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Ilirjan Gjonbalaj

College: Macaulay Honors College | Hunter College
Awards: Fulbright U.S. Student Program, 2012

Finding His Roots

Nationalist violence devastated the Balkan country of Kosovo throughout the 1990s. Giving the world the phrase "ethnic cleansing" and ending in war crimes trials, Serbian forces drove more than a million people - most of them ethnic Albanians, who were and are Kosovo's majority - across the borders in an onslaught that killed hundreds of thousands more. NATO, led by the United States, waged an air campaign in 1999 before an uneasy peace took hold. Now the 10 percent Serbian minority lives mostly in heavily guarded enclaves, leaving the country very much a work in progress.

"Kosovo has always been a part of my life. I experienced the war by watching it on TV and through relatives and friends of relatives passing away," said Ilirjan Gjonbalaj (pronounced il-EER-ee-an JON-bah-lie), a 2012 graduate of Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College who has won a 2012 U.S. Student Fulbright Fellowship to teach English in Kosovo. "It took the United States and Western countries a long time to get involved and a lot of people died, but we were all glad that they intervened. Cities in Kosovo have Bill Clinton Boulevards, and Americans are more than welcome there."

Gjonbalaj was born in the Bronx to parents who had emigrated from Montenegro, a country to the west of Kosovo and to the north of Albania. "I was raised in an Albanian bubble," he said. "So it was super important for me to go to Hunter, which is one of the most diverse colleges in the U.S. And Macaulay's resources are great; they enabled me to study Arabic in Morocco and to volunteer in a home for HIV-infected children and teens in Salvador, Brazil."

CUNY also helped him become the first person in his family to graduate from a four-year college. He majored in biochemistry, with a minor in Arabic studies.

In Kosovo, Gjonbalaj will teach English in a high school and, in his spare time, teach health to youngsters. That's an outgrowth of the ninth-grade workshops he has run during his four years in college as a volunteer with Peer Health Exchange, a national nonprofit that trains college students to conduct health workshops in public schools that lack health education. In his senior year, he led, trained and managed the volunteers at Hunter. "”I can use the knowledge and skills I’ve attained these past four years as a PHE volunteer," he said, "and I can do it in English and Albanian," in which he is fluent.

When he gets home, Gjonbalaj intends to go to medical school. "I've always known I wanted to be a pediatrician."