By the Grace of God An Albanian Girl Follows Adventure and Finds a Vision
"You should ask God about that,” says Elira Gjata, smiling. She is trying to explain how a girl from Albania ended up at Walla Walla College, getting her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in social work. Elira’s story begins when her mother, a new Seventh-day Adventist in post-communist Albania, told her Canadian pastor of her wish to send one of her children to America to study. At that point, the “heavenly dominoes” began to fall, one by one.
The pastor found a sponsor to send Elira to Auburn Adventist Academy near Seattle, Wash. Seventeen years old and speaking little English, Elira saw the offer as a grand adventure and agreed to go. Although it was notoriously difficult to obtain a visa from the American authorities, Elira sailed right through her visa interview while her mother sat in the waiting room praying.
Shortly, her visa was granted, and despite the strangeness of a new land with different values and unfamiliar language, Elira excelled at Auburn Adventist Academy. During her two years there, she began to investigate what she wanted to do in life and how to prepare for it.
Knowing that education in Albania is of poorer quality than what she was getting in the United States, she decided to stay and attend Walla Walla College. As Elira researched different careers, it became clear to her that social work would prepare her to go back and work for people in her own country. So her vision began to form.
"Social work gives me a variety of things I can do,” she says. “I have had my doubts, but always came back to it. I want to help people, and I’ve seen so many things in my country that I could help with. An American degree looks very good in my country.”
It hasn’t been easy. Elira has battled homesickness, unable to see her parents and brother for several years at a time. And the financial challenge has nearly overwhelmed her. Donors, both known and anonymous, have contributed to her college school bill, and her family has helped as much as they could.
Although she has worked 20 hours a week while carrying full loads, it has not been enough to make ends meet. “I don’t know how I’ve made it,” she comments. “Many, many times I didn’t know how I was going to start the next quarter, and the money always came in at the last minute. Now in my fourth year, I’ve reached the point where I say I’m not going to worry any more. If God wants me here, it will work out!”
Elira will graduate with honors from Walla Walla College in June. She has decided to stay the extra four quarters to complete her Master's of Social Work degree while her momentum for studying is still strong.
“When I finish my MSW I want to go home to Albania, open up my own private agency, hire my own employees, write my own grants and help the community there with my degree,” she says. “In the long term, I want to write policies and propose them to the ministry there, for them to be approved as laws. There’s plenty for me to do there because social work is new for Albania.”
Though she came for adventure, Elira has found herself called to leadership and service back home. “God has proven to me over and over and over again that He’s working in my life. He has been by me.”