Julia Szendro

Julia SzendroHomeless, Hungarian Style

During Hungary’s communist era, “people weren’t allowed to be homeless. They were put into shelters or escorted away, but weren’t visible in the public sphere,” says Julia Szendro, who received a 2011 Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant.

Sponsored by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright program is part of the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program. Its goals are promoting international understanding and finding solutions to shared concerns.

Now, Szendro says, more than 20 years after the land of her birth became a parliamentary republic, homelessness has become an issue. Its rise coincides with a rise in troubled youth who are struggling to find their place. Szendro, who this spring earns a self-designed CUNY Baccalaureate degree in criminal justice and social justice through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, intends to use her Fulbright grant to seek solutions.

“These youth have difficulty transferring from schools into jobs and just finding their way into adulthood,” she says, adding that the lack of specialized services and employment opportunities, as well as alienation from parents who grew up in an entirely different Hungary, help explain the situation.

She will work with the National Institute for Criminology in Budapest, researching possible programs that could help young Hungarians avoid the streets and find meaningful pursuits after high school and college. She’ll also keep her eye on two troubling developments that she has previously studied, the rise in nationalism among young people and the increasing pressure on the Roma (Gypsy) population.

She, her father and sister were born in Hungary; her mother is American. They moved here after communism collapsed in 1989. Eventually their use of the Hungarian language dwindled at home. Now she is studying it to prepare for her journey. “It’s important to communicate with people as much as possible.”

She intends to write up her research for publication, then consider graduate school. But which interests should she pursue? Her internships have included work with the Fortune Society and Housing Works, which help formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society, and the AIDS Center of Queens County needle exchange program. “One of the things I’m focusing on is prison reform and prisoner rights. And I’d like to work toward alternatives to incarceration for young people.”

Indeed, her senior thesis envisions bringing at-risk and crime-involved American youth to Nicaragua to build houses. The notion drew on her own experience in high school and college, when she volunteered within the United States and abroad in service learning opportunities. She demolished wrecked houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and twice built houses in Nicaragua.

Explaining her thesis, she said: “The idea is to encourage empowerment and optimism, as well as civic engagement, through this inspiring experience. I believe that devoting a difficult week of laborious efforts toward a cause bigger then themselves and experiencing the hospitality of some of the most impoverished people in the western hemisphere would be an incredibly transformative experience for troubled young Americans.”