A chance to serve and lead on a global scale has led three 2011 spring graduates of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) far from the comfort and familiarity of Harrisonburg to a newly opened academic center in the Adriatic Sea town of Lezhe, Albania.
The Lezha Academic Center (LAC) opened during the summer of 2011 and has 33 tenth and eleventh grade students enrolled for the academic year. Don Steiner, director of EMU’s MA in education and chair of LAC’s board of directors, believes the center is poised to provide Albanians with an education equipped in core Christian values to serve “both the church and community.”
“We envision the center will be a strong presence in the community, a place known for academic excellence and its emphasis on biblical values and English,” said Steiner. “We have 100 students enrolled in the adult, business and high school programs, with 40 more on a waiting list.”
Building a community
Built in a remodeled three-story hotel, the center is equipped with donated furniture from Mennonite schools in northern Germany. Steiner, the teachers, and students had worried that the school would not be able to open as planned, because the government-required school charter arrived only a few days before the official opening. Paperwork for it had been submitted a year earlier.
EMU graduates Kaitlyn Bontrager, Jessica Hedrick and Kristi Reinhardt are three of the four teachers on campus. In addition, there are two retired teachers providing additional support.
“Teaching English to students in a foreign country as a first-year teacher is a challenge, to say the very least,” said Bontrager. “[One of] my goals for the students is to show them what it means to be caring, compassionate individuals who value all people and seek to make a positive change in their community.”
“My desire is to not just teach my students content but to teach them to be inquisitive learners that creatively problem-solve,” said Reinhardt. “When they leave our school I want them to have experienced genuine community and compassion.”
In planning LAC, Steiner said a goal of the founding group was to build a school that runs with “honesty, integrity and a servant’s heart.” In doing this, Steiner said they envisioned LAC becoming a self-sustaining school supported by a combination of American and Albanian teachers who embrace biblical views.
“The leadership of LAC will encourage Albanian patrons to not only help support the school but provide leadership for its future development,” Steiner said. “This will be an experiment of establishing a healthy dialogue with the multi-faith community of Lezhe.”
LAC was built as an alternative to Albania’s public school system, which lacks essential resources and has overcrowded classrooms, according to the EMU graduates.
“Our students come from an educational system that equates a quality education with the quantity of information students can memorize and regurgitate,” said Hedrick. “It is my hope that I can put my students on the path to lifelong learning by igniting their curiosity and teaching them to evaluate the information they receive instead of memorizing it.”
To encourage academic learning, all classes are taught in English except Albanian language and history classes. Steiner said they will add a twelfth grade and additional English teachers by the start of the next school year. “We anticipate that Lezha Academic Center will continue to grow in numbers with the potential of 120 or more students.”
LAC Principal Klementina Shahini believes the school can be a place where future Albanian youth will see “hope and start to dream about their future.”
“[LAC] can be a school where students, the future of Albania, will have the opportunity to learn everyday more and more about their King [Jesus] and share the good news with their friends, families, relatives and neighbors.”