe about how expensive London is, but my favorite would have to be the wonderful intersection between arts, academia and politics that lives within the city.

What are people’s perceptions of American’s in the UK and London?

Brits generally believe that Americans are loud. And they're not wrong. If more than three of us go out to dinner together, the volume in the restaurant increases threefold.

What kind of work are you hoping to do in the future?

The short answer is that I'd like to work to better the world for everyone. The long answer is that my field has so many different facets that I couldn't even begin to guess which one I'll end up in at this point. I'm interested in diplomacy, policy, journalism, activism, accountability and so much more that I'll need the next few years to narrow it down further.

Where are you hoping to travel to in the future? Do you have any plans to have another study abroad/international co-op experience?

I'd like to visit Southeast Asia and more of the Nordic countries. I have no plans right now to get there, but I'm working my way through a long list. Over the next two years I plan to go abroad at least once more, but I'm not sure if that will be for school or work, or just for fun.

I can't wait to see all of the amazing things this human will be doing after graduation, but even more, I can't wait till she's back in Boston next semester. Big thanks to Alena for taking the time to answer all my questions!

*Northeastern students can do a dialogue program which is essentially a mini study abroad with a group of 20+ other Northeastern students and a few faculty members to earn university credit. These trips run for 4-6 weeks between May - August.


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