She was born into war and a fractured homeland.
Twenty-three years later, Nikolina Todorovic is fluent in 10 languages, a veteran of four years of Division I basketball at Florida International University and set to graduate from FIU with a master’s degree in business marketing on Aug. 1.
She earned her bachelor’s in just three years, pulling off a double major in international relations/diplomacy and political science/government. And she will have finished her master’s in an accelerated 10-month program.
As a senior basketball player, Todorovic was the team captain, a tough defender who was one of only two players on FIU’s team to start every game.
She earned a 4.0 grade-point average and made Conference USA’s All-Academic first team, one of five players on the squad and the only one from FIU.
“Whenever anyone on the team needed help academically, she was there,” said Brianna Wright, a former FIU teammate. “She would help me with Spanish since she knows so many languages. She would help with cover letters. Even if she didn’t take the class that we were in, she would still help.”
Todorovic is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of seven European countries that grew out of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. She was born in the middle of the Bosnian War that raged from 1992 to 1995. (Her father, a talented soccer player, fought in that war and survived.)
Serbian is Todorovic’s native language. She also speaks several other Slavic languages, including Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, Slovenian and Macedonian. In addition, she is fluent in English, German, Spanish and sign language.
She also can speak Latin and is conversational in Russian and Hungarian.
“Latin is the most difficult language I speak because it’s extinct,” said Todorovic, who has landed a job as an account executive with a marketing company. “But German is also very complicated, and sign language has a lot of variations.”
Todorovic said her late grandfather, Ilija, was one of her inspirations for learning languages. He went back to school in his 40s and learned Russian.
The other role model for Todorovic has been her sister, Ilijana, a 27-year-old attorney who lives in New Orleans and also speaks 10 languages.
“My grandpa loved to travel,” Nikolina said. “He would always tell me and my sister that he went to Egypt … he went to Russia.
“There was this Cambridge English Center that opened in my city (Banja Luka). He heard about it and made sure my sister and I started taking classes. That was my first touch with English.”
During her formative days in Bosnia, there were few television shows, but Todorovich and her sister watched MTV and Cartoon Network to sharpen their English skills.
Todorovic said she learned Spanish as a child by watching telenovelas, or Hispanic soap operas.
She picked up sign language by watching YouTube, and she learned German in school.
“It was all just thrown at me at an early age, and I embraced it all,” Todorovic said. “Learning languages breaks down barriers.”
During the war and in its messy aftermath, Todorovic and her sister would watch Spanish soap operas while their mother, Zeljka, read them the subtitles in Serbian.
When the bombs would fall and the sirens would blast, Zeljka would scoop up her two young daughters, wrap them in blankets and take them to the apartment building’s basement.
There, the neighbors gathered to hear news reports, where Ilijana for the first time heard words such as “United Nations” and “NATO” without having any idea what they meant.
“It seemed like they were very important to our future,” Ilijana said. “I was wondering, ‘What is NATO? What is the U.N.? Why are they not helping us?’ “
That background helps explain why Ilijana became an attorney and passed the New York State bar exam last year on her first try. She has an LL.M. (Master of Law) from St. Louis University School of Law, earned an LL.M. in international studies from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law and is working toward an LL.M. in civil law from Loyola.
Nikolina has followed her sister every step of the way.
“We never did it for ourselves,” Ilijana said of the success enjoyed by she and her sister. “It was a way to repay my parents and my grandparents on both sides.”