Aspiring anthropologist and radio DJ finds honors thesis amid Croatia’s abandoned resorts

In fall 2014, Madeline Artibee boarded a plane to Croatia, a one-way-ticket in hand. The Nashville native wanted to spend her junior year working on a shipyard in the coastal city of Rijeka, while studying at the university there.

Save for a visa and return date, she had it all planned out: The job would serve as ethnographic research for her senior honors thesis in anthropology. She’d toil alongside the other workers and talk to them about how their lives had been affected by the country’s transition to capitalism in the early ’90s.

Madeline Artibee in Rijeka
Madeline Artibee at Trsat Castle near her apartment in Rijeka, Croatia

“I had very lofty goals,” admits Artibee, who came to Sweet Briar initially to study environmental science. Lured into anthropology by a class she took her freshman year, she would be the first Sweet Briar student to study in Croatia — a country the College has been connected with for years through history professor John Ashbrook’s personal ties.

“I had this huge, long survey that workers were going to fill out,” Artibee recalls. “And then I contacted their PR people, and of course they said no.”

That was after she’d arrived in Rijeka.

But Artibee’s own research was already leading her down a different path, anyway.

“When I started talking to some of the retired workers, all they wanted to talk about was when they were young, and what they did when they were young, and going abroad, and going to the beach, so I was like, ‘That’s interesting. Why do they talk so much about tourist activities and leisure?’ ”

They especially remembered Yugoslavia’s grand resorts, which had since crumbled alongside the country’s political system. Artibee began piecing it all together, and she realized there was something there.

“ ‘There’s some kind of systematic thing here that’s happened that’s really interesting,’ ” she remembers thinking. “So, I argue that the transition from socialism to capitalism has consequences that have economically strained the region and the tourism industry. And they are just now starting to get it back, but it’s not the same anymore. It’s a different way of economic organization now.”

Thesis advisor and professor of anthropology Debbie Durham says Artibee’s paper was “very well-received” by her outside reader Jessica Greenberg, who teaches in the Russian and East European Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — one of several graduate schools Artibee was accepted to.

“She impressed us with her rich ethnographic material gathered during her junior year abroad in Croatia, and her strong sense of where the project could be taken in the future,” Durham said.

Durham and Artibee in Pannell
Artibee and Durham (background) during an anthropology class in Pannell Gallery

Artibee will present her findings at a public presentation at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 21, in Pannell Gallery, amid an exhibition of Soviet propaganda posters and memorabilia she helped curate. She notes that both the posters and the resorts she talks about in her thesis have to do with the kind of image each country’s government wanted to portray.

“It’s been a very socialist-focused year,” she adds, laughing.

Her other passion this year has been the College’s revamped — and renamed — radio station. Artibee is the general manager for The Briar 92.7, a job that makes her sparkle with enthusiasm. She’s a volunteer, but spends virtually every free minute in the lower level of Reid Hall, where the studio is located. It’s her third year in that position, having started as a first-year when it was WNRN’s daughter station, WNRS.

“It’s as fun or as challenging as you want it to be,” she says.

She still can’t get over how exhilarating it was to DJ alongside alumnae during the College’s streamathon in March, a fundraising event that generated $36,500 in donations. There will be another streamathon next year, she says, but in the meantime, she is hoping to get some local alumnae involved in weekly radio shows.

What she likes most about the job is that it connects her with the local community.

“I’ve been able to meet some of the coolest people through the radio station who have shows here, who are community DJs,” Artibee says. “They’re really passionate about the music they play, and they’re really passionate about what the radio station does for them.”

Being part of the radio station is different from most other student organizations, she says.

“We have music meetings with people who aren’t just Sweet Briar people. [At the radio station] you meet people you don’t see all the time — you get another perspective, which is really fun.”

Artibee and a fellow student DJ have fun doing their jobs at the radio station.
Artibee and a fellow student DJ have fun doing their jobs at the radio station.

The Briar recently began partnering with Amherst- and Lynchburg-based businesses on local events, is developing an app, and trying to expand its signal. Artibee is excited for what’s next, but sad it’ll happen without her.

On the plus side, there are skills she’s learned at the station that will stick with her, no matter where she goes — such as leadership and communication.

“I started doing radio when I was 15, so the radio didn’t really scare me, but … because I was in a position of power, my professionalism and ethical decision-making have just really taken off,” she says. “You have to be in situations that are kind of tricky sometimes, and you have to think, ‘What’s best for the radio station and its growth?’ Sometimes that means letting people go and sometimes that means you can’t hire certain people.”

Thankfully, many students share Artibee’s passion, and becoming a radio DJ is not a popularity contest.

“[Sometimes you think someone] wouldn’t be good for radio, and then when you put her on [air], it’s like something happens: [She] turns into this really loud, outspoken, confident person,” Artibee says, her eyes beaming. “It’s really, really fun.”

Students often want to become DJs to have their interests heard, she says, adding that many aren’t into the top-40 music they hear at campus parties.

“We have one girl who plays really cool remixes of different songs,” Artibee says. “Then there is one girl who plays jam bands and bluegrass, and another who plays ’70s and ’80s disco. When I play music, I usually play a mix of stuff, sometimes it could be classical, sometimes it could be hip hop, sometimes it’d be black metal.”

Artibee in Pula
A day trip to nearby Pula revealed another picturesque part of Croatia’s coast.

She smiles. “Classical is my favorite.”

As her time at Sweet Briar winds down, Artibee is trying her hand at something many Sweet Briar students are into: horseback riding. She’s taking a class called Natural Horsemanship, which is designed to familiarize beginners with a horse’s body language.

“Me and this horse, we really get along,” she says. “I was not planning on getting on a horse at the beginning of the semester, and last week, I started jumping over things!”

It’s been an exciting year of new and old things for Artibee. Being halfway across the world in Croatia when Sweet Briar almost closed and then didn’t, it felt “pretty normal” to come back in the fall, she says.

Everything since then “has fallen into place the way it was supposed to,” she adds, including getting into every single graduate program she applied to. One of them is a dual program in library science and eastern European studies.

But what happened taught her that life is too short to miss an opportunity for new friendships. Today, she’s close with students she never paid much attention to before boarding that plane back in 2014.

In Croatia, she had a similar experience. A Croatian native and Sweet Briar alumna from the Class of 1996 reached out to Artibee in the wake of the closing announcement, to show support and see if she needed anything.

The two clicked immediately.

“Because we both had this connection to Sweet Briar, there was no question about it,” Artibee remembers.

“The Sweet Briar community, even so far away, was really, really strong. … It just hit it home even harder that, even though I was in another country and didn’t have any connection to Sweet Briar physically at that moment, Sweet Briar found me — again.”