Mirgentian Gjuta (YES 2011-2012, Albania, hosted by American Councils in Park Falls, WI) has a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and is currently working towards his Master’s degree. An active alumnus since his return from the U.S., Mirgentian shared his story in the following interview, conducted by Tatyana Movshevich (FLEX ‘04).
What are your current responsibilities?
I'm now in my second year of Master’s [studies] in Civil Engineering, with a focus on infrastructure and transportation. Besides studying, I'm currently volunteering for an NGO called Cultural Heritage Without Borders (CHwB - Albania). This organization’s mission is to rescue and preserve cultural heritage that's been affected by neglect or human and natural disaster.
Can you describe the CHwB project in which you are involved?
I'm helping out with the Spaç Prison preservation project. During the Communist era, Albania's political prisoners were confined in the Spaç Prison, but now most of the complex is ruined and the memory of the prison's past is rapidly disappearing. Last year, World Monuments Fund even listed the prison complex as one of the 50 most endangered monuments worldwide. Our aim is to preserve the prison's history and share stories of the prisoners who were kept there. Some of them held the first democratic protests in the history of Albania and greatly contributed to the development of the country's civil movement. It's crucial to remember Albania's important milestones and build on [them]. I'm helping out with digital sketching of the prison. Once we redesign the existing buildings digitally, it will be easier to find out which elements should be restored.
Until May 2016, you served as the executive director of the youth center Borderless. What were the main areas of your work there?
I came to Borderless through the National Youth Congress where I served as a board member. I met some activists from the youth center and was very impressed with the projects that they were doing. That's why I joined the organization in September 2014. Half a year later, I was selected to become a deputy, and then an executive director. At Borderless, we focused on four main objectives: sustainable development through environmental action, youth-led EU integration, social enterprises, and youth entrepreneurship.
What initiative would you consider to be one of the center's main achievements?
In my two years with the organization, we completed a number of great initiatives. However one specific project springs to my mind as a highlight, our participation in the U.N. Women's campaign HeforShe. The campaign's objective is to encourage men and boys to take action against inequalities faced by women worldwide. Our goal was to challenge the public's perception of equality through street surveys and actions in ten Albanian cities. In the course of this project we interviewed lots of passers-by, collected many quotes, pictures and other valuable data, and shared our experiences on social media. We aimed not to put people on the spot, but to engage them in discussions sensitively. After all, we didn't expect to change people's perceptions through short conversations, but we did hope to get them thinking about the issue. Based on people's feedback, I can say that our approach was very effective. Hopefully this project has contributed to bringing change into communities and transforming gender power relations.
You are also very active in the YES community in Albania. This year you initiated and led a project funded by the Transformational Leadership Training program titled #ARTitOUT Albania: Motivating Youth to Transform Social Issues. What was this project about?
Social apathy among youth is a huge problem in Albania and I wanted to challenge this issue through art. By engaging them in artistic events with a social message, I aimed to inspire young people to become active in the change process. Six painters and ten photographers were invited to take part in the initiative. They were all asked to create socially relevant work on the topics of unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, and poverty. Once their works were completed, an exhibition at the Youth Center Tirana was organized in March 2016. Young people who attended it were then asked to vote for two pieces of art that had the biggest impact on them and the winners were announced at a special award ceremony at the end of the exhibition period. Interestingly, both winning works conveyed a message of hope. The selected painting, with the title “Go Beyond Your Limits,” showed a young woman with beautiful colorful hair in front of a bright background; and the [winning] photo, named “He is praying for a better future,” portrayed a thoughtful young man absorbed in prayer. This project was conducted in partnership with three other YES alumnae, Klea Troka (YES '12), Elvana Qeli (YES '12) and Sherina Dyrma (YES ‘14).
Do you think the YES program influenced your interest in civil society work?
It definitely did. My YES experience helped to shape my interests in civil society and human rights and gave me the necessary drive to pursue this work. While in the U.S., I participated in a game marathon to raise money for children's hospitals and took part in other charity events. Now everyone is asking me why I'm training to become an engineer if I'm so interested in civil society work. The truth is, I really love doing both and am hoping to contribute to my community through the combination of my technical and project management skills. My current project at CHwB reassures my hope that it may be possible.
What is your advice to other YES alumni?
You've received a unique opportunity to develop yourself and you should build your career in the field that you love most. If you do so, it will unavoidably have a positive impact on others – no matter whether it's music, engineering, healthcare, or IT. But don't forget to be a part of the community in which you live in as well, and to contribute to the bigger social change whenever you can.