| by Nadia Pshonyak

In the News, News Stories

students posing with the Newborn sign in Pristina, Kosovo on a recent spring break trip
Students on the Balkan global course trip posing in front of the Newborn sign (commemorating Kosovo’s independence) in Pristina, Kosovo.

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to North Macedonia and Kosovo as a part of the Nationalism and New States in the Balkans global course. As a former Peace Corps volunteer in North Macedonia, it was a chance for me to go back to where I served.

“Learning by doing”, our tour guide, Shuki says as we are walking through Pristina’s city center looking at statues of national heroes in memory of the country’s founding a mere sixteen years ago. A tiny country in the middle of Europe, Kosovo is still trying to figure out what it is and what it will become. The atmosphere in the capital is lively. We are here during the holy month of Ramadan and have been fortunate to meet with various NGOs and civil society organizations who are doing amazing work in the area like ITP- PrizrenYouth in Human Rights (YiHR), and Partners Kosova, the latter of which our tour guide founded.

views of prizren, kosovo
The picturesque city of Prizren, Kosovo (Credit: Nadia Pshonyak )

In Kosovo, we visit the picturesque city of Prizren which is a melting pot of ethnicities and religions and Pristina, the bustling capital city. In addition to scheduled visits with the above-mentioned organizations, we meet with University of Pristina professors and students, have some amazing food, and enjoy a lot of free time exploring the city for ourselves, forming our own ideas and memories of it. We also meet with Institute alumni who are working for the State Department and USAID to learn about their work.  

A highlight was visiting the Newborn monument commemorating Kosovo’s independence sixteen years ago. Every year on Kosovo Independence Day (February 17), the design of the monument changes. And personally, for me, a highlight was seeing a Free Ukraine banner unfurled on one of the city’s buildings. 

My most memorable experience was spending time in Pristina [Kosovo], where we were able to have one-on-one conversations with university professors, students, and activists, as well as U.S. government agency representatives who are MIIS alumni. This diverse pool of people provided us with a broad picture of the country’s economic, political, and social challenges in building a nation.
— Allyson Mabul, fellow MIIS student on this trip

After visits to Pristina and Prizren, we crossed the Kosovo-Macedonia border and headed to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. In Skopje, we met with the Centre for Common Ground, met some former politicians turned law professors at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, toured the Mother Teresa house, and indulged in some amazingly delicious Macedonian food. 

We continued west and stopped in Tetovo, an Albanian-majority city, where we toured the city starting with the Painted Mosque, weaving through the street market, and stopping at the Arabati Baba Tekke, a Turkish compound turned historic site. Later there’s visits to South East European University (SEEU) and a panel that includes the former mayor of Tetovo, moderated by Dr. Phil Murphy, one of the Institute faculty on this trip (Dr. Anne Campbell was the second faculty lead). Tetovo holds personal significance for me as it is near the village where I spent my days as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years teaching English in a primary school 6 years ago. Seeing the city again and the changes it has undergone brings back a lot of memories and being back in Macedonia gives me a chance to practice my language skills again. 

[The] most memorable experience I had was our last dinner together in Lake Ohrid. We were in North Macedonia together with our tour guide, singing Macedonian songs. There was an intense sense of camaraderie [and] a longing for peace and happiness for future generations. 
— Izabella Smith, fellow MIIS student on trip

Our bus takes us through winding mountain roads on the way to the stunning city of Ohrid and its namesake lake where we will spend the remainder of our trip. We stop at a rest area midway through and enjoy some delicious mekici, a fluffy, soft, fried bread that is unlike anything I’ve ever had. Having arrived in Ohrid, our first stop is a meeting with employees from Galicica National Park, who tell us about the incredible work they are doing preserving the lake and the surrounding environment. We have about a day to explore the historic city center of this UNESCO World Heritage site walking the cobblestone streets that line the lake, peering into the crystal clear waters of one of the deepest lakes in Europe, exploring the historic churches (rumor has it that there are 365 churches, one for each day of the year), and climbing up to Samuel’s Fortress, the formidable structure that overlooks the whole city. The trip wraps up in Ohrid as we head back to the capital (about a three-hour bus ride) and prepare to depart back to the States, most of us returning to Monterey. 

As we depart one by one, we think back on the memories of this trip that happened over spring break, the amazing people we met, and all the things that we learned. I go back to the words of Shuki back in Pristina and have to agree wholeheartedly that learning by doing is the best way to learn and if one has the chance to travel somewhere they have never been and experience a whole world different from theirs, that is an opportunity that should not be passed up, and I am grateful to the Middlebury Institute for giving us the opportunity to travel to new places (or in my case, to return to a familiar one) as a part of our education here. 

The trip [had a] good mix of exposure to local perspectives. We met with local NGOs, university faculty, students, and tour guides…had freedom to explore the area on our own and speak with locals in a variety of cities.
— Emmy Ruff, fellow MIIS student on this trip
sunset on Lake Ohrid
Sunset on Lake Ohrid (Credit: Nadia Pshonyak )

For More Information

MIIS Office of Experiential Learning