Against the backdrop of Croatia’s northwest coast, Indiana University professor Suzanne Babich took a bold step during a sabbatical, reshaping the nursing program of the University of Rijeka in collaboration with the Faculty of Health Sciences.
IU Fairbanks School of Public Health professor Suzanne Babich collaborated with the Faculty of Health Sciences to reshape the nursing program of the University of Rijeka in Croatia during her Fulbright. Photo courtesy of Sue Babich
The initiative sought to incorporate a population perspective and introduce a groundbreaking Master of Public Health Nursing. In her usual role as associate dean of global health at the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI, Babich contributes to international partnerships and curriculum internationalization, creating a lasting impact between the Indianapolis school and the world. The Fulbright opportunity allowed her to extend this commitment abroad, in a country with a pressing need for such initiatives.
Croatia’s rapidly aging population and the recent pandemic make the Balkans a critical area in the global demand for health care professionals, particularly nurses. Babich’s project aims to address the shortage by understanding health care on a population level, which involves navigating not just the short-term needs of patients, but also the complexities of social determinants of health and the intricate ways in which social and policy aspects shape overall well-being.
“Working at this level is critical because it allows us to understand health concerns on a broader scale, encompassing entire communities,” Babich said. “It goes beyond individual health outcomes, giving us a comprehensive understanding of health care needs.”
Over the course of five months, in collaboration with colleagues from neighboring countries, Babich and her University of Rijeka counterparts established the Southeastern European Health Studies Program. Going beyond the immediate goal of improving public health in the Balkans, the program aspires to be a center of excellence for curriculum internationalization and a beacon for enhancing health and well-being not only in the region but also in Indiana.
“This is an initiative we hope will have global impact, with a model we can examine and use to learn what may work for us Hoosiers, too,” Babich said. “Ultimately, the goal is to contribute to the improvement of health and well-being on both a local and global scale.”
Babich entered the Fulbright experience with clear intentions to significantly shape the new program in Rijeka. Beyond her academic goals, she was determined to immerse herself in the culture and understand the social and demographic conditions of Rijeka to better understand the unique context into which the program would be deployed.
“I am amazed at how much can be accomplished in such a short amount of time when people have the time and space to connect,” she said. “I felt like I became a part of the community. It made such a difference.”
Gradually building the program was at times challenging, but the social side of her Fulbright experience felt seamless. With a Croatian-American background, Babich adapted to and was welcomed by Croatian society, building connections that extend beyond the semester-long Fulbright.
“I made friends!” she said. “I met with shopkeepers, locals and neighbors, and met up for coffee every week with my neighbor across the hall. I participated in some U.S. Embassy meetings and conferences, and I had the opportunity to collaborate with other Fulbright alumni in Croatia.”
Embracing the local culture and actively connecting with the community, Babich not only gained crucial local support but also amplified the program’s effectiveness, extending its impact beyond the city of Rijeka.
She had a deliberate strategy of “connecting the dots” to ensure that the relationships she built on her Fulbright would be meaningful and outlast her time in-country. Babich’s vision went beyond the boundaries of public health; she aimed to integrate social work, nursing and health sciences, envisioning a campus-wide, multidisciplinary effort. Embracing the role of an ambassador, her specific goal was to expand connections across the region, promoting collaboration that reached beyond academic divisions.
This sustained effort to create a culturally responsive, integrative degree path generated support for the program, which led to national approval of the project in Croatia and laid the groundwork for future visits and ongoing relationship-building, including a return to Croatia next month. Among these initiatives, Babich is actively working on establishing the Croatian Fulbright Alumni Association, marking the successes in program development and in fostering enduring connections within the community.
Encouraging others to seize the opportunity for an extraordinary life experience through Fulbright, Babich recommends connecting with those who have successful proposals, sharing stories and seeking feedback. Babich acknowledges the program’s profound impact on her personal and professional growth.
“Being able to live in another country, to work and really make a difference, is an extraordinary experience,” she said. “It’s a level of growth that is impossible if you never remove yourself from your comfort zone.”