From small-town Albania to small-town Ohio

By Erika Byler

Irena Xhari arrived in Hesston, Kansas, two years ago to attend Hesston College along with about 200 other students to begin their freshman year at the two-year Mennonite institution. Just three months ago, Irena Xhari arrived on another campus to continue her education. That campus was Bluffton University.

Junior Irena Xhari stands with the Albanian flag. Photo by Erika Byler

Junior Irena Xhari stands with the Albanian flag. Xhari spent two years studying at Hesston (Kan.) College before transferring to Bluffton this year. She plans to work in the United States for a while after graduating but eventually wants to return to Albania. Photo by Erika Byler

She is one of five students to transfer to Bluffton University this year after graduating from Hesston College, but she is the only student on campus from Albania.

Xhari attended what was known as the American High School in her hometown of Lezha, Albania. The school was started by an Albanian woman who taught in the United States for many years before returning home to start an American-style school.

Most of the teachers at the school were American volunteers, and many of them were Mennonites. Only three classes were taught by Albanian teachers: Albanian literature, Albanian geography and Albanian history.

The school’s was to prepare students to attend a college or university in the United States, Xhari said.

“The best place I had thought about going was in my capital in Albania,” she said.

Lisa Mast was one of the teachers at the school while Xhari was a student. Mast taught music and helped coordinate a visit and performance with a choir from Eastern Mennonite School, located in Virgina.

Mast was a graduate of Hesston College who helped Xhari decide to attend Hesston after graduating. Mast’s family, many of whom live in Oklahoma, have also helped Xhari find ways to fund an American education.

They have also helped her travel to and from school, and she has stayed in Oklahoma with Masts parents for school vacations.

Xhari said the Masts also helped with culture issues.

“I think looking back the biggest challenge has been culture shock,” she said. “When people think of culture shock they think of food and language and traditions and all that stuff.”

Xhari recalls discussing culture differences in a management class at Hesston. The class was looking at different facts and statistics. According to one website, Albania scored very low on a test of independent thinking while the United States scored very high.

“I personally think more about group settings than an individual perspective,” she said.

To her, the focus on community and what is best for everyone is very important, and this is a value she said is held by most Albanians she knows.

“Attitudes and beliefs,” she said of the cultural challenges she faced. “I think those things were harder than just food and clothes.”

Another struggle was being so far from her family. This past summer was the first time Xhari was able to see her family in two years.

“I think in the beginning it was easy because I was excited to be somewhere new,” she said. “The second year was harder. My parents were missing me more and I was missing them more.”

She said that she often went two months without talking to her brother.

This year, Xhari often calls home around suppertime, which is about 11p.m. back home, just before her family goes to bed.

Xhari said that going back home for the summer helped her realize it was ok to not try to conform to the culture she was in. It is ok to keep things from her culture.

“I had forgotten a lot of things that were a part of me because of the distance,” she said.

Xhari hopes to work for some time in the United States, because her education has been built from an American workplace, but she hopes to return home at some point.

“I like to take things slowly and take advantage of the opportunities that will come,” she said, “I don’t know where I will be, in the U.S. or Albania.”

RaeLee Hightower, a junior, was good friends with Xhari at Hesston and one of the five Hesston transfers this year.

“We were next-door neighbors in the same mod freshman year, so we had a lot of mod activities together and had frequent interactions just throughout normal days,” she said.

Xhari pointed out that Hightower has always been interested in other cultures and countries, so she often asked Xhari about her home.

“Ever since year one we’ve had very long very animated discussions and coffee dates and study sessions,” Hightower said. “The fact that she’s from a different country and culture hardly ever crosses my mind anymore.”

Xhari is a member of Bluffton’s International Connection, a group that brings together students from different countries and cultures to share with each other.

She is also an active member of Sustainability Club and can often be seen as one of the workers swiping cards in the Marbeck Commons.

Xhari is not sure what her future plans are.

“Well first, I want to finish college,” she said.

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