Outstanding Staff Award: Lived experience brings need for humanities into sharp focus

Living through war in Croatia forged a deep passion for the humanities in Irena Polić, managing director of UC Santa Cruz’s Institute for Humanities Research

A passion for her work drives Irena Polić, along with a strong sense of urgency. (Photo by Steve Kurtz)
Irena Polić was just a normal teenager, enjoying “a very nice life” in Croatia, when she walked to high school and saw a tank lurking on a street corner.

“I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t supposed to be happening,” said Polić (Cowell ’01, linguistics; MA, linguistics), who is now the highly respected managing director of UC Santa Cruz’s Institute for Humanities Research. She remembers thinking, “’This is in color!’ I saw all these World War II movies. They were all in black and white.”

The Croatian War of Independence was fought from 1991 to 1995 between Croat forces loyal to the government of Croatia and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People's Army and local Serb forces.

Polić lived through the war, and survived with family and friends in a basement for a year, after being forced to take a leave of absence from school. The experience forced her to think about “life and my place in the world,” the sort of issues that preoccupy the world’s poets, historians, ethicists, and philosophers.

In a sense, her focus has not changed at all over the years. Polić, the winner of this year’s UC Santa Cruz Outstanding Staff Award, is a staunch advocate of the humanities, which addresses the same concerns that went through her head during those fearful days in the basement: “Humanities are not a luxury," she said. "Humanities are our life. They show us who we are and where we come from.”

Polić, who started working at UC Santa Cruz in 2008, and has been managing director of IHR since July of 2016, will be recognized at the Staff Appreciation Picnic from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 25, on the East Field.

The Outstanding Staff Award, presented every year by the UC Santa Cruz Alumni Council and the Staff Advisory Board, recognizes staff members who go "above and beyond" to help students or colleagues, improve programs and contribute to the university’s intellectual and physical environment.

Humanities evangelist

A passion for her work drives Polić, along with a strong sense of urgency. She believes the humanities are under threat at far too many public universities, and she wants to ensure a future in which her children can learn languages and delve into history, literature, and the arts.

Colleagues praise her attention to detail and her “boundless encouragement” for faculty, graduate students, and fellow staff members. Others who work closely with Polić praise her as “forward thinking.” Humanities professor Karen Bassi, in a letter recommending Polić for the award, described her as “exceptional in all ways. Without her help, I would not have been successful in applying for large grants.”

Under Polić’s strong leadership, the IHR established the Public Fellows Program, which gives doctoral students in the humanities a chance to contribute research, programming, and communications to various nonprofits and companies.

“It helps us to earn a living wage in the summer months,” said Sarah Papazoglakis, a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the Humanities Division, in her letter praising Polić.

Along with UC Santa Cruz history professor Nathaniel Deutsch, the faculty director of the IHR, Polić also instituted a new program called Ph.D.+, a monthly program on campus that supports graduate students in the humanities, giving them opportunities to discuss future goals while connecting them with Ph.D. recipients who have chosen to work in non-academic careers.

But Polić’s value to the campus goes beyond these programs, Papazoglakis continued. “She is also able to brainstorm (and) take advantage of opportunities that bring resources to UC Santa Cruz and evangelize for the humanities,” even in the face of “austere” funding environments.

It all adds up to a dream job for Polić, who was taken completely by surprise when she got a call letting her know she is this year’s honoree.

The attention is a bit overwhelming. “I’m much more comfortable behind the scenes,” she acknowledged. “But this is such an honor. When they told me, I just couldn’t believe it. I thought this was something that people get at the end of their careers, and I still have many years to go.”

Polić emphasized that her work for the IHR is part of a team effort. “One thing that is really important to me is that people understand that I don’t work alone,” she said.  “My main partner in all of this is Nathaniel Deutsch, without whom none of this would have been possible.  Our team is incredible.”

For his part, Deutsch praised Polić for elevating the profile and impact of IHR: “Largely due to Irena’s extraordinary efforts, the IHR has become one of the most dynamic and exciting units on campus.”

Enduring hardship

It seems that Polić was born for this job. But her path to UC Santa Cruz was full of surprises, challenges, and sudden reversals.

The story begins during her youth in Croatia. In 1994, as the war raged  on, she longed to move to America, but the only way out was to be part of a high school exchange program. She found placement in California, but her plans to move to Simi Valley fell through at the last moment when the Northridge Earthquake devastated the area that was supposed to be her new home.

Then came a lucky break, not just for Polić but for all the people who work with her. When the Simi Valley family could no longer house her, she got a call from the exchange program, letting her know that the program had found an alternative family in a different part of the state. Instead of the residing in Ventura County, as originally planned, she would be living 321 miles to the north, in a little coastal town called Santa Cruz.

It was January—the dead of winter in Croatia. If she were home, she would still be shivering and fearful in the basement. Instead she found herself going on a tour of her new town with her host family, which showed her the gracious homes and surf breaks of West Cliff Drive. “It felt like I was living on a different planet,” she said. “I’ve been in California ever since.”

Money was tight, and she initially went to Cabrillo College for financial reasons, but she finished her education at UC Santa Cruz with help from a Pell Grant.

Forging connections

This intimate connection with the campus, along with her lifelong love for the humanities, informs her work. So does her strong conviction that the campus and the surrounding community must come together in the name of the humanities.

She also believes that the humanities has a “PR” problem that must be addressed. How can the campus showcase the impact and relevance of humanities programs, and bring its power and potential to the people who live around the campus?

With these goals in mind, she and Nathaniel Deutsch launched a series called “Questions That Matter,” partnering with local institutions including Bookshop Santa Cruz, and the Museum of Art and History in downtown Santa Cruz to explore thought-provoking issues.

The series kicked off in the winter of 2015 with “Making the Cosmos Local” at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. These events defied all expectations. A few worried skeptics told her that no one would come. Instead, each IHR event downtown has been jam packed. All of them have drawn hundreds of people.

Polić’s strong defense of the humanities does not equate to criticism of the sciences. “I love science. Science saved my daughter’s life,” said Polić, the mother of twins, referring to her young daughter Alexas’s successful treatment for a tumor on her liver when she was 2 years old.

“It shouldn’t have to be either-or,” Polić said. “Humanities and the sciences are both important. Humanities should not be thought of as something to think about only if your other needs are met. That is really missing the point.

“When my children grow up, I want them to study language,” she said. “I want them to think about history and delve into the world of literature. When they are listening to a news broadcast, and someone says something that makes no sense at all, I want them to know how to question it. I want to make sure they have a future in which the humanities plays a pivotal role in their lives, regardless of what they want to do or what they decide to be.”