When College juniors and Albanian twins Aleksia and Vasia Barka were first years, they sat together at a table in Hill College House dining hall and were surprised at what they heard. The student across from them was speaking in Albanian.
That student, Wharton junior Tea Qarri, became their first Albanian connection on campus, and the common culture they shared helped them feel more comfortable at Penn. Now, the three students are leading a new club for Albanian students to help create a stronger network for their compatriots.
The three students founded the Albanian Association at Penn in October to form connections between Albanian students, professors, and alumni. The club plans to focus on community service for Albanian students and bring together students who identify with or want to learn about Albanian culture.
The group held its first meeting on Oct. 31 and has since recruited 16 members. At the first meeting, the attendees introduced themselves and talked about their shared experiences as Albanians or Albanian Americans. The meetings are held in English, as many of the members do not speak fluent Albanian. At the end of the first meeting when only a few members remained, the group switched to speaking Albanian, College sophomore Jurti Telushi said.
Telushi, who had been thinking about starting a similar club earlier, said the club filled a need for community among Albanian students. He heard about AAP when he received an email from one of the founders, who saw his Albanian name in a class roster and decided to reach out.
College junior Erinda Sheno said she was surprised when she arrived at Penn and found that no such club had existed. She joined AAP this semester for the camaraderie and liked that the founders wanted to make the club welcoming for non-Albanians as well.
The first event the club is planning is a Zoom dance class to teach valle, a style of traditional Albanian dance. Vasia Barka said music and dance is important to Albanian culture.
AAP is also planning to host a talk series with successful Albanians in the workforce and use these connections to help build an Albanian network for AAP members. The AAP leaders said they are also working to develop relationships with Albanian Penn alumni.
Another event in the works by AAP is a celebration for Albanian Independence Day on Nov. 28, the day Albania gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The holiday is especially important to people who have emigrated from Albania, Vasia Barka said.
Qarri said AAP is considering providing tutoring services to Albanians in Philadelphia schools, as well as offering advice for Albanians thinking about applying to American colleges. Vasia Barka said they are also considering sending relief packages to people in need in Albania.
The AAP founders and members are unified by the love they have for Albanian culture.
“[Albania is] a very small country," Sheno said. "When I tell people that I’m Albanian, usually they never have heard of that before and they probably can’t identify it on a map. Even for being so small, there’s so much to learn. It’s very culture-rich."