More than 30 years have passed since the siege of Sarajevo in April 1992. Alma Ljaljevic-Tucakovic lived through the ethnically-rooted war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a former republic of Yugoslavia, making her way to Louisville as a refugee in 1996. UofL News caught up with Ljaljevic-Tucakovic, School of Dentistry’s assistant dean for Student Admissions and Student Affairs, to learn about how she overcame adversity and eventually made her way to UofL.
UofL News: Describe what life was like for you during the Bosnian war.
Ljaljevic-Tucakovic: Sarajevo is in a valley with mountains all around. The city was under siege, the enemy and snipers were everywhere. You really could not leave your house in the beginning, but when something like this lasts for years, you adjust and go on. At first, we stopped our lives but then we had to pick up and learn a new way of living.
I was in my second year of dental school when the war started. There was no electricity, and I studied by candlelight. Focusing on school was my escape, it is what kept me going. You have to connect to something to keep your sanity.
We were growing food in our park and food was deficient, there was sparse humanitarian aid, but we all shared what we had. We also didn’t have running water, but they were drilling pumps and you knew where to go to pump water. Containers at intersections were our cover from snipers, and it was a leap of faith to get the water because you never know if a grenade would strike. I prayed if it is my time to go, I would go quickly.
UofL News: How did you escape the city?
Ljaljevic-Tucakovic: My parents and I agreed that if I had a chance to leave, then I should leave. It was a very thought-out decision because when you left, you knew you couldn’t go back while the war was going on. The city was closed, but a tunnel had been dug under the Sarajevo airport that led to a small house on the other side. I had to bend myself to go through the 800-meter tunnel, and when you went through it, you were free. I left in September 1995, before an agreement was signed to end the war later that same year.
UofL News: What was the process of getting to the United States?
Ljaljevic-Tucakovic: I applied for a resettlement program in Croatia, and went through a very long process that involved interviews, paperwork and medical exams. After four months, I was able to get a visa to come to the United States. My cousin was a medical doctor working in research at the Brown Cancer Center and I stayed with her a few months before landing a job as a dental assistant at Pierce and Mitchell located in south Louisville. They trained me on the job.
UofL News: Talk about how you came to dental school at UofL.
Ljaljevic-Tucakovic: I went for a visit at the dental school and ran into faculty members Wood E. Currens and Anne Wells who encouraged me to apply for UofL’s DMD program. I was accepted, and during school I continued my relationship with Pierce and Mitchell, joining the practice as an associate after graduation in 2002.
UofL News: What made you come back to UofL as a faculty member?
Ljaljevic-Tucakovic: When I came to Louisville everyone accepted me and it was the same with the university – it mimics our city. In 2008, I was offered a faculty position. I really loved UofL and found a passion for teaching.
UofL News: Now you are leading the school’s Student Affairs Office. What is that like for you?
Ljaljevic-Tucakovic: I think of my life as having experienced a lot of luck that I could not have planned. In 2020, Dianne Foster retired from this position and Dean (Gerard) Bradley offered me the job. It feels as though I have come full circle. I was a student here, a clinical team leader and a member of the admissions committee both as a student and as a faculty member. The clinic is the heart of the school and because I understand how the clinic breathes, I am able to answer many questions of prospective and current students. As an administrator, I still work a half day each week in clinic, which gives me credibility with students and provides opportunity to keep teaching.
UofL News: You’ve faced a lot of adversity in your life, how has that affected you?
Ljaljevic-Tucakovic: I never thought of my life as difficult. I would not change anything in my life because it made me who I am. I think if things were different, I would regret it. The fact that I was able to finish my dental education and have had a great career – I would not change a thing.
UofL News: Talk about your impact on students.
Ljaljevic-Tucakovic: I love mentoring students. When I was a team leader, I got the sense when someone needed help – it was like being a clinical parent. Now as an administrator, I still try to connect. I love this office because we all have different perspectives. Our job is to help students succeed, and I am here to do just that. If they need me, I hope they know I am here for them.