An American in Albania
by Steve Wymer '01 | © Washington State University
Adapted from a series of e-mail messages from the author to friends and associates.
Since serving three terms as ASWSU president as an undergraduate, I have never lost my passion for the process of student representation. I've tried to be a help to as many student leaders as possible, and I have wound up speaking at a lot of conferences around the nation, and even helped found the American Student Government Association (the only professional association for student governments) in 2003.
Earlier this year, I was asked by the State Department to do a speaking/training tour in Albania to assist their effort to create student representation across the country. Albania is one of the youngest democracies in the world and is still transitioning from the decades of communist rule it endured until the early 1990s. The higher education system in Albania consists of 14 colleges and universities, but democratic elections and representation have evolved slowly on university campuses.
My studies in public relations at the Murrow School, experiences as a student leader at WSU, and my professional opportunities over the last five years in politics were great training for this opportunity. I went to Albania with the hope of providing valuable insight to the student leaders who are trying to build a representational body, but I'm certain I left having learned more than I taught. It was an amazing opportunity to be a part of the first national student government elections in Albania, and I have developed a genuine passion for the students and the whole country.
I arrived in Tirana, Albania, yesterday on my little adventure with the State Department, and it has been great so far. It's hard to put everything in perspective when you realize that this country is poorer than Mexico, but you do see some of the beautiful aspects of Europe.
The streets are dirty, they lose electricity a lot, and the overall infrastructure of roads, sidewalks, and buildings is really in rough shape. But the people are kind, and the university officials I have met so far have been great.
In addition to the contract I have with the State Department, some friends of mine back home in Washington, DC have put me in contact with some friends here in Albania to help build some relationships. It was somewhat surprising to me that I was connected with a top political guy with essentially the GOP of Albania, and another friend from DC put me in touch with a guy who is the leader of the Albanian version of our Socialist Party! Needless to say, it's a diverse place.
Otherwise, as I dig into the consulting work here, it's easy to see that the higher ed system here is rough. Everyone here wants their child to go to college, but the schools don't have libraries or the support they need. I found it fascinating that a somewhat prestigious private college just opened here in the capital city of Tirana and the "rector" of the school does not have a copy machine. It's things like that you see all the time.
Today I am meeting with the minister of education and then going to a "commissioning ceremony" for the new student government of Tirana University. This is the first time the university has officially recognized student government elections, and a big step for them. I'll be headed a couple hours south today to Elbasan, where I am supposed to speak to some newly elected student government officers down there.
There are a lot of divisive politics around here, as groups jockey for position in this painful time of transition from communism to a democracy. You can see that the concept of communism guaranteeing a little to everyone is so much different from the reality that in capitalism, there are those who are left behind. It can be a little heartbreaking to witness, but I think the general sentiment is that the country is improving.
This has already been great adventure, so I'm looking forward to more.
We began today with a ceremony to recognize the student leaders at the University of Tirana. Since their recently-held elections are the first ever to be truly recognized by their administration since the old student governments that were controlled by the communist regime, it was a big step for these students to be accepted by the university rector (president who is elected and very much a political type of position with great power).
I liked the title "rector," and U of Tirana's was a nice enough guy, but I assure you that these "rectors" at Albanian universities are far from the strong, principled presidents of many of our fine institutions of higher learning in the US. The rector at the University of Tirana has nearly $20 million to use at his discretion each year and has beautifully renovated his own offices, upgraded his motorcade to new BMWs, and pretty much decked himself out. Unfortunately, his renovation efforts skipped the library and any other part of the school that mattered to the students. Literally, most of the school looks like it is 200 years old and in utter disarray. These rectors stand for elections every few years, and although the rector of the University of Tirana should have stood for election last year, the elections have been mysteriously pushed back. Some say it is because he is waiting for a popularity surge before he gives the wink to some folks in Parliament who will begin elections.
It's hard not to be cynical of so many of the older elite leaders, as all of them grew up in communism and they really have a different idea of what true democracy is than we do in America. Students actually fear that if they stand up to professors who treat them poorly, they will be failed. It is very common for students to bribe their way into colleges and bribe their way out with a degree.
Essentially, the university administration operates on an age-old tradition of hierarchy, and professors hold a very high place in society in spite of their actual abilities. These professors are VERY opposed to students being involved in any aspect of the governance of the institution, and they get testy, to say the least, when students voice their concerns. I thought a rec center at WSU was tough to build--these students just want a say in ANYTHING! Matt Caires [ASWSU president 1996-97] with his "anti-Bookie" pin might just find himself in some pretty dangerous waters here, and Sam Reed certainly wouldn't like the armed students who stole a ballot box from the College of Economics student elections last month. Let's just say that Dino Rossi [Republican opponent of Washington governor Christine Gregoire, who contested the election results] would have many friends here, because true election results certainly don't count in lots of these situations, as personal connections and friendships supersede.
Before we left the capital city today, the folks with the State Department and I also met with the deputy prime minister of Albania for education. She seems to understand where they need to go, and is working hard to get there. I was impressed with her commitment to supporting student governance, and she was a very kind lady.
This afternoon we traveled from the capital city of Tirana a couple of hours south over a steep mountain pass. The scenes were beautiful, and I was shocked to come over the mountain and look down on the largest steel mill I have ever seen. They told me that the mill hasn't been working for decades, because it is so much cheaper to import the metal from Sweden, but it certainly helps you understand the massive shifts and adjustments this country has undertaken in just my lifetime.
At the University of Elbasan, I trained student senators for almost five hours. It was grueling, because many of the students understand a little English, so they try hard to understand what you are saying, but they don't. I have resorted to just using my translator the whole time, and I think that works, but it is so hard to get into my rhythm of speaking. Just as I am about to make a decent point, I have to stop and let my translator relay. Since many things don't translate perfectly (especially some of my crazy passion for student empowerment and democracy), the translator takes about four times as long as I took in saying something to relay it back to the audience. With 50 people or so trying to understand, and their fierce questioning, it gets tough.
One funny note was that in preparing the PowerPoints I was using, I found a grey Albanian flag and used it with a graphic. Little did I know, but the flag is the communist Albanian flag. It was kind of like flying husky colors at Martin Stadium . . . (a mortal sin). Fortunately, they forgave me, but I learned a valuable lesson about how the symbols of their old regime still pop out now and again. It would be easier for these students to embrace some of the Western ideas they are so curious about if they were 100-percent sold on democracy in the first place. Albania is a very good friend of the USA, and they support us in everything, but they are still figuring this whole "democracy" deal out. I have been introduced to at least half a dozen people who nearly yelled at my translator, as they wanted me to know that they have almost 100 Albanian marines in Mosul, Iraq, and they know George Bush is undertaking a worthy cause. They really want us to know that they support us. It may have a lot to do with the reality that they know that democracy MUST work at the footsteps of Europe if it is to work in the Middle East. I will certainly return home with a greater appreciation of our State Department work in places like Albania.
Anyway, it's late here, and I better end this note and go to bed, but I am so excited for the future here in Albania. These students represent the future of the country. They are passionate (they argue all the time, very loudly!) but they are passionate about making a difference, and they want to impact their communities.
My only regret is that I can't really connect with them in their native language, but for now, the translator will have to do.
Tomorrow I am headed to the Adriatic Sea to train some students in Vlora.
The last two days have been incredible. Yesterday we traveled about two hours on a ridiculously winding road to the city of Vlora to work with students at the University of Vlora. Vlora is on the Adriatic Sea, and although the views of the water are beautiful, it is not a nice city.
Albania fell into complete anarchy in 1997 when some massive pyramid schemes destroyed the nation's entire economy. They say that a huge percentage of Albanians lost almost everything. When things crashed, the place erupted in violence, and the military and police just quit. The violence started in Vlora, and the city is known as a rebel city.
Ultimately, as . . . [a] fledgling democracy that was experiencing so many things for the first time, Albania's government was incapable of dealing with this situation, and Vlora still kind of gives you that sense of "tension in the air" when you drive through. One of the long-standing jokes is that Albanians are always amazed at how the city fields a good soccer team, but despises teamwork in every other way!
Anyway, we drove this crazy road made in the 1930s by Italian occupiers, and our State Department driver just drives like a maniac. We think maybe the State Department tells the drivers to drive fast to avoid the inevitable gawking that goes on. In American-made black vans and SUVs, we really stick out, so everyone looks at us wherever we go. I guess the diplomats here are extremely powerful, because not only do they have your typical diplomatic immunity, but the Albanian government is so intent on fostering good relations with the US that they instruct their police and army personnel to "NEVER mess with the American Embassy!" Therefore, the drivers (who are Albanian and EXTREMELY proud to have these sweet jobs) just drive like idiots. Most of you know that I enjoy driving very fast, but these guys drive like 90 mph on roads that we would have a 25 mph speed limit on. Seriously, there are a few miles of decent highway outside of Tirana, and this guy had our van at 120 mph. I LOVED it for the first 20 minutes, but imagine doing 60-70 mph on golf-course cart paths for two hours, and you'll understand the feeling in my stomach for most of the trip.
So, after a bit of a roller coaster ride, we arrived at the University of Vlora. This school is also commonly known as the most corrupt university in Albania. I'm struggling with how describe this place. Just imagine a university that makes the typical public school in DC look like a shrine, add in years of soot on the walls because students and professors smoke in the school, bad lighting, and an entire university workforce for sale. That's the short version. I was aghast at trying to help these students, because they told me that it is much easier to just give the professor $50 and pass the test than to study! I asked them what the problems were, and they shouted problems for almost an hour. My translator went through an entire pack of cigarettes just while they answered that question! Seriously!! (Sidenote: my translator's name is Altin, and he smokes NO LESS than FIVE packs a day) Anyway, as my translator is speaking eight inches from my face with the most charcoal breath you can imagine, these students are yelling out all of their problems. This will go on for hours! As soon as I suggest some strategies to begin to make progress on an issue, someone will jump up and begin shouting about another problem. They cannot focus and cannot reach consensus. They have corrupt teachers and administration, no textbooks, unfair test calendars, impending changes to the national laws about higher education that they do not understand, and so many more problems, and they are passionate about stating them.
This dynamic has made training these students one of the most difficult leadership assignments I have ever experienced. I am blown away. It's nearly impossible to examine strategies to solve issues when there is nobody for them to turn to for help. Higher education in Albania exists (it seems) to enrich those in charge of it, and they have so much work to do.
That said, the more students I meet and talk to, the better I understand the complexities of their world. It's easy to understand their passion for calling out a problem, because for so long, they were not allowed to speak of problems out loud. It was less than 15 years ago that these students would go to a market with their parents and possibly find that the potatoes were all gone for the day. If their father or mother made a fuss about having to go hungry that night, they were jailed or punished for speaking out in a communist society. As I think about that, I have to extend these students a lot of grace. Truth be told, I've already developed a love for the whole messy place and everyone I have met.
It has also been a blessing to have a guy by the name of Landon here. He is a student at American University in Washington, DC and fluent in Albanian. Anyway, he is an intern at the embassy this summer and has tagged along with the delegation, and that has been helpful.
Finally, today is a Flag Day in America. Find a flag somewhere (that flag flying near the Dirksen Senate Office Building had BETTER be flying tight) and take a second to think about the symbol of freedom and democracy represented by that beautiful piece of cloth. We should be so grateful to live in the greatest country in the world.
Albania might aspire to be like America more than any other country in the world right now, and while they certainly have a long way to go, I can see sparks of potential here. If democracy can't flourish and work on the doorstep of Europe, how can we expect it to work in the Middle East? Albania is an important piece of the work, and this experience has already been life-changing for me.
Since my last update a couple days ago, a lot has happened. I really feel like some progress has been made here in Albania. Yesterday I started off with a meeting at the Embassy with two NGOs who both have a desire to create orientation programs for incoming college students. Universities in Albania offer absolutely nothing to help new freshmen get a grasp on what college life is about. They offer no help for students to know where to turn for assistance, or even what is expected of them as students. The State Department has provided some funds to a group here that produces a small orientation booklet, and they want to make sure that this organization is getting everything they need in the booklet. One of the important dynamics for the diplomacy efforts from the US is to make sure that all the parties with a stake in the process are included, and there is also a student-led group affiliated with George Soros's Open Society Foundation who produces a different type of orientation book. Services like this cannot afford to be duplicated, and competition is actually more detrimental than helpful in some cases. The purpose of the meeting was to help facilitate a partnership between the groups.
I'm not sure I made the difference in bringing the two groups together, but since the group producing the packets was a religiously affiliated organization and most of the student leaders here seem to be atheists, I was in a position to leverage my experiences as a student and share my faith to hopefully help some folks reconcile, and ultimately accomplish what should be a simple goal: produce an orientation booklet for students containing the right information. You might think reaching consensus in the US Senate is hard . . . these groups simply don't understand the concept. Explaining how the students' information could simply be added to the more established book, and that everyone would benefit, was so much harder than you might imagine. Thankfully, we left the meeting with smiles, and traded business cards (the Albanians call business cards "visit cards"), and a commitment to work together.
Later that day I led my most productive afternoon of training with another college, and the students really grasped the concepts I have been preaching about gaining credibility through service to your fellow students. Often, my suggestions that they work to improve textbook availability, clean up their facilities, and organize teacher evaluations are unimportant when compared to the massive corruption they face in their universities. While my heart goes out to them for the reality they face, they're very likely to be punished or even failed out of school for challenging the staff and administration, so I have been trying to help them see the value of beginning small and addressing issues that will improve the quality of life for their fellow students.
After all, student representation in Albania is THREE WEEKS old, and they want to flip an entrenched culture of corruption and hierarchy in a few short weeks. I respect their passion, and I would probably have a bandana on my head and a megaphone in my hand trying to start a revolution if I was a student here, but I know that wouldn't serve them best right now. I'm trying to help them develop a long-term strategy that will give them some credibility and greater support from their own student body. Their responses at this session were really great, and I felt like this might have been the first group that collectively bought into some of the strategies I struggled through with the interpreter. They asked very complicated questions and furiously took notes.
Imagine 50 pairs of Albanian eyes transfixed on you, as you try to explain an example from the movie Shawshank Redemption. I told them about how in the movie Tim Robbins regularly writes the state prison library begging for some books. In fact, he writes them for years with no response, but all of a sudden a semi truck of books shows up, and Robbins gets his library. It doesn't matter if he only got the library to shut him up, it matters that he served his fellow prisoners. I told them that sometimes you can get a response because of persistence just as much as the validity of your request. These students often feel like their universities are like prisons (the facilities look like it), so this dumb little story relayed well.
If nothing else, in a nation where nothing has really been that "fair" for so long, I have to start somewhere with them. Selecting a need such as books was a pretty good place to start. Who has a full-fledged university in the capitol of a democratic nation with no books in a library? That's ridiculous, and with a sister in law who is a librarian, I have a greater-than-average appreciation for libraries. Needless to say, I think the rector of their school will be getting a few letters and petitions in the next week or so. Ironically, his newly renovated palatial office suite sits directly above a tiny library housing a couple hundred old books and lit with a single dangling light bulb.
It is funny to see how they eat things up like stories from American movies. They told me that Arnold Schwarzenegger movies are their absolute favorite, and although I haven't pulled any great leadership metaphors from Kindergarten Cop or anything, I do try to weave anything I can from American culture into the training. I think my office mates in the Smith office should know that in the last week, Albanians have come to believe that Ken Griffey Jr. is the greatest baseball player in history, and that communism has very deep roots at the University of Washington. I think Albanians are quite wise in these regards, and of course I had nothing to do with planting these seeds of knowledge in their heads.
Seriously, this work with students has been tough, but it's worth it. This session yesterday was one of the toughest, but most rewarding, leadership experiences I have ever facilitated, and I have great hope for the future here.
Last night after the training, I had time to meet with some Albanian political guys I had been connected to through my relationships with the National Prayer Breakfast. These two guys (Dorian with the Socialist Integration Party and Gerti with the more conservative party in power here in Albania) were actually able to attend the prayer breakfast this year in DC and saw Bono's speech, so we had even been in the same room just a few months ago. Anyway, the American Embassy political guy met us there, and we watched a great soccer match between Sweden and Paraguay. World Cup soccer means a lot more when you look at it with the perspective that Ivory Coast stopped a civil war just to root for their team. You can't help but be interested, when it seems like everyone in Albania is fired up about soccer. At night people just huddle around TVs everywhere to watch the games.
Today I started my day with a meeting at one of the nicest private universities in Albania. It's called the Universiteti UFO. The place was absolutely beautiful, and it was the first school of any kind that actually had swept floors, no broken glass, and central air conditioning. They even had wiring for PowerPoint presentations in their classrooms-the only time I have seen any type of technology in the classroom in the whole country.
I've heard about many students in Albania who graduate from college with technical degrees without ever having worked in a lab, built a bridge, or dissected a cadaver. Needless to say, that's a little disconcerting, and I was pleased to see that this school at least had a dental lab with some fake teeth for the students to look at. Believe it or not, there are students graduating in Albania with nursing degrees who have never drawn someone's blood. Scary.
Anyway, after meeting with the president of the school-they offer nine degrees, but are best known as a dental school-I felt much more educated about the process of higher education in Albania.
One of the crazy dynamics I have been trying to put my finger on is the seeming obsession they have with elections. The decades of communist rule here have developed an addiction to exercising their right to vote. It's good that they value that, but they still have low voter turnout, and it results in a ridiculous repetition of services. In a country of 3.2 million people, they need about four universities to serve their students. They have 14. In a country with an elected prime minister, president, parliament, and about 1,000 other positions, people can always shift blame.
Things quickly get messed up at a university where the president is elected, as are the deans of the departments. The deans here just ignore the decisions of the president and look to build power in their own department. Everyone claims to be accountable to the electorate, and nobody is placed in a position due to merit. It's "campaign overload," and higher education is incredibly political. The result is that the students wind up losing the most.
Tonight I just got back from a training they held for about six remote schools who all came in to meet for the sessions at a hotel outside of Tirana. It was so weird, but they put us in a room for the training that they use for Albanian weddings. I was standing there training students under an arch where the bride walks in for the reception, and felt very strange. As usual, the Albanians took their seats at the flowery tables and just whipped out their pens and looked at me ready to write, as my translator repeated what I had to say. I guess in a country where your dictator convinced everyone that the United States was a weak country where people were starving to death in the 1970s, they aren't really fazed by some wedding decorations at a training session. I just began by saying a little phrase I have heard my dad say many times, "We are gathered here today.."
Tomorrow is a huge day, as I will witness the very first election of the Albanian National Student Assembly and meet the winners as they are announced. I'm also looking forward to a meeting I have with the Albanian minister of defense, Fatmir Madur. Fatmir is well connected to friends in Washington, DC through an international prayer group and is one of the strongest US allies in the Albanian prime minister's cabinet. These folks are extremely proud that they have 85 marines fighting with our guys in Iraq, so it will be interesting to discuss our faith and maybe even some defense issues with Fatmir.
I am watching the ONE channel my TV gets in my hotel room, and I must have gotten caught up watching this stupid Julia Roberts movie . . . it's in Italian with Albanian subtitles. Of course, I have no clue what either language means. The TV channel is in a different language (never English) every time I turn it on. I'm holding out for the NBA finals to come on, but I won't hold my breath.
I am missing home, but really learning a lot and meeting some great people.
I wrote most of this final update in the Frankfurt, Germany airport. Boy was that interesting. I thought Atlanta and Chicago were crazy airports! This place was nuts. It has to be the biggest airport I have every flown through. I guess my little Reagan National Airport in DCA looks better and better all the time. As I finish this final update about Albania back home in DC, my luggage is floating around somewhere in Germany. Hope it gets here someday!!
Anyway, this trip has been life changing, and I am grateful for the opportunity. Working with a very wide spectrum of folks in Albania has been an intense and rewarding experience, but I also feel a new appreciation for the United States of America. I've been just about everywhere in the US, but this was my first trip to Europe, and I think I learned a lot more than I taught. It would take years of in-depth study to grasp the long and rich history of the Balkans, but I've certainly had a crash course and enjoyed it.
Since my last update, I've probably had a dozen meetings. I met with George Soros's Open Society people (I left my GWB t-shirt in my hotel), had a training session with the entire delegation of the Albanian Student Association as they prepared for their first national election, and even spent a couple hours signing about 450 certificates for each of the students we trained throughout my stay. (I really hope the certificate said something good, because I have no clue what the writing meant. I just signed at the bottom where it said the only two words in English on the page: Steve Wymer).
The last few days in Albania were the best. I witnessed the historic elections, and then met with the new executive board of the National Albanian Student Government Association. I also attached a picture of the two brothers, Dretan and Alban, who founded the student government association in Albania. To start this process, they wrote grant applications to several of George Soros's foundations, asked for and received funds from the US and Dutch embassies, and got a grant from USAID to travel to every school in Albania, organize fair elections, and fight the many walls thrown up in front of them in their efforts to organize student governments in Albania. There were a LOT of people who did not want democracy and representation to include university students, and it is slowly happening, due, in large part, to their efforts. They are good guys, and I really respect the effort they undertook. In my book, they're heroes of a sort.
My last training session with the new executive board included a lot of talk about how to help the fledgling student governments on each campus across the country, how the association might impact the new higher education policy their parliament is debating for the first time, and a lot of other issues. Other than the mafia group that rolled in to see what we were talking about (I swear I am not joking . . . there are more "Tony Sopranos" in Albania than America!) it really went well. I was pleased, and I think the Albanian students can take some of the tips as direction for their future.
Some relationships back home opened the door to meet with some very high-level Albania government officials, and that was definitely a highlight. In the parliamentary system in Albania, it is a tradition that a member of parliament (MP) has to take you in order to have a meeting with the prime minster, president, or any cabinet members. So Monday morning, Lajla Pernaska (Republican MP) picked me up, and we went to the Department of Defense. The meeting with Minister Medur was interesting. We met for almost an hour in his office, and I must have walked past 100 huge dudes with machine guns to get in there. (Let's just say that you do NOT mess with Albanian special forces.) His office was about the size of my high school gymnasium and decorated with pictures of secretaries Rice and Rumsfeld and about every defense minister in Europe. He's an ambitious guy, and I think he is gearing up for a presidential run someday, so that put an interesting wrinkle on things. Medur is fluent in English, and I got a great perspective from him on the past and future of the country, as well as some interesting insights about the Albanian military. Albanian marines are serving in Iraq, and we may not have another country in the world that supports US policies as ardently as Albania. I was shocked to see the amount of American flags flying right next to Albanian flags . . . and they LOVE Clinton for his commitment to the Balkans.
In all, we definitely made a difference in Albania. The students there are energetic about the future, and I think some of my perspectives about higher education in America helped them see what is possible. Albania has so much work to do, but they are a proud country, and I think democracy will thrive there if the US and other countries continue to be involved. The embassy has invited me to come back, and I hope to finish up a grant proposal to USAID in the next few weeks to organize a delegation of young professionals from the States to travel to Albania and set up a leadership development conference for young Albanians who aspire to lead with a moral conscious in their country. I may be asking several of you to participate, so I hope some of you can stand some bad food and dust for a couple weeks, because I think there is a lot of great work that can be done in Albania.
Look forward to connecting with you all soon and thanks for sharing this with me.
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