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April 29, 2011

Tom Lawrence · The Daily Republic

DWU nursing student has cleared many hurdles to earn her degree

When Pauna Mirkovic came to the United States more than a decade ago, she could not speak English. Today, she graduates from Dakota Wesleyan University with an associate’s degree in nursing and is looking forward to a career in health care. (Tom Lawrence/Republic Photo)

Pauna Mirkovic feels like she has a debt to repay to the people of Mitchell.

Mirkovic, 33, will graduate today from Dakota Wesleyan University with an associate of arts degree in nursing. She hopes to land a job that will allow her to remain in the city she came to a decade ago, as a refugee from war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“I think we were very lucky to arrive in Mitchell because of the great people we met,” Mirkovic said.

She and her husband, Dusko, 38, and their sons Petar, 16, and Dushan, 13, came to Mitchell in 2001 thanks to relatives who lived here, as well as the assistance of local residents who ensured they had a place to live and some money to help them get started.

“I hope to find a job, get employed here in Mitchell,” she said. “I feel like I owe to Mitchell. I learned a lot from great nurses at Avera Queen of Peace and it would be a great place to give back what I learned.”

Earlier this year, Mirkovic was one of two South Dakota nursing students — both from Mitchell — who were named the 2011 Outstanding Nursing Students of South Dakota at the 2011 annual convention of the Nursing Students Association of South Dakota.

Joshua Wenande, of Mitchell, a student at Mount Marty College in Yankton, also received the honor.

Mirkovic said she was particularly honored to receive the award because of all the assistance she has received from the DWU Nursing Department staff and the people she met and worked with at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital.

They taught her how to become a fully qualified registered nurse, she said, and also made it clear that providing health care also means working with people and understanding their pain, fear and moments of need.

In an essay she wrote to qualify for the nursing student award, Mirkovic explained how the dramatic changes in her life helped her grow as she pursued her education and a new career.

“In 1992, my life was shattered. Because of war my husband, children and I were forced to leave our homeland. I understand how terrifying change can be when suddenly the life you knew does not mean anything. …

“With my life experiences I will feel more competent to help patients with difficult transitions. My past struggles will help me to meet today’s challenges and face change both in my personal and professional life.”

‘A team player’

In 1992, her family was forced from their home by the strife in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They moved around for three years before settling in Austria in 1995. In 2001, they came to the United States and arrived in Mitchell unable to speak English and unaware of where they were relocating to, Mirkovic said.

One of Mirkovic’s early acquaintances in Mitchell was Joan Dolejsi, who was on a committee dedicated to welcoming her and other refugees to the area. Later, Dolejsi’s PEO Sisterhood Chapter J awarded Mirkovic a continuing education grant. When asked why Mirkovic was selected, Dolejsi was quick to answer.

“It was her determination, her perseverance — she had the whole package,” Dolejsi said.

Gloria Thompson, the director of the DWU associate of arts nursing program, is a big fan of Mirkovic.

“Isn’t she awesome?” Thompson said Thursday morning.

“She’s a team player,” she said. “Her classmates just love her … and respect her. She’s earned the respect of the classmates and the faculty.

Thompson said she’s certain the language barrier has been a concern, but Mirkovic has worked hard to learn English and understand medical terms. Still, Thompson said she’s aware what a hurdle it must have been to overcome.

“Of course. I think it’s just a testament of how much harder she worked to make it happen,” Thompson said. “I know it was hard on her. We have never have seen such a motivated student.

“I have no doubt that she’ll have a successful career,” she said. “She’s adaptable, she works hard, she’s very motivated.”

‘Ultimate model’

Thompson said she was impressed when Mirkovic coordinated a study table for other students this year and made herself available for two hours a week to help them.

Lori Bork, a DWU associate professor of nursing, worked with Mirkovic in the classroom and as she did clinicals at Avera Queen of Peace.

“She’s absolutely amazing. I have not seen anyone love learning as much as she has,” said Bork, who still works shifts as a nurse in addition to her work as an educator. “She’s so appreciative of the opportunity she has. She reads her book all the time, cover to cover.”

That is so important, Bork said, especially for someone who is learning a new language. She said Mirkovic has mastered all aspects of the education she has received and shares the information she gained with her patients and fellow workers.

“She just is a wonderful communicator,” she said. “The other thing that impressed me about Pauna is, she just loves people.

“It is something. She’s a wonderful example of the potential for success in America if you’re motivated.”

Mirkovic said the DWU faculty members went out of their way to assist her.

“They are great. I am so proud to be graduating from the Dakota Wesleyan Nursing program,” she said. “The college faculty … they are great nurses.

“They are great people,” she continued. “Because it is a small classroom. You feel you are part of a little family there. They always teach you something I don’t think you can learn from books. You can feel that compassion for nursing. I’m so pleased to be part of the program.”

Thompson said she is proud of Mirkovic.

“She’s an excellent student,” she said. “She’s the ultimate model for caring, courage and compassion, I would say.”

Culture clash

Mirkovic said her family has been supportive and understanding. When meals weren’t ready and laundry wasn’t done, they didn’t complain because they knew she was studying, she said.

“I want to say a big thank you to my family. They are very, very supportive,” Mirkovic said. “If it wasn’t for them, I couldn’t do this. I really couldn’t.”

Her husband, Dusko, landed a job at Muth Electric after studying at Mitchell Technical Institute and still works there.

They have also adapted to life in a faster-paced world.

“I think we are still trying to … in America life is so busy,” she said. “I am still trying to cook at home and do things I did at home.”

Mirkovic said she likes to make stew and homemade bread for her family and enjoys spending time home with them.

When she first came to the United States, she worked as a waitress at Twin Dragon. There she was, a newly arrived woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina, working at a Chinese restaurant in small-town South Dakota.

“It was funny, yeah,” she admitted with a smile. “But they spoke good English. It was OK.”

Plan to stay

The parents have made sure their sons have continued to learn Serbo-Croatian, their native language, and they are glad, Mirkovic said, since they now communicate with family and friends in their homeland via the Internet.

“That’s so important to them,” she said. “They can speak right and read and write well.”

The Mirkovic family has returned home to Bijeljina, in Bosnia/Hergosvania, twice since coming to Mitchell.

“Our whole families are back home. That is tough,” she said. “It is a small town, maybe a little bigger than Mitchell.”

She doubts they will return there. America is their home, she said, and they’re happy to be here, even after enduring a bit of culture shock when they arrived.

“It was a big change. The language was the hardest thing, I think,” she said. “You are scared. There’s so many little things you have to learn.

“We plan to stay here. We became citizens a couple years ago. I hope my kids get a college education, too.”

As she wrote in the essay, she learned to accept and even embrace new things.

“Change is a constant which has both positive and negative effects. In nursing, changes are necessary for the survival of our patient,” she wrote. “There is no greater joy for a nurse than to see a positive outcome for a patient because they were not resistant to a change that made a difference.”

But she admitted in an interview and also in the essay that she is worried nurses are being asked to do too much and aren’t able to provide the kind of care that she feels patients need and want.

“Budget concerns are causing hospitals and health agencies to reduce nursing staff. Due to time constraints, the core nursing beliefs of addressing physical and environmental issues surrounding the patient’s care are being compromised,” Mirkovic wrote. “Nurses are required to document every little thing that is done; more tasks are leaving nurses with no time to spend with their patient.”

‘Happy time’

Looking back at the last several years during an interview before her last finals test, Mirkovic said she has learned to love her career.

“I believe nursing is a privilege,” she said. “Nurses are involved in a person’s life. You’re allowed almost to be a temporary relative to them in those times.”

Mirkovic said nurses are with people at “maybe the hardest time in their life, but there are also happy times, such as when a mother gives birth.”

She has learned people want to trust and rely on their nurse, and that pays off when they are being treated.

“They ask more questions if they’re comfortable with you,” she said.

DWU will award diplomas to 66 nursing students who earned associate of arts degrees, and nine former DWU grads will earn bachelor’s degrees. The 66 who earned two-year degrees are divided into three campuses — 38 in Mitchell, 18 in Sioux Falls and 10 in Huron. All will come to the DWU campus in Mitchell for the ceremony, Thompson said.

Mirkovic said she plans a modest celebration with friends who will join her and her family to mark “this happy time for me.”

Related Links: Click here to view a full photo gallery from the 2011 DWU Nurses' Pinning Ceremony.

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Last updated: 4/30/11