Albanian to American in higher education
Enkelejda Demika NU ‘09 and Jim Stellar
I first met Enkelejda at a high school science fair and immediately noticed a combination of the classic education hunger of an immigrant to US with that kind of intelligence that is at once academic and instinctive (e.g. otherlobe). We met repeatedly over the course of her study at Northeastern and continue to talk after she graduated. Her story offers another insight into what has become an interesting theme recently in this blog about the power of experience (including being abroad) to push student development, whether it is a US student with little international experience going overseas or it is an international student or student of immigrant origins coming and working in US. Both experiences, we assert in this blog, drive otherlobe brain circuitry and a different dimension of professional development than simple academic learning of facts and theories.
Enkelejda, let’s start with how your experiences outside the US shaped your interest in Education.
Albania is a country who has gone through communism, overturning of the communism who led to a chaos, later on to civil war and now to politicians who are power hungry. Through all these tough times there was one thing that I, as well as my peers I’m sure, was getting encouraged and lectured on and that was to study as hard as I could so one day I could compete for an opportunity of scholarship to study abroad, because that would have been my only way out to success: I was 8 years old.
Thanks. Now talk about your first few months at Northeastern. How was your adjustment? What were some significant experiences you had in college in the beginning? How did you decide on a major?
I attended an urban high school; my graduating class was of 100 students more or less. Just like any other urban school, my high school suffered from lack of funds but had very dedicated teachers who were willing to work out of their hours to help students. Thus, I was used to a very understanding, warm and kinship environment, I graduated with high honors. After high school I was accepted to Suffolk, Northeastern, and Boston College. I ended up picking Northeastern for their co-op program (as we will talk more about it later in the blog). Entered Northeastern as a political science major, mostly because was told that it would help me prepare for Law school as it was and still is one of my future goals (although later on I learned that English majors have the highest acceptance rates in law schools).
My first semester at Northeastern (out of lack of experience and personal guidance) I took 5 core classes, so I struggled my first semester. But it was not only because of all my intensive classes that I struggled. It was also because I graduated from a small high school where I knew everyone and I entered this big University where I didn’t know anyone. That was a little bit intimidating. Most of the students in my classes came from private or prestigious high schools and I started to think that I was no match for them and could not do as good as them. So my confidence started to decrease a little. At the same time I was not enjoying my political science classes, the next semester I took an introduction to Criminal Justice class and I absolutely loved it, I saw the curriculum of CJ and I noticed that it offered, law classes, criminology etc…Thus I decided to change my major. As I continued to take CJ classes I started doing very well because I really enjoyed learning for that subject and by that time I had met and made friends, professors were very welcoming and down to earth and although Northeastern was this big University I started feeling at home, I gained my confidence back and I absolutely enjoyed my major and my years there.
How did having an immigrant heritage play into your having a period of lacking confidence and then regaining it? Was your immigration status a driver in the sense that you wanted to prove something or was it an inhibitor as you felt you could not compete with native-born Americans on their own turf? People might not know since you write well, but I know you have a slight accent.
Since I can remember I was never an insecure person and I never felt as an inferior to anyone, this includes being back in my country or when I moved in USA. Being an immigrant didn’t have anything to do with my lack of confidence period; I believe graduating from an urban high school had a play in my confidence at that time. As we all know urban high schools are not the strongest as they lack tremendous funds, so in that sense I felt as I could not compete with students who had graduated from private or suburban high schools. My immigration status was definitely a driver to do well, but not because I wanted to prove anything to anyone, it was the driver because as I explained in the first paragraph, back home there aren’t a lot of opportunities and here in U.S. if you have the will power the opportunities are endless. So I was and still am eager to explore all these opportunities.
Provost Stellar, I am glad that you brought up the slight accent part, I do have an accent but I have never though of my accent as a drawback, actually it was just the opposite, it was an advantage. When my peers would hear me speak for the first time and hear my accent they would ask questions and be more interested on who I was and what my part of the world was like and to tell you the truth that actually boosted my confidence because I had this knowledge of a world that they didn’t know of and at the same time I am adapted to my peer’s world (American) culture. But I also believe that which country you migrated from has a lot to do with how people perceive you. As I mentioned above, I have never felt as inferior because I was taught that way, but when I moved here I was also socially accepted even though I was from a different part of the world and have a slight accent, I adapted to the American culture easily just as my peers adapted to me. Unfortunately, there are a lot of immigrants coming from other countries that are not as easily accepted in the society and it is harder for them to adapt to the new culture because in a sense they get isolated. And to tell you the truth, I do like having my accent, but what I don’t like is being called an immigrant (even though I am). I feel the way I do because I have spent as many years in US as I have in Albania if not more, and I have adapted to the American culture just as same as I know the Albanian culture, Albania is my nationality and I absolutely love my homeland but I wouldn’t say I feel any less for America. So by being called an immigrant it categorizes me as a person of a different and one single homeland, when I really feel that am a person who has two homelands, because both countries Albania and America have shaped me to become the person that I am today.
You are really Albanian-American. Maybe that hyphen is your advantage, being between two homelands. I like that formulation. You are right about the word “immigrant.” I am going to try to stop using that word in my communication here at Queens where so many students are like you (40% they say are born outside the US). This incredible diversity is a great strength of Queens as it leads the institution into a global perspective in a most powerful way, but we have to know how to leverage it, particularly if we want to educate the whole Queens student with academics plus relevant experiences. Let’s stop here and maybe pick up some reactions from readers.