by Shannon Lonergan, SHUsquare Student Coordinator
February 3rd, 2017
Sacred Heart University’s Christopher Minardi (2015 graduate) was chosen to embark on an incredible journey to Albania as a recipient of the Fulbright U.S. Student Award. During his time he worked on an educational project he conceived and proposed to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for their 2015-2016 academic year. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the leading international educational exchange program of the U.S. which offers opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate studies, university teaching, advanced research, and primary and secondary teaching worldwide. Upon returning from his journey, he reflects on his time at SHU and his experiences.
Documentary developed by Chris Minardi
Reflections- My Fulbright Experience in Albania
By Chris Minardi
“The day I left for Albania was a bit chilly. I was at my home in Connecticut, packed and ready to begin my adventure across the world. I remember standing in the driveway, leaves strewn about and hugging my mom and my little sister goodbye. I would later part ways with my dad at the airport. This was easily one of the most emotionally tolling days of my life. Never before had I had to say goodbye to everything I’ve known and loved for as long as nine months; however what followed, changed my life forever and gave me a new outlook on my own life in ways I never would have understood otherwise.
The Fulbright for me was definitely not part of the paved road in my life of which I was currently traveling. It was the side road that hadn’t been paved yet or plowed yet. It was the road that still had a fresh coat of snow and as a matter of fact, it was the exact road of which Robert Frost spoke so highly. I began the process of applying for the Fulbright after receiving an email from Dr. McCloud. The email just had information about the Fulbright and after a few days of researching, I decided to answer the email. After weeks of trying to figure out where I wanted to go, I settled on Albania, a small, culturally rich country, located in the Western Balkans.
I picked Albania for a multitude of reasons. I was interested heavily in their history and their cultural heritage as well as the beauty of the natural landscape. My project was also an important reason I chose Albania. My sophomore year of college, I had gone to the computer science department with hopes of finding a research position. I had gotten the idea from a friend who had suggested that it may be a better way for me to learn about tech research. My advisor put me in contact with Professor Marie Hulme, who was trying to start an online forum for students to discuss ideas freely with other students and professors. A few weeks later, I began work on SHUsquare. I can safely say that taking that position changed my life forever.
My Fulbright project was a combination of a few different ideas. Primarily, I wanted to create a similar online environment to SHUsquare, but for teachers within Albania. This website would not only contain forums for teachers to discuss topics such as curriculum and teaching strategies, but also garner the exploration of new ideas through online learning resources such as Ted Talks and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The second part of my project was to film a short documentary. I wasn’t quite sure at the time about the topic the documentary would cover, but I knew it had to do with something within the education system in Albania. During the time I wrote my proposal and even still to this day, I have a love of learning and education and I wanted my project to reflect that.
I found out that I had become a finalist in late January of 2015. I was more than excited, but I knew that I still had a long way to go before officially receiving the award. After I became a finalist, I could have found out about receiving the grant anywhere from late February until early June. Every day, I woke up in a cold sweat. Midway through April, directly following a Sweeney Todd rehearsal, I got the email. I started crying and laughing and really couldn’t contain my excitement. Less than a year later, I was saying goodbye to my family and friends and boarding the plane.
My Fulbright was emotionally tumultuous and rewarding at the same time. There were many extreme highs such as exploring the Cape of Rhodonit, swimming in the Ionian Sea, and even riding ATVs through the Sahara Desert and extreme lows of feeling homesick and even lonely. I tore through books; twelve of them to be exact, and had the chance to not only travel all over Eastern Europe, but also a lot of Western Europe and North Africa. Even after all of my travelling though, I still always came back to Albania. For nine months, Tirana, Albania was my home and I loved it. The people were friendly and I even picked up a good amount of the Albanian language. I made friends with incredible people from all different nationalities and experienced a new part of the world that I hadn’t previously known much about before living there. I even learned how to drive a stick shift in the snow on the way to Bulgaria.
I feel the need to mention the importance of being alone as I think that was the most important lesson that I learned. When I lived there, for the first few months, I felt the need to communicate constantly. I needed to communicate with my friends and my family and I felt the need to post in my blog at every chance. After the nine months, I looked back and saw the progression of my experience. I had slowed down the blogs, and as time went by, I communicated less and less. It wasn’t because I was miserable or because I was feeling lazy, I just didn’t feel the need for that constant communication. By the end of the experience, I was barely using my cell phone except to call people to hang out or for project related calls and texts. I realized the importance of experiencing every moment. Photographs are important because they preserve a moment in time, but sometimes just taking a mental picture is actually better. Our imaginations are part of what make us human.
Looking back, I wouldn’t have changed anything. I had the experience of a lifetime and at the end of the day, I feel like I had made a difference. The website portion of my project didn’t go as well as I had planned, but I had the opportunity to make a short documentary about a school in Tirana, helped produce the 25th Anniversary video between the United States and Albania, consulted for the US Embassy Youth Council, took some pictures, wrote some blog posts, did my part to preserve Albanian cinematic history by helping out with a movie poster art show, and even aided in the preservation of an old Ottoman house (that I got to sleep inside). Overall, while I may not have done exactly what I had set out to do nine months prior, I still had contributed to Albania in my own individual way and learned more than I possibly could have anticipated.”