Capable of More
Air raid sirens screamed as Suzana Dobrić Veiss (MA ’02, BA ’99) ran with her mother through the streets of Osijek, Croatia. Seconds after they reached the safety of their front door, a Serbian artillery shell exploded on the spot they’d just rushed past.
During those dark days of the early 1990s, the-15-year-old Dobrić Veiss saw her people open their homes to strangers caught in the bombing, while others rose every morning to sweep from the streets the glass of blown-out windows. “Those people gave me a glimpse of hope to push forward when there was so much destruction and turmoil,” she says.
Thirty years later, Dobrić Veiss, Ph.D., helps graduate students at Fresno Pacific University push forward in their own lives—transcending the limits they’ve placed on themselves or accepted—so they can transform others. She prays for them, learns their stories—sharing hers, too—and celebrates their milestones. “You’re capable of more than you know,” she encourages. Students pursuing a master’s degree in leadership find new personal and professional direction, and their changed lives impact families, workplaces and communities for the better.
“I expose all students, believers and nonbelievers, to God’s truth and his word because in a world where there are so many voices, it’s difficult to find the truth,” says Dobrić Veiss, assistant professor of business and director of the M.A. in Strategic and Organizational Leadership program. “I see myself as a mentor who models leadership to students and communicates that each of us has a specific purpose and that we can serve in mighty ways.”
Dobrić Veiss teaches through FPU regional campuses in Visalia, North Fresno and Merced, as well as online. The goal is for students to become strong writers and speakers, critical thinkers and problem-solvers so they can be change agents in their communities, Dobrić Veiss says.
A MOTHER’S FAITH
Radical change came to Dobrić Veiss’ life when Yugoslavia broke apart and Serbian forces attacked Croatia. Amid the heavy bombardment, she tried to process the chaos and destruction
in her diary. One entry captured her dire reality: “all around me are death, destruction and misfortune.” Then the direction of her life changed. Six thousand miles away in Visalia, community members came together to host 15 Croatian teenagers so they’d have a year’s respite from the war. Her mother insisted that Dobrić Veiss, the middle of her three daughters, go. “My mom had enough faith in her heart to know that I belonged somewhere else,” she says. (All the sisters spent some time away from the fighting.) Today, with three daughters of her own, Dobrić Veiss is awestruck at her mother’s selflessness and courage.
Dobrić Veiss remained in Visalia for 21⁄2 years (with her parents’ consent), graduated from high school (as class valedictorian) and then went home for a summer visit. She returned to begin college at FPU, but her life was soon upended again. Near the end of her freshman year, her mother died unexpectedly. To help with burial expenses, Dobrić Veiss wired to Croatia the money she’d saved from campus jobs, but she had nothing left for an airplane ticket.
In a memory she cherishes, FPU’s campus pastor came to her dorm room with a card she still has. “We want you to go home,” it read, and was signed, “The FPU Community.” There was money in the card for a ticket, and while travel complications prevented her going, that act of compassion remains a guiding principle for Dobrić Veiss. “I want to love my students the way Fresno Pacific loved me during that difficult time.”
A CHANGED LIFE
Devann McClellan (MA ’22, BA ’15) came to the M.A. in Strategic and Organizational Leadership program with a difficulty of her own. She was ready to leave her insurance job for more fulfilling work with a nonprofit, but she lacked self-confidence because of past failures. “Suzana helped me see that my mistakes don’t define who I am,” McClellan says. “She changed my life in ways I never knew were possible.”
Part of that process was learning to become vulnerable about her failures and fears, and so she confided in Dobrić Veiss. “Suzana continued to show me love even when I was showing her an awful side of myself,” McClellan says, adding that she’s not religious, but appreciated Dobrić Veiss’ prayers and scripture verses. Their friendship continued after McClellan graduated and began work at the Tulare County Office of Education for the California Friday Night Live Partnership, a youth empowerment program. “Suzana helped me step into the light to help others,” McClellan says.
THRIVING IN CRISIS
Dobrić Veiss also uses her leadership principles as a consultant to help organizations better serve their communities. In the fall of 2022, for example, she began work with First 5 Kern, an agency that partners with 39 child-oriented programs in Kern County. First 5 Kern faced internal and external pressures, and Dobrić Veiss conducted staff workshops on leadership development, change readiness and problem-solving. “I can definitely say there was an improvement in communication and team dynamics,” says Executive Director Amy Travis (MA ’23, BA ’16). As a result, First 5 Kern was ready to serve more children and their families, Travis adds.
Travis’ connection to Dobrić Veiss began as a student in the master’s program, and that’s where Dobrić Veiss’ impact on the wider community always begins—with individuals. That commitment came into focus in 2020 when the COVID pandemic forced FPU to cancel its May commencement. Determined to honor her graduates, she took her husband, Victor, and their daughters on a two-day road trip from Bakersfield to Modesto to visit each student. Maintaining proper social distance, they went to doorsteps (and one workplace) with gifts and balloons, and Dobrić Veiss donned her doctoral robe and cap at each stop to lend an official air to the surprise visits.
Ever the problem-solver, Dobrić Veiss would not let the pandemic deter her. “I wanted to celebrate each individual and their families and make them feel seen. That’s a reflection of what God has done for me. That’s God’s story in my life,” she says.