Springfield College got a diversity makeover when Megi Xhumari enrolled in September of 2012. And it is not just a geographic or cultural change that Xhumari brought from Albania, but a personality one as well.
Xhumari is a graduate student in the School of Social Work at Springfield College, and the only student currently enrolled at the school from Albania. She is also the only student from the “Land of the Eagles” to come through the college in Deborah Alm’s (the Director of the Doggett International Center at Springfield College) nearly 20-year tenure.
Xhumari is a beaming individual who (aside from the accent) does not make it evident that she came from a different part of the world just a year-and-a-half ago.
She was born, raised and lived entirely in Albania up until she left home for the first time for Springfield, Mass, a change of pace from typical Albanian culture.
“People here are just expected to move out and live independently when they go to college, but that is not the case in Albania. Most people live at home until they get married,” cited Xhumari, a trendsetter in traditional Albanian culture.
Xhumari lives with her brother in Storrs, Conn. on the campus of the University of Connecticut, a 29-mile commute away from class in Springfield. The distance from family in America proved to be a major factor in her decision-making process, as she wanted to come to America, but not be completely thrown to the wolves living by herself right from the get-go.
Since enrolling at Springfield, Xhumari hops into her navy blue Toyota Prius each day and zips up the series of back-road highways en route to campus, and prepares herself for a day of classes.
However, once she gets home, she fills her evening with a little bit of relaxation, but also Albanian meal preparation, something she finds to be drastically different in the United States.
“In my country, people cook everything on their own,” said Xhumari. “Here, people buy frozen food or they have already-cooked food and they just microwave it. There are frozen foods in [Albania], but people don’t use those, not like here; here it is like a lifestyle.”
And Xhumari is not kidding when she discusses Albania’s perimeter of the grocery store mentality. Her mother goes so far as to make her own mayonnaise from scratch, something few people in America can even fathom. Xhumari emphasizes the theory that serves almost as a way of life for her mother: “When I can do it by myself, why should I buy it?”
Food preparation ties into speed of life in the States, a pace much quicker than Albania, and another drastic change Xhumari has had to acclimate herself with.
“Here I don’t have time for myself. I’m too busy and I feel sometimes like I’m a robot,” said the graduate student.
However, food preparation and pace are not the only things different. Appearance in Albania is held in incredibly high regard, no matter the circumstances, and Xhumari still has moderate trouble adjusting to the fact that it is not quite the same way in America.
“Here people dress very practically, very comfortable – they don’t think too much about their outlook, but in my country that’s something really, really important. They dress up just to go to the store… Even if the store is 10 minutes away from their house they have to dress up.”
Needless to say it is not quite shocking that, due to her background, Xhumari was moderately appalled when students came strolling into classes in America donning sweatpants, yoga pants and pajamas, or what otherwise has become a part of the “dress code” on college campuses around the country.
However, Xhumari has wasted no time in acclimating herself to life at Springfield College, and it has showed, though not through dress, but by letting her personality do the talking.
“She’s so outgoing and so friendly that it is easy to get to know [her],” said Alm.
Xhumari has used these skills to make friends on campus, one of which is Adisa Haznadar of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Though they are separated by Montenegro back home, nothing separates them in Springfield, as they are quite close on campus. The two spend time talking about each other’s culture among other things in the International Center.
“The fact that our countries are next to each other made it easy [to get to know each other],” said Haznadar. “Whenever there was something to do, she was always one of the first people to do it. Whenever something was going on, she was always the first one to get up and say, ‘Let’s go do this,’ so she is very driven.”
And despite making connections with other international students, Xhumari has not stopped there, making friends that come from more prototypical American backgrounds.
Listening to all the praise Xhumari receives from friends and connections is certainly a testament to her family-oriented upbringing, not unusual to Albanian culture. With that, however, came the acknowledgement from the Xhumari family that the best thing for Megi was for her to come to America to pursue the remainder of her schooling and career aspirations. In fact, it was not Megi that wanted to go overseas, but rather her family’s wishes so she would not have to endure the struggles of finding a job in Albania due to its hierarchical and “who you know” employment system.
“[In America] it’s based on the merits; if you are good, you will get [a job] off your hard work, but in Albania it’s not like that… professors don’t give good grades because they fear that when you graduate you will take their position.”
And now that she is put in a situation where it takes hard work to succeed, it will not be shocking news when she attains her goals due to her academic and personal merit.
It does not take much to make Megi Xhumari happy. She cites family, friends, lifestyle and food as the four things she cannot do without, and 18 months into her life in America, it has worked. She is a truly unique individual who has established a precedent on campus of the real importance of a college education, something many students do not know, or take for granted. To travel over 4,500 miles to come to school is impressive, but to come that distance and do what she has done is truly incredible.