Graduate Student Spotlight

Jelena Vićić , Graduate Student, Cybersecurity

Jelena Vićić

Growing up in Serbia (formerly Yugoslavia), Jelena Vićić has always been a voracious learner, interested in the nonsensical ways of violence and the precariousness of international relations. Currently, Jelena is a UC doctoral student, studying cybersecurity and served as the 2018–19 graduate student government (GSGA) president. Before coming to UC, Jelena earned bachelor degrees in both journalism and political science from the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) and a master’s in advanced international studies from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

The importance of studying war and international relations became prominent for Jelena. Growing up, she says she was “always intrigued by the absurdity of violence.” The more she studied and traveled, the more she understood the presence of uncertainties and conflict, and the more she was driven towards education and constant learning.

Her master’s thesis was titled “EU Mediation in the Balkans: Normalization of Kosovo-Serbia Relations.” In order to complete her thesis work, she traveled to Kosovo and conducted qualitative interviews for her research. The connections she made there led to post-grad work in the Non-governmental organization sector of Kosovo. This job contributed to her being selected for a traineeship with the European Parliament just two years later—Jelena was one of thirty people chosen out of three thousand applicants. Of her experience working for the European Parliament, she says, “It brought me into the Euro-bubble in Brussels and I was given a chance to learn first-hand about the EU politics… I was driven to learn, and also to network and meet interesting people.”

However, two separate events that happened during her EU stay left a lasting impact on Jelena. She was only 18 days into her job when the Brussels attacks took place—she had been nearby when the bombs detonated. Shortly after, the UK made the decision to formally leave the EU. She describes both events as something that “…signifies the turbulence of the current political moment in Europe, and globally. Both events were heartfelt in the corridors of the European Parliament where I worked as a trainee; there was a sense of silence, sadness, and quiet disbelief after both. Mostly, I remember those feelings, and I remember deep conversations about the future of Europe and the world.”

After the traineeship in Brussels, Jelena became a graduate student at UC. While studying in Vienna she had taken a course called Politics, Security, and Strategy in Cyberspace. The class was taught by Dr. Richard Harknett, a University of Cincinnati professor and Fulbright scholar. A couple years after her first cybersecurity class in Vienna, she found herself working towards a PhD in political science in Cincinnati with Dr. Harknett as her PhD advisor.

Cyberspace is considered to be the new battlefield between disagreeing countries. Whereas war typically presents itself as fighting on physical grounds, international competition is taking new form inside a virtual environment called cyberspace. Jelena is concerned with regulating cyberspace and maintaining a secure and safe cyber environment: thus, cybersecurity.

Turns out, the livelihoods of whole countries are embedded in cybersecurity. National economies, politics, and aggression by countries—all are carried out and live inside cyberspace, and by doing so the possibility of destruction and loss is created, as well as a need for protection.

“Our whole lives are embedded in cyberspace,” says Jelena. “When we look at conflict and war, in the past, war has always carried devastating atrocities in both blood and property. Countries had to invade each other’s territory to be able to influence and to gain power. But now, with cyberspace, we have a completely new environment that is arguably man-made; it is a virtual environment that states can use to compete with each other. That’s what’s so interesting about it—how it changes the nature of war and the nature of power.”

Jelena’s dissertation research looks at the fundamental dynamics as to why cyberspace has become an environment of competition and potential conflict, what that means for international and national policies, and why cybersecurity is so necessary.

Beyond her schooling, Jelena has created further impact during her stay in Cincinnati. “I like it here,” she says. “The feel itself is very new. There are many opportunities for growth and opportunities for research. So that’s exciting. I’m doing a lot things that excite me, not only research-wise, but with the GSGA.”

The GSGA—the Graduate Student Governance Association—is the graduate student government body at UC, and Jelena served as its president. The GSGA represents the entire UC graduate student community and strives to make the graduate student experience as beneficial as possible to students and the university, through acts of advocacy and inclusion. Jelena was first attracted to the organization because, as one can expect, graduate studies can feel isolating at times.

“I discovered that being a doctoral student could be quite an isolating experience. Naturally so, students tend to focus on their careers and their research and start living in their own academic ivory towers. In my first year, I learned about the GSGA and realized that this organization could serve as a bridge between students from different departments and programs, bring them together and make the UC experience more meaningful. Contributing to community building became my goal, and I wanted to do that as soon as possible.”

Before being elected as president, Jelena served as the GSGA Vice President for the 2017–18 academic year. In that role, Jelena organized the GSGA’s first Spring Ball. Having been inspired by her two years spent living in Vienna, a place where balls are a seasonal part of life, Jelena wanted to create something that celebrated inclusiveness, respect, and diversity in a formal, but fun way. The ball’s theme, “Around the World in One Campus,” did just that. As the official part of the program, Excellence Awards were presented to graduate student winners in recognition of their achievements in certain areas. Over 250 people attended the 2018 GSGA Spring Ball, the first time the organization has hosted any event of that nature, and the ball’s huge success is set to become a yearly occasion.

“The idea,” Jelena explains, “was to contribute to community building at UC, to shine light on successes and achievements of graduate students, and to do all that while giving to charity.”

But that’s not where her dreams for GSGA’s future stopped. As president, Jelena's hope was that the organization continued to grow, becoming bigger and better, all the while promoting the core values of spreading diversity, graduate student friendship, and respect:

“I am hoping that the GSGA will become more visible as an organization on campus. We represent over 11,000 graduate students, which is a large number. All of us on the executive board want to make sure that we serve our students the best we can. We want to create pathways for more graduate students to engage with us, we want to help increase access to UC resources to graduate students, and make the UC experience as enjoyable as possible. I am looking forward to working with students, faculty, and administration towards these ends. I would encourage students to learn about us through our website and through our social media.”

In the meantime, as you’d probably guess, Jelena is keeping busy. Her end goals consist of conducting policy-relevant research and utilizing the organizational skills she’s developed working for the GSGA—she says her dream job would be the head of a cyber-research center. But for now? She loves meeting new people, talking to old friends, playing tennis and talking about ideas, art, and architecture. Most of all, she’s dedicated to voracious learning, which goes back to her childhood.

“My mom made a point of taking me and my brother to the library even before we started first grade. One of my favorites is 1984 by George Orwell, because it tells a story of what happens when a state wants to control both how people behave and how they think, and what they say. It talks about a complete loss of freedom and privacy, and how dangerous and devastating that is. It’s a cautionary tale.”

Written by Danniah Daher, graduate assistant to the graduate school office