DVC grad Helena Alexander, war refugee and single mom, lands job at Google

student success

helena alexander

She’s a single mom, a singer who sings in eight different languages, an immigrant and refugee from war-torn Yugoslavia, and a DVC and UC Berkeley graduate.

Helena Milosevic, soon to be Helena Alexander (she’s in the process of changing her name), was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former republic of Yugoslavia. Her family fled the war-torn country in April 1992, leaving behind many members of their extended family.

“We packed nothing,” Helena said, “and were left with only what we wore on that day. After a one-hour flight, we landed in Serbia, a neighboring country, and I permanently became a refugee at the age of 12. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. We never returned, and since then, home is where the heart is.”

Helena still holds Sarajevo to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. “It is tucked into the region called Balkan, where Eastern and Western civilizations clash,” she said, “The historical turbulences raise passionate and harsh but good-hearted people, some of them among the most famous in the world—such as Nikola Tesla, Milutin Milankovic, Milena Maric-Einstein, and Mihailo Pupin. The unkind history makes Balkan a fascinating research topic, and as one of my friends says, ‘if you think you know Balkan history, someone hasn’t explained it to you well.’”

Helena graduated from high school in 1998, two years after the war ended, and completed each grade in a different school. From sixth grade until she enrolled at DVC, she had only two years of formal English classes, in the fifth and sixth grades. 

“We have moved endlessly,” Helena explained. “In 2003, I decided to pay a visit to the United States, as I had made many American friends during my work as a translator for non-profits in former Yugoslav countries. Like so many people that come to this country, I recognized an opportunity to start from the beginning and breathe life into some of my dreams.”

She came to the Bay Area in 2004 to visit a friend in San Mateo; soon after that, she decided to call the Bay Area her home and settled in Concord.

Helena enrolled at DVC in 2006. “I lived in Concord, it was close to my house and a friend of mine was already a student, so I chose DVC,” she said.  

At the time, Helena had an eight-month old son, Marko Uros. “My schedule was such that I had classes either two or three days a week, so Marko Uros started going to college when he was eight months old. Marko attended DVC childcare. He would be in the daycare while I was in class, and I would pick him up at the end of the day, take him to the park, play, learn and cook for him. After tucking him into bed, usually at 9 p.m., I would concentrate on my schoolwork, and study many nights until 2 a.m. In the morning at 6 a.m I would be up and ready for a new day. As Audrey Hepburn once said, ‘Nothing is impossible, even the word itself says i-m-possible.’ 

“I came to DVC with the intention to study nursing, which was an obvious path for someone who graduated in physical therapy abroad,” she continued. “But physical therapy chose me during the war, as no other school was functioning, and I was pushed into it without a genuine interest. After my first semester at DVC, I realized that my passion lies in global studies, international relations, political economy and development.” 

It was then she consulted with Danni Vilas, DVC counselor, whom she calls, “a woman to whom I owe all that I have accomplished academically and professionally since coming to DVC. She encouraged me to not choose a major, but rather to concentrate on transferring to a four-year institution, Thus, I graduated with an Associate in Arts degree in transfer studies in May 2008, and passed all the classes necessary to transfer to UC Berkeley as a political economy major.” She entered UCB in August 2008.

“My plan was to transfer to CSU East Bay,” she said. “We people from the Balkans are very practical. The difference in tuition between Hayward and Berkeley was significant, and I was not ready to pay money I didn’t have. Danni encouraged me to apply just for the sake of applying to UC Berkeley. I said, ‘But what if I get accepted? Then what?’ But I applied, and sure enough, one day I pulled out of my mailbox a huge envelope from UC Berkeley that had “Congratulations’ on it. I didn’t know whether to cheer or cry, thinking who is going to pay for my school? But luckily, the UC Berkeley financial aid department encouraged me, saying if you want to go to UC Berkeley, then you are good to go, and we will find a way to help you with the tuition. And two years later, I was standing in the Greek Theater with my diploma in hand.” 

“DVC gave me the base I needed,” Helena explained. “At the time I decided to go back to school, four-year university was not an option financially. Now I believe with all my heart that going to community college, namely DVC, is the best decision I could have made. I would do the same thing again, and I will certainly make sure my son attends community college–specifically DVC– before four-year university. It is smaller, a more intimate learning experience, where small classes are a blessing, which I remembered so dearly when I first walked into an 800-people amphitheatre in Barrows Hall at UC Berkeley. 

“By the same token,” she continued, “those same students who are financially disadvantaged and came to community college first actually are in a much better place than those who were ‘lucky’ to get into four-year universities their first year. Professors at DVC invested so much time in my learning and academic growth, counselors became my family, and I made so many long-lasting friendships that somehow rarely happen in huge university campuses. 

“I want to emphasize,” she added, “that as DVC students each and every one of you brings a unique experience and value to this college. I want you to believe in yourself, and when you get discouraged, listen to those who believe in you. Go to those office hours for that free time with amazing professors who are there for you. Remember that you are surrounded by people who love and care for you, take pride in your success, want you to do your best, and accept you just as you are. That is your road to making anything happen.” 

After graduation, Helena found a full-time job, working as a contractor through Adecco at Google in the Mountain View headquarters. She is a recruiting coordinator in the People Operations department–more commonly known as staffing or HR. 

“Google is a magical place,” she said. “I like to call it the playground for adults, the best and brightest ones. It is the most creative and stimulating environment, where you work hard and play even harder. Staffing is extremely fast-paced, but somehow nothing is hard when the best chefs cook your lamb and Mexican wedding cookies, when the first floor has an ice cream machine, and the second has an indoor playground. People are happy and smiling all the time, and you have an opportunity to hear and learn from some of the smartest people around. In addition to all of that, your ideas get heard, you can start an internal or external project, or contribute to an ongoing idea with an objective to save the world.” 

Helena is still exploring which career path to take, but says it most likely will be in staffing. 

“I have interest in marketing, web design and international affairs. I am also a lead singer in a local Bay Area band, Galbeno, which plays Balkan, Mediterranean and Roma music, and I sing in more than eight different languages. I have many hobbies and any of them can turn into a career goal down the road. Right now I am enjoying my time and learning so much.” 

What about the future? 

“Since my plans changed drastically after leaving Sarajevo,” she concluded, “I dream big but know what to value. My wish is for my family to be healthy, and that we spend as much time together as possible. I make this wish a reality every day, and the same goes for my other wishes– one tiny step at a time. I consider family to be the key to anything that we call success, that place where everything begins and ends.”

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