Interview with Barbara Kotarski – graduate professional, a mentor, a volunteer and model from Croatia

Let’s begin by getting to know your childhood and educational background.

I grew up in a small town called Samobor next to Zagreb, Croatia where I also attended school from kindergarten to high school. I’m an only child, my father died when I was very young so for a bigger part of my life it’s just been me and my mom, to whom I am very grateful for all the sacrifices she has made for me to become who I am today. I recently graduated in business economics at the University of Rijeka and I’m excited to take on the next challenge that comes my way, whether in business, or life itself!

What internship and work experiences have shaped your career so far?

I strongly believe in exploring life until you find where you fit in and where you can achieve your maximum potential so I applied that to my work as well. Currently, I am working three jobs in completely different branches: I am a volunteer coordinator in the SonTa Foundation in Tanzania, where we are building an English school for underprivileged children, and I’m doing my apprenticeship in a venture capital based in New York where I intend to move after the summer, and in my free time I do modeling and am currently signed with an agency based in Florida.

However, I’m still very organized and give 100% to any venture I embark on.

What are your biggest professional achievements?

I take the most pride in instances where it’s not only my achievement but the whole team’s. In addition to the jobs I listed above, I also occasionally work on local workshops with kids for UNICEF in a role of a mentor, where the kids (13-17) are encouraged to think of a project that will better their community, and if they win, they receive the money and guidance to make that project a reality. I have guided a few teams so far that have won the workshop, and for me, there’s no achievement that can equate to seeing their faces light up with smiles and pride and knowing that you helped them get there.

We would love to know about some of your projects at work in more detail

The SonTa Foundation I work at has started its work in Vietnam. Its focus is on education, and before they opened a branch in Tanzania, they were helping children in Vietnam that had no access to computers to learn via podcasts, as on-sight classes were made impossible because of the pandemic.

Last year, we started building a school in Tanzania for children who cannot afford quality education in the conditions they deserve. The average wage in Tanzania is $150, although we visited some families that survive off of $30 a month for five members. With an income that low, they cannot rely on private school education and have to send their kids to public schools where the ratio of students to teachers is 90:1 and the conditions are rough. This leads to disinterest in studies, early dropouts, and overall bad quality of life. That’s why I am personally ecstatic that the SonTa Foundation is finally opening an English school that will give the children better education, food, water, and cultural exchange with our volunteers. The school will be open in the next few weeks as it is already equipped with electricity, water, a kitchen, classrooms, and rooms for our volunteers to stay in, and if you are extra curious, you can see what exactly it looks like on our Instagram @sontafoundation.

We are also currently in the process of recruiting volunteers that would like to become a part of our team and help make the children’s lives a bit more joyful by teaching them English, so if any of the readers are interested in volunteer work and passionate about transferring their knowledge and skills to young minds, I would be delighted to share more information with anyone that reaches out!

Why are internships important for a student?

There are truly countless ways that internships can benefit someone! They are a great way for a student to put their education into practice and learn how the real professional workplace operates, no matter what branch; You can gain professional feedback, learn from your mistakes, and learn from industry experts. It’s also a great way to build your resume while still in college and give yourself an advantage over those who are just stepping into the career pool. You get to meet so many people that work in the same business as you and can potentially help you further down your career with references and tips and most importantly, you get to see what you like and what you don’t, and at the end of the day, if you’re not enjoying your job, you’re in the wrong place.

Any tips for students on how to get internships and what should they focus more on the company, the money or the project while doing any internship?

Job fairs, sending resumes to companies that you look up to, in modern days social media can be of big assistance to students as well.

For me, the biggest role played two things:

1. Networking the right way and presenting yourself to potential employers as the perfect fit for the job you are aiming for, whether it be a business or just an everyday social interaction.

2. LinkedIn as a platform where you can find said connections. Not only you can find and connect with people that can forward your career and help you with answering any questions you might have, but they also very eagerly reach out to you for any of their own. If you have a clear goal of what you want in life and work (although it’s also okay if you’re still finding yourself), you start being more aware of the paths to get there.

Once there, depending on what your goal is, learn. Money comes and goes and there will be plenty of chances to earn it, but experience really stays with you. However, always know your worth, and don’t let anyone treat you like you’re just there to fill out their monthly intern quota.

How did you deal in this pandemic? How are you managing the stress, any tips for students?

The way to look at it is that every cloud has a silver lining; The pandemic was a difficult time for students, with the rise of mental health problems, social isolation, and loss of learning, the only way to stay sane was to look for the positives in a bad situation we were in. That’s why, in my college, we formed study groups and support chats to take the edge off the whole situation, we helped each other with studies and life in general, and I’m happy to report that the few semesters that were held in quarantine had good results for most of the students that participated. I was also aware that the pandemic wasn’t going to last forever, so I took all the time I could get to spend time with my family and enjoyed many outdoor activities.

What inspires you in life and keeps you going?

The fact that there’s so much left to see, so many places to explore, so many kind people to meet, so many books to read, so many new inventions to discover, and so many ways to help someone; Tomorrow is not promised, so I aim to enjoy my life in each moment and am truly the example of the cliché saying: live each day as it was your last.

What is your idea of success or your mantra in life?

Being happy with what you have, while working for what you want. Success is made from small, everyday victories and people get so caught up in chasing the big milestones that they have set for themselves that they rarely stop and truly appreciate where they are right now and how far they have come from the first milestone. To define success for themselves, one must first be grateful, because if not, there’s always going to be a bigger goal to achieve after the previous one.

If we were to ask you about your biggest USPs, what would they be?

Well, if I were to approach this question as one from a job interview, my answer would greatly depend on the role I’m applying to because I came to understand that USPs differ according to a branch of work.

However, the qualities I value most in my life and the ones that are to thank for my life being the way it currently is are the ability to multitask, which has served me to handle my many work, school, and social obligations; Unwavering honesty, when asked, of course; Empathy, because tackling a situation from only one point of view has and still is still causing many problems in the world. When you begin asking yourself how you would feel in someone’s shoes, you get a new perspective on life itself.

Other than work, what are your other areas of interest hobbies, passion?

As I said, I like to combine my work and my passion, I think that’s exactly why I’m so good in multitasking because at all times I’m doing what I love. When I do, however, catch a bit of free time from work, I mostly travel with friends, read a good book, exercise, or meditate.

Any skills/hidden talents you’re proud of?

I’m very skilled at languages. On top of Croatian, which is my native language, I also speak English, German and a bit of Italian!
As for hidden talents, last year, when the pandemic was in full swing, even with college, I had a lot of free time on my hands. As I don’t have a habit of sitting around doing nothing for hours at a time, I thought I should learn something new, so I started looking up how to solve a Rubik’s cube. After a few days, I could solve it in an hour, after two weeks, I got it down to under 3 minutes. My personal record is one minute and 37 seconds.

Tell us more about your personal and professional goals and how do you plan to achieve them.

The only thing I want from my life, alongside being happy, is to make an impact and to help as many people as I can, no matter physically, emotionally, or verbally. I don’t know through which path life will take me to fulfill that goal, but I do know that I am on the right track.

The ultimate goal in life is freedom, for all people, in all forms; and once you obtain that freedom, it is one’s obligation to give back to the people that weren’t fortunate enough to find the same opportunities that would allow for them to be as free.

We all deserve the same basic conditions and should not be divided by race, gender, or religion, so I truly hope to give a positive influence towards making that gap smaller.

Generally in a student life they sometimes pick up some bad habits like smoking/drugs/unprotected sex etc. How can a student remain focused and not get distracted, what are your views?

However bad the habits listed may be, it is unrealistic to stop young people from engaging in rebellious and risky activities in general, each person explores life in their own way.

The important thing is to be aware that actions have consequences and to prioritize things in your life. For some people, the priority may be short-term fun, but if your priority is getting ahead in life academically or professionally, you have no choice but to stay focused because the price of getting distracted is the achievement of your long-term goals. The question is, are you willing to pay it? My biggest advice to remain focused, however, is to surround yourself with people who build you up, support your lifestyle choice, push you to reach your goals and vice versa; then, you will understand that life can be fun even when lead responsibly

What are the three most important tips you would advise our readers (students and professionals/entrepreneurs) from your experience to become successful?

  1. Build a strong network, know what you want and what connections and opportunities you need to have to reach your aim. When you do set those goals for yourself, make milestones for yourself, no matter how small, with which you can measure your progress.
  2. Be positive, as mentioned, every cloud has a silver lining, always try to find a lesson that a bad situation is trying to teach you and the positives you can take from it. With each “no” you get closer to that “yes”.
  3. Have fun along the way, in everything you do, because when you truly enjoy everyday activities like work, life becomes easier.

Is there any leader you look up to?

I take my inspiration from strong women figures such as for example Malala Yousafzai who is, without doubt, one of the bravest and most influential women in the world and someone that every young woman should look up to; Michelle Obama, because of her strength of character, values and using her platform for good, with the ability to carry her own spotlight, Amal Clooney for the balance of education, philanthropy, business and class she holds; and of course, my mother, who has made me into who I am today.

Your favorite quote and book

How does one really decide on only one favorite book when there are so many that you can take such important lessons from? Lately, I’ve been very much enjoying the self-improvement genre of books, so on my bookstand these days, you could find titles like “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, which, even though it has “rich” in the title, it’s the focus is not on material gain, but how to not just take care of the money in your pocket, but the thoughts in your head;

Robert Greene’s collection from which my favorite is “48 Laws of Power”, a classic that improved my awareness and helped me spot the red flags in people on time;

And “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, truly changed my perspective on life. This book has taught me how to live in the moment and be present at all times, how to think positively, remain stress-free, and did it all through talk of religion and relevant, real-life examples that I still remember every day.

As far as quotes go, being the indecisive person I am, it’s also hard to choose only one, but to really put into summary everything I’ve written so far, I would have to go with a quote from Randy Pausch’s book “Last Lecture”, saying: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

You can connect with Barbara Kotarski on Linkedin here.

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