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How a passion for kids led one UofGH alumna to a PhD

Text that reads: I wanted to have these voices that are missing in society come through in my research.

University of Guelph-Humber Early Childhood Studies alumna Dragana Mirkovic always knew she wanted a career that centred on children, but it wasn’t until she began gaining real-world experience in her field placements during her time at UofGH that she started to understand which roles would best fit her.

Although she drew invaluable experience from field placements both in a classroom setting and working with children with special needs, it was her fourth-year placement working as an administrative assistant to UofGH Early Childhood Studies Program Head Dr. Nikki Martyn that was truly revelatory for Mirkovic.

“That was when I realized I wanted to work in higher education rather than necessarily working directly with children,” Mirkovic explained. “I realized I wanted to, more than anything else, study children. I wanted to explore their daily lived experiences and their understanding of the world. I wanted to have these voices that are missing in society come forth through my research.

“That’s when I decided to continue on toward my Master’s.”

In fact, Mirkovic didn’t stop there. She is now a doctoral student at York University pursuing her PhD in Education: Language, Culture and Teaching.

Finding her way

Though Mirkovic knew as she graduated high-school that she would want to work with children, she didn’t know which post-secondary program would be the best fit. She toured campus after campus as she searched for something both specific and intangible.

“One thing I was looking for was to have an experience where I wasn’t a number. I wanted a University setting where it went beyond that into being a person and a participant and a community member,” she recalled. “I went on a million tours of various institutions and every place I went just didn’t feel right.

“I’ve always been a very intuitive person, and I was looking for a specific kind of feeling. When I came to the tour at the University of Guelph-Humber, it just felt right. Everyone was so caring. It just felt like I wasn’t a number.”

Beyond the small class sizes and community feeling that UofGH offered, Mirkovic was also drawn in by the opportunity to complete more than 800 hours of workplace experience as part of the ECS program. Those placements wound up being an invaluable tool for self-discovery as Mirkovic began to plan a career path.

Although she enjoyed her first placements shadowing a kindergarten teacher and working with children with special needs in an autism centre, she began to realize that teaching young children might not be for her. Her next placements – working in an early learning and care centre for infants and in another for pre-schoolers – helped Mirkovic get a job as an Assistant Early Childhood Educator, a position that she held for almost three years.

Still, those placements didn’t quite elicit the same amount of excitement that Mirkovic felt when she eventually worked closely with Dr. Martyn in her fourth year. Inspired in part by Assistant Program Head Dr. Elena Merenda, Mirkovic decided to apply for Ryerson University’s Master of Arts program in Early Childhood Studies. Not only was she accepted, but she was awarded the merit-based Ontario Graduate Scholarship.

Since her undergraduate program at UofGH included many opportunities to conduct research, she found herself much better-prepared than she expected to thrive in her Master’s program.

“It helped me set the groundwork for what I’m researching now.”

Even after that positive experience, Mirkovic was not optimistic when she first applied to the PhD program at York. Again, she leaned on support from leaders in UofGH’s ECS program.

“One of my most prominent memories was sitting in Nikki Martyn’s office and crying my eyes out and saying that I’m not smart enough for a PhD,” Mirkovic recalled. “She told me that everyone’s scared. She said that she was scared too and didn’t think she would make it. That’s one of those things that pushed me to keep going. If I really wanted to, I could make it. When I got accepted to the program, I was absolutely shocked and absolutely delighted.

“That was one of the biggest things for me about UofGH – there was a community of professors who cared so much about their students,” she added. “Nikki and Elena’s doors were always open. If I had a problem, I was never uncomfortable going to my professors. When you’re in education and all the assignments and stress are piling up, sometimes you just need someone to talk to. That’s why I loved that they were always there.”

Children and identity

Now, Mirkovic is finishing her coursework before shifting her attention to her dissertation, which will look at children’s engagement with spirituality as a means of exploring difficulty. She also has upcoming publications examining children’s identity formation and another that plays with the idea of defining spirituality as something separate from religion or mindfulness.

She’s enjoying working now as a Teaching Assistant and one day sees herself becoming a professor. She always wants to maintain a connection to research.

“I want to continue to publish and I want research to be a big part of my career,” she said. “I’ve always found research is extremely important at a social-justice level and at a personal level for me because I want to get to know myself better as an educator, a student, and a person.”

Perhaps she always had an inkling that this would be her path. Mirkovic recalls that as a young child, she told her mom that she would one day get her PhD.

“They used to call me doctor,” she remembered with a laugh. “It’s funny, because how did I know what a PhD was? But here we are, years later, I’m getting my PhD and it’s somewhere I never thought I’d be. But ultimately, every step of the way was paved by my education. I’m extremely grateful.”

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