Bosnian Refugee Completes ‘American Journey’ By Graduating From The University Of Mary Washington

By Lindley Estes
The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Today Melisa Pilipovic receives her bachelor of science degree in business administration and accounting at UMW. It’s a milestone for Pilipovic who first arrived in the United States as a refugee from war-torn Bosnia when she was just 2 years old.

The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

Melisa Pilipovic has always been good with money.

She opened her first savings account at Waynesboro’s First Bank & Trust Co. before kindergarten at the behest of her mother, who wanted her to understand how far money can go.

And she taught herself Quickbooks at age 13, as her entrepreneur parents also were learning the accounting software.

The Pilipovic family had to be good with their accounts. As refugees from war-torn Bosnia, Melisa and her parents, Zejna and Suljo Pilipovic, settled in Virginia after fleeing the country in 1997. She was 2 years old at the time and her parents had to figure out how to make a living in a country they’d never visited before.

On Saturday, she’ll receive her bachelor of science degree in business administration and accounting, one of 1,035 undergrads and 155 graduate students to cross the commencement stage this weekend.

It’s a milestone she sees as symbolically completing her parent’s journey to create a bright future for her in the U.S.

“I’m so grateful,” she said about her time at UMW. “It’s been a really amazing experience for me, but it’s also been really fulfilling for my parents. They came here, leaving everything they knew behind. And the life they wanted for me: It’s happening.”

Pilipovic was born in Velika Kladusa, a town in the far northwest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, near Croatia.

In 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence with several other republics that were formerly part of Yugoslavia. That move triggered a four-year civil war. And while estimates of casualties vary, at least 100,000 lives were lost in the war.

Her uncle was the first in the U.S. and filed paperwork for more family members to seek refugee status here. She said her father applied so she and her mother would have a better quality of life.

They flew into New York and from there, they were sponsored by a church in Waynesboro to become a part of that community.

Growing up, she watched her parents build two businesses, Foreign Valley Trucking and Forval Express, and said she was always fascinated by their hard work and business sense.

She is starting a full-time job with accounting and auditing firm KPMG in Washington, D.C., on June 5, auditing financials for the federal government. Pilipovic said she was drawn to the field because of her parent’s hard work and because of the stability of accounting as a profession.

Pilipovic said her experiences gave her a different outlook on higher education.

“People tell me I’m so mature for a college student,” she said. “And I just have a more positive outlook than a lot of students I encountered did. It’s a better way to live. It’s happier.”

Pilipovic called UMW “the best decision I’ve ever made.” She said the small campus gave her real connections with people, which resulted in great relationships and her job.

One of those connections is Lynne Richardson, the dean of the College of Business.

“Melisa has done everything at UMW she should,” Richardson said. “I tell her she’s done college ‘right.’ She’s been engaged all the way from her first month.”

She has been active in the Marketing Club, the Student Alumni Ambassadors, the College of Business Women in Business program and the dean’s student advisory board for the College of Business.

And she’s made great friends. One of those is her roommate of four years, whose wedding she’ll be a bridesmaid in next year.

She is also a recipient of the 2017 Rappahannock — Fredericksburg Rotary Club’s Ethical Student of the Year award, given to students who have been judged by their school’s faculty to exemplify ethical standards. She said, especially going into accounting, it means a lot that the local business community saw those ethical standards in her.

After leaving UMW, Pilipovic doesn’t want to stop learning. After she starts at KPMG, she wants to get her Certified Public Accountant license and will look into getting a graduate degree.

But graduation isn’t the only celebration happening for Pilipovic this weekend. On Friday, she turned 22 and family flew in from around the country to celebrate with her. They all are coming to commencement this Saturday morning, a few of the roughly 5,000 people the annual event draws.

She goes back to Bosnia nearly every year to visit family, and said her grandparents also would have attended graduation if health concerns hadn’t kept them from the long flight. She speaks Bosnian fluently, and she and her parents have stayed close to their ties there.
Then on Sunday, Pilipovic and her parents are spending a quiet Mother’s Day at home.

“She’s my best friend,” she said about her mother.

She said graduating is exciting and overwhelming.

“It’s a part of my life, completing the American journey my parents set out for me,” she said.

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