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I Found Her In The Archives: The First Serbian at Mount Holyoke

Jul 31, 2012 by Jelena Jezdimirovic

I made a goal this summer; I decided to read and learn all I could about famous Mount Holyoke Maries. The most obvious choice would be to start from the very beginning, from the Mary, the one that built this school in 1837 with her bare ten fingers and uncompromising will. I marched into the stacks, armed with resolution and call numbers of the books that haven’t been checked out in a long time. Why then, instead with Mary Lyon, I decided to start my journey with Mary Woolley I am still not sure. I call it the moment of Mount Holyoke wandering sidetrack-ness, that one kind that always leads to amazing things.

Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks with one of their collies

As I was reading about Mary Woolley I thought that she must be the most exciting college president in the history of higher education in US (my humble estimate); however, my amazement with reforms that Mount Holyoke underwent with her in charge was completely overshadowed by one single mention of the name – Marija.

If one was to translate the name Mary from English to Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian language the closest translation would be Marija (pronounced as Maria). As Mary Woolley travelled the world, she met people from all corners of the Earth, usually sending long letters to her partner, English Professor Jeannette Marks writing about these encounters. In one of those letters dating back to 1920, Mary Woolley mentioned a Mount Holyoke student called Marija Yovanovitch, asking Jeannette to tell Marija that she has met some Red Cross ladies from Belgrade, Serbia.

Marija Yovanovitch '24 

Marija Yovanovitch? Belgrade? 1920? For a college with such high international population, I realized long time ago that the title of the first Mount Holyoke Serb does not belong to me. But to think that 92 years ago there was a young woman from Serbia walking through the same Green, sleeping in the same dorms as I do today, felt completely mind blowing to me.

I felt the need and almost a duty to discover how did Marija end up at Mount Holyoke? Even today, people are struck with the fact that I found out about Mount Holyoke from all the way “over there” in Serbia. Well, I knew that Marija Yovanovitch did not have internet and campus visit in her junior year of high school was not really feasible with the Atlantic and World War I in the way, so in order to find out more I turned to Archives.

For two afternoons, Leslie Fields (the Head of Archives at Mount Holyoke) and I looked through all the possible documentation relating to international students in 1920s. All we could find was a photo of Marija, the fact she was class of 1924 but did not graduate and that she lived in Brigham. I owe great thanks to Leslie for all of her help and patience with my research.

First Year Students from Brigham, 1920

My last resort in this little quest is known to any American interested in learning more about her/his family history. I made a profile on the website called Ancestry and was finally able to reach Marija’s immigration records from Ellis Island in 1920. It turned out she was travelling with about 60 other Serbian young people, all about 20 years of age at the time. They were all heading to the same address in New York – The International Serbian Educational Committee.With a little Google and Ancestry magic, I have learned that International Serbian Educational Committee was founded by American doctor Rosalie Slaughter Morton. Dr. Morton was the first female surgeon ever to teach at Columbia; during the World War I she was volunteering as a surgeon with Serbian Army. After the war Dr. Morton worked hard to help war torn Serbia recover, whether it was through building schools and hospitals or sponsoring Serbian students to study at US universities.

For months Dr. Morton worked on securing tuition scholarships for 60 select Serbian students. She then gave lectures and speeches about the war, all over US in order to help cover the costs of life for these students. These scholarships were highly selective, over 2000 young people from Serbia applied for only 60 spots. At the same time, she made sure that these spots are filled with almost equal amount of men and women. 

Serbian Students in the News (Dr. Morton on the right side of the photo)

One of the young women was Marija Yovanovitch who was to be studying at Mount Holyoke College. When I finally got my hands on Dr. Morton’s autobiography, I had the chance to read about Marija’s first experience at Mount Holyoke. Mary Woolley was always famous for owning collies. When Marija had her first reception with Woolley, one of the dogs terrified her by sneaking behind her back. Just six weeks later, Dr. Morton received a photo of Marija hugging the collie, the two being best of friends.

I can’t help but think – what a unique Mount Holyoke story! If I was a student at any other school but a women’s college, this story would be highly unlikely. Columbia, for instance, started admitting women in 1983. When the world was falling apart after the World War I, women in US were just gaining the right to vote, women in Serbia would not have that right a long time after that, there was a young woman Marija Yovanovitch brave enough to pack her bags after three months of studying English and 120 dollars in her pocket and there was a place called Mount Holyoke standing strong to become her intellectual home.

This history belongs to me, it belongs to all other Mount Holyoke students and in the face of any adversity we face as women, the lasting legacy of women's education is a powerful source of inspiration.

Whenever I pass Brigham, I can’t help but wonder whether Marija liked sitting on the porch.


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