When Irena Stanisic opened the envelope containing the news she had won a $4,000 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts undergraduate student fellowship, her eyes filled with tears.

Not only is she the first University of Richmond undergraduate to receive the award in the fellowship program’s 70 year history, but “I couldn’t believe someone else appreciated my art like that,” she says. “My art is very personal to me. I still haven’t sold anything. I can’t let it go. Art is my way of dealing with my cultural identity issues.”

Stanisic was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to a Macedonian mother and Bosnian father. She grew up as a cultural nomad, moving between Mexico, Macedonia, and Roanoke, Va.

In the artist statement she submitted to apply for the VMFA award, she wrote about this experience. “Having traveled the world my whole life, I have always had to be a chameleon trying to adapt my skin to my environments," she says. "I have trouble figuring out where is home.”

For now, she is happy to call the University of Richmond home. When she first began her college search, she envisioned herself attending the art school of a large university in a big city. Stanisic knew she wanted to be a professional artist and assumed this was the only path to her goal.

But, when she visited the University of Richmond, met the art department faculty and learned more about the school's liberal arts focus, she realized there was an alternative. Being selected to receive a full-tuition Richmond Artist Scholarship sealed the deal. Now, she can’t imagine herself anywhere else.

“I got into many art schools, but I felt wanted to do more than art,” she says. “Here I spend most of my time dealing with other subjects … This was the one school that made me feel like they could offer me everything that I wanted to do.”

Stanisic is double majoring in studio art and Latin American and Iberian studies and says, “If I’m not in the library all day and night, I’m [in the studio] all day and night. … Everyone who goes here is so well rounded and smart and there is a lot of diversity. I am so grateful that I chose to come here.”

Stanisic was also attracted to the intimate feel of Richmond’s campus and the friendliness of everyone she met while competing to be a scholar.

“I could see that they genuinely wanted me here,” she recalls. “That was the most important thing. Everywhere else I visited it didn’t really matter because they were going to have a number in their system … Here it mattered that it was me.” 

Stanisic has developed an especially close bond with Associate Professor of Art Tanja Softic, who shares her Bosnian heritage. “I look up to her because we are from the same area of the world,” Stanisic says. “We both have to deal with the same identity and cultural struggles.”

It was Softic, herself a VMFA professional artist fellowship winner, who encouraged Stanisic to apply for the VMFA student grant this year.

“I applied last year and didn’t get it,” Stanisic says. “Tanja sometimes will be hard on me because she needs to be to keep encouraging me to be ambitious as an artist.”

Winning the VMFA grant will enable Stanisic to buy art supplies to work on large-scale pieces, which can be expensive. It has also reaffirmed her commitment to becoming a professional artist.

“It completely turned me around and gave me hope for the future,” she says. “It is like a sign that says, ‘Hey, you are meant to be an artist. Don’t give up.”