Women’s History Month profile: Zeljka Ravlija

Zeljka Ravlija is often described by her colleagues as passionate, empathetic, and as a fearless champion who has made it her life’s mission to help Dallas ISD’s refugee students. 

Ravlija, who has been working for the district for approximately 20 years, coordinates the Refugee School Impact Program, a federally funded program, which sponsors refugee resettlement in the United States.

Before coming to the United States, she was a psychologist in her home country— the former Yugoslavia—and her native language is Serbo-Croatian. She said she knows first-hand the challenges students face having to learn and adapt to and navigate a new language and country, and this is why it makes her happy to play a role helping refugee families in the district. 

In keeping with this year’s theme for Women’s History Month—Women who advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion—Ravlija said her main role is to advocate for refugee students, to ensure that they are treated fairly and that they have access to educational and extracurricular opportunities as any other student in the district. 

What drew you to the field of education?

Before entering education, I worked in my home city as a psychologist. Coming here as a refugee myself and seeing how challenging the adjustment to a new culture and new social environment was for my own family, I wanted to assist other refugee students and their families to make their transition a bit easier.

In your years in the district, what change has impacted you the most?

What I have gotten to witness as the most positive and widely-reaching impact has been through the establishment of new schools in the Vickery Meadow area. 

These schools of the Emmett J. Conrad High School feeder pattern embrace the diversity of our refugee student population and support their cultural and religious norms, as an integral part of the surrounding refugee communities. Many Dallas ID schools are working collaboratively with the community and faith-based organizations to provide a full spectrum of social services to provide resources for healthy families and a safe community. 

What accomplishments are you proudest of?

I like to think that I have played a role in connecting with the different district departments and outside agencies to advocate for refugee students and assisting  them to access all needed services. Refugee students come here from war-torn countries or living in refugee camps for quite some time, and might have negative experiences, lack of education, or an interrupted education. Once here, they experience a new set of challenges: new language, new cultural environment, often poverty, and negative stereotypes. 

They need a lot of assistance in transitioning into the U.S. educational system. Their needs require a comprehensive approach and collaborative work from different departments in the district, as well as community agencies outside of the district. One person alone cannot meet all the needs of these students and their families. It’s a collaborative effort with the school, students, and families. 

What advice or words of encouragement would you give someone who is following in your footsteps?

This is greatly rewarding work and our role shouldn’t be seen as a contribution that sees refugees as a bundle of needs to be met. While many need help, it should not be forgotten that they are people with personal resources and talents, capable of rebuilding their lives and contributing to the society in which they have settled. 

Refugee students are a remarkable group who offer many assets to the classroom. Typically, refugee students and their families place great importance on education. Often refugee parents will make great sacrifices so their children can excel in the United States. Such high aspirations are a good starting point for refugee students. Our role is to provide guidance and attention to the needs of refugee students to help foster their successful adjustment. 

I try to stay focused and productive in both good and bad times. Depending on the number and nature of job-related requests, I prioritize them and also reach out to other agencies. I am always looking to expand my professional network. 

What is your favorite memory at Dallas ISD?

I have many great memories, but I would merge them all into one: the opportunity to learn about and from people of different cultural backgrounds from all over the world. I really appreciate that I have the opportunity to work with the different departments in our district, particularly my department–the Dual Language ESL Department–a group of such smart and talented people.


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