Simona Torotcoi – Romania (RISP)

My name is Simona Torotcoi, I am Roma from Bistrita-Nasaud, Romania, an alumna of the former Roma Access Programs  (currently Roma Graduate Preparation Program) and currently a PhD student at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. I am a beneficiary of REF’s Roma International Scholarship Program (RISP) and a Yehuda Elkana Fellow at CEU, where I am conducting research on the implementation of social dimension and quality assurance policies within the European Higher Education Area.

My interest in education started when I decided that I want to become a teacher. With the help of REF, I pursued higher education studies at North University Centre of Baia Mare, Romania in the field of language and pedagogy. During my university studies, I realized that there were few Roma students, and those admitted were there due to the “special places” allotted by the Government .  As a result, I started to become more concerned about educational issues and I began participating in different seminars and conferences dealing with education, especially about the fate of Roma children and their access to compulsory quality education. My ambition to further pursue my studies in the education field was mainly due to my civil society and voluntary work, where I came to realize the importance of well-designed educational policies for Roma youth. This triggered a desire in me to continue my studies in the field of education policy. Currently, my general interest in research is how socio-economic and political circumstances shape and influence contemporary educational policies and how institutions, organizations and other constituencies should act when it comes to access and participation in the educational systems of underrepresented groups.

Since 2013, I have been involved in the activities of Roma Education Fund in several different ways. In the summer of 2013, I was an intern in REF’s Budapest office and I conducted desk research on the social dimension of higher education policies in REF operating countries. I assisted in the preparation and start of a tracer study in Romania. During my internship, I was also involved in the successful application of a European Social Fund project that aimed at enhancing Romanian Roma students’ access to higher education. As a follow up to that project, together with Stela Garaz (former REF employee) I have co-authored an article titled “Increasing Access to Higher Education and the Reproduction of Social Inequalities: The Case of Roma University Students in Eastern and Southeastern Europe” The research focused on the link between socio-economic background and the choice of field of study. Our results showed that disadvantaged students, such as the Roma, besides being underrepresented in higher education, are overrepresented in soft fields such as, arts, humanities and social sciences, and less in STEM compared to mainstream students. Our research focused also on the possible implications this has on Roma students’ employability and career prospects.  In 2017, with the support of ERGO Network, I have continued this type of research, and I’ve coordinated a research project which has shown that the more educated young Roma are and the better their geographical conditions (i.e., living in big urban areas), the higher their chances are of being employed. Moreover, it showed that there are big discrepancies between Roma college or university graduates and Roma youth who are marginalized (from rural, segregated areas) and uneducated (especially women) when it comes to their employment needs. College graduates need jobs that match their level of qualification, whereas less-educated Roma need programmes that can support them to either stay in their current school or to continue their education.

Last year, I joined REF’s project titled, “Representation of Roma in European Curricula and Textbooks”  as a junior researcher fellow. I applied to be part of the research project because I knew it would help advance the core principles of quality, equity and social justice in education. As a Roma student myself, a few years ago I could experience the lack of Roma “presence” and representation in the content we were taught in school. With a few exceptions (e.g. in the case of WWII victims where Roma are mentioned as “tigani”) there were no other mentions. My nephews, who are currently secondary school students, still do not have the chance to read and learn about Roma history, and this is two decades after I have graduated secondary education. This absence makes it harder for them and others to be open about revealing their Romani identity.

My most current project involved co-authoring a book chapter with REF Research Officer, Marko Pecak. Our book chapter titled, Path to Higher Education: Combating Antigypsyism by Building Roma Students Aspirations and Resilience” appeared in, “Dimensions of Antigypsyism in Europe”, which was published in May 2019 by the European Network Against Racism. Here, we provide a different view on Romani students education. While the majority of research and discussion regarding antigypsyism in education is on segregation and institutional discrimination, we wanted to explore how Roma students make it through despite the different obstacles in their pre-university educational career, and what makes them successful candidates and graduates of university studies.

The findings are similar to previous studies conducted on Romani students’ experiences in Serbia (Matache et al. 2018) and Canada (Gyulas, 2019). We discuss the role teachers, family members and friends play in supporting students to persevere in the face of discrimination, and shed light on how most Romani students gain their source of resilience and build their aspirations from facing the racism.

My academic journey continues, in September I will start my last six months of my PhD program. During my master’s studies, I began teaching at the University and I also held tutoring classes in Public Policy for the Roma Graduate Preparation Program. These experiences cultivated a desire to teach in higher education. After my thesis defence, I would like to teach somewhere in the region or even further East through the CEU Global Teaching Fellowship.