Nemanja Nikitovic: My Journey from Serbia to New Jersey

Born in Uzice, Serbia where I lived for 20 years before moving to United States. Now I live longer in the US then in Serbia. As a kid I was very interested in technology and computers as my first childhood
memory are scenes from a legendary George Lucas movie called Star Wars episode V: “The Empire Strikes Back”. I do not recall anything about my life prior to this movie theater visit during a vacation on Zlatibor mountain in January 1984. However, I clearly remember every aspect of the movie theater building, the walk back to the hotel, the snow, the smell of pine trees. Since that night I have never stopped thinking about the universe, eternal fight between good and evil, meaning of life, struggle and price one must pay to fight for what he believes in and what one holds true and important. To this day Star Wars for me remains the guide and source of philosophical questions to endlessly wonder about. By the time I got into high school my interests expanded to philosophy, theater and politics. I spent many hours playing video games with my friends and practicing and teaching self-defense. In 1998 I was accepted to University of Belgrade where I chose to study electrical engineering following in footsteps of my father and uncle. The higher education was short-lived as in March of 1999 NATO aggression on Serbia shut down much of the country’s infrastructure. It was at that time when I took on a heavy burden as a one of twelve leaders of a student-centered political organization called OTPOR! which consumed much of the following two years of my life. I learned much about politics, leadership and civic engagement. The government recognized a great threat in work we did and in what we represented so we were constantly hunted and arrested. Even though I have been detained number of times I never
gave up my mission to help Serbia eradicate all traces of socialism and deeply rooted communism that was plaguing the nation for decades. My education was on hold and apart from political involvement and my martial arts training I barely participated in anything else. After the movement successfully orchestrated removal of the Serbian dictator in October of 2000, I did not see a further purpose to OTPOR! and quit the movement in February of 2001 hoping to focus back on my education. Unfortunately the University suffered immense restructuring and many top tier professors were let go due to their political beliefs and support they gave to OTPOR! in previous years. By the time those faculty were invited back, they were already established teaching abroad and quality of instruction along
with University’s prestige was all but gone. This left me with a choice: leave Serbia in pursuit of higher education abroad or stay in Serbia and hope for better times.

I moved to US in August 2001 just two weeks before 9/11. I took on construction and landscaping jobs to support myself and I remember the phone call my mother made as the chaos in New York was unfolding. She wanted to know if I am alive not realizing that there was over 60 miles distance between me and NY. At the suggestion of my (now) wife I enrolled at RVCC to learn English and take few courses, just to see if I am still interested in attending University. The first semester at RVCC fundamentally changed my life. In October 2001, at that time an unknown student walked into my ESL class and introduced herself as a President of RVCC International Club. She invited us to join them for a meeting following Tuesday and learn about different cultures from around the world. My decision to go and check it out was one of the best decisions I ever made. It was that very Tuesday when I met Dr. Tulsi Maharjan and over the next 22 years of our countless interactions, I followed the Rotary path to this very night.

We chartered RVCC Rotaract in March 2002 with hope to grow the club and use it as a base to provide help to those in need. It was Dr. Tulsi who taught us the importance and meaning of service. His advice and guidance resonate strongly within me even to this day. Through my Rotaract presidency in 2002-2003, I learned more about leadership except, this time, the focus was not personal needs or wants but service to others. For the first time I was exposed to poverty of Nepal, Afghanistan and Ecuador and for
the first time I understood that every one of my personal hardships was just a drop in a sea for what countless individuals lived through their entire lives. I was enrolled in a challenging RVCC Engineering program juggling courses, club, and many part-time jobs I had at the time. I married Irina in August 2003 and started making plans for family. We decided to practice first so we got a dog, wonderful little Yorkie named Sophie. She lived with us for 12 years before her passing. In September 2003 after being rejected
by RVCC Tutoring Center I was hired as a teacher’s assistant by Prof. Aditi Patel. It was my first academic job, one that paved the way towards what I do today. In 2004 I added another major to my RVCC academic transcript: Mathematics. I continued to work and study hard while trying to participate in every Rotaract and Rotary event in the area. Upon my graduation in May 2005, I was elected to serve at RVCC Board of Trustees for a year. I had opportunity to learn about college operation and participate in
a search for a new college president. In 2005 Phi Theta Kappa gave me scholarship to continue my education at Montclair State University. I chose to study Pure and Applied Mathematics which I was able to complete in three semesters and move on to graduate school to NJIT to study even more mathematics. By the time I completed master’s and about half of the Ph.D. an opportunity presented itself to apply to work at RVCC. I took it as I always dreamed of going back to teach at institution that paved the road for me. In 2010 I left my teaching position at NJIT and accepted the offer to teach at RVCC Math Department. All these years I kept in touch with Rotary and Dr. Tulsi, visiting sporadic meetings and participating in events. It was the same year, 2010, when I was asked to officially join Rotary Club and become the adviser to RVCC Rotaract Club, the club that was a part of my life for almost a decade at that time.

Over the past 13 years, RVCC Rotaract grew from a small college club to an internationally recognized behemoth. Over the years we worked with dozens of clubs around the world while always paying attention to our local community and the college. We worked with friends in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, Ghana, France, Germany, Serbia, Colombia, Mexico and Canada. We helped charter and set up of Rotaract Clubs of Rutgers and Kean University and work with them on numerous projects.
We helped Rotary Clubs of Branchburg, Hillsborough, Clinton, Somerville, Whitehouse, Flemington and many more. Students had opportunity to travel nationally and internationally and represent our college and our mission in the best manner possible. Rotaract Club helped organize and host meal packing events where, in the past seven years more than 300,000 meals were shipped to those in need. 33,000 meals were shipped to Ukraine in March last year just five weeks after the conflict started. We collected school supplies for Nepalese students, fundraised and donated money to Relay for Life, Operation Smile, Toys for Tots, worked with veterans’ backpack project, organized and sorted books for local prison education program, participated in numerous road, park, beach and campus clean-ups, supported countless Rotary events while always creating new friendships, learning new skills, travelling to new locations to serve the community the best we can. I am proud to say that the vision of Dr. Tulsi is still guiding the club even though he retired 15 years ago. I am proud to say that I had a role model and a mentor to learn a great deal from. When I met him for the first time, I hoped he would help me create a karate club, instead he taught me about importance of volunteering and gave a lifetime purpose to pursue and inspire others to pursue the passion for service.

I am not the one to receive this honor. The people who made me what I am are receiving this award, my wife Irina who puts up with my frequent absences as I volunteer at events, my kids Milan and Mia who I
live for and I try to inspire and teach, my parents and my in-laws who always loved me and supported me every step of the way, my sister and her family who miss me far away on the other side of the pond,
my uncle, my dear neighbors who make the life fun and easier to manage, my dear friends and colleagues at RVCC who keep me sane, my students who inspire me to be the best teacher I can, members of my Rotary family, thank you George and Ronny for helping me realize my pedagogical
dreams, there are hundreds of names to add to this list. I owe you all for making this honor possible and I humbly ask for forgiveness that only my name is listed on it. Dr. Tulsi thank you for your guidance, inspiration, teaching, for sharing your vision, your wisdom, for opening your home to me, for providing me support when I needed it. I am honored to have you as my mentor and my friend.

To stay true to my beliefs and hopes I must say that I am not planning on bailing out. My purpose is to pass on all I learned and hopefully light more fires the way Dr. Tulsi lit the fire within me more than 20 years ago. Maria, Manny, Joel, Darek, Rafael, Gill, Shea, Anna, all of my Rotaractors, our job will never be done as the devil never sleeps. There is always someone in need, there is always a new conflict a new issue to address. Learn, work hard, volunteer as much as you can and remember to pass on at least as
much as you received. Dr. Tulsi taught me that the greatest and most valuable and non-refundable currency we have at our disposal is time and only when we invest time into something we do, we show our true care and devotion. Rotaract was and forever will be the great investment for many of us. The world gets fixed only through service above self! Thank you!

Published by trm7510

The Asha Project – works in collaboration with local and international partner organizations as well as individuals and governments, to provide HOPE and OPPORTUNITIES for the people of Nepal. We thrive at the intersection of Passion, purpose and Promise.

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