Diplomat speaks to group

Astrit Zemaj, then Deputy General Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kosovo, speaks to a group of University of Iowa administrators, faculty leaders, and graduate students on the University of Iowa campus, prior to the pandemic.

| December 1, 2020

Pristina, Kosovo, and Iowa City, Iowa are more than five thousand miles apart.

Yet, the two countries are now closely linked together thanks to the vision and commitment of a Kosovar student as well as leaders within both countries who saw the potential for a partnership that would be beneficial.

This dedication led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the University of Iowa and the University of Pristina in Kosovo in 2017 to help develop collaborations and transform education in Kosovo.

Since 2017, higher education faculty and students at the two universities have created meaningful relationships with people they otherwise never would have met.

Armend Berisha, a Kosovar, had the opportunity to study at the UI College of Education. In 2017, Berisha received a master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) through the support of the Transformational Leadership Program (TLP).

This program, which is funded in part by the government of Kosovo and the U.S. State Department, aims to develop the abilities of Kosovars into those of leaders who can drive change in many areas of life in Kosovo including the economy and education, as well as in political and social areas. Berisha focused on the administration policy track within HESA.

“During my master's studies, I realized that the College of Education produces extensive research in education and employs some of the most brilliant minds in this field,” says Berisha. “Schools such as University of Iowa College of Education could be a great benefit and resource to countries that are generally interested in improving education at the national level.”

With the help of a professor at Iowa, Berisha was able to create the connection between Kosovo and the UI College of Education.

“I had the opportunity to meet Professor Gregory Hamot, who has strong experience in developing international partnerships and implementing projects, and we immediately established contact with the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Kosovo,” says Berisha

The College of Education’s relationship with Kosovo involves student and scholar exchanges, consultation, and interaction. Cassie Barnhardt, associate professor and director of graduate studies in Educational Policy and Leadership Studies (EPLS), says the relationship with Kosovo helps students in Iowa.

“Students have developed professional networks, have engaged in understanding the complexity of system planning and governance in higher education, as well as how to link national goals and priorities to how higher education is implemented in a day-to-day way,” says Barnhardt. “They have access to scholars and collaborators that they wouldn't have otherwise been able to engage with.”

Arbrie Shabani, a Kosovar, says that the Kosovo-Iowa relationship is not one-sided. Shabani is a career diplomat who has worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for five years. Her first mission was in the Consulate of the Republic of Kosovo in Iowa. Shabani explained there have been exchanges in education, culture, agriculture, business, and government. She feels the most exciting aspect of this relationship is the education sector and how multiple Iowa schools want to partner with Kosovo.

“It is important to note that all involved with the Iowa-Kosovo relationship view it as a mutually beneficial one,” says Shabani. “There is not one side that helps the other more.  Everyone gets something out of this relationship. We have become one team, one family really.”

Nicholas Stroup, a third-year doctoral student in Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) in the EPLS department from Washington D.C., says the Iowa- Kosovo relationship has been deeply meaningful to his student experience. He is one of many students involved in the initiative during the 2019-2020 school year.

“I believe that the sustained dialogue between the University of Iowa and University of Pristina, the exchange of students and scholars, and ongoing idea-sharing has helped us build stronger foundations for university students in both of our contexts,” says Stroup.

Barnhardt says that the relationship between Kosovo and Iowa began when the Iowa National Guard deployed soldiers to Kosovo as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s  peacekeeping mission in 2003.

“Throughout the 1990s, a number of ethnic and territorial conflicts emerged across the region that was formerly part of Yugoslavia,” says Barnhardt. “Armed conflicts brought about human rights violations and prompted international involvement. Many civilians were forced to flee their homes and take refuge in nearby countries.”

Today’s Kosovo is one of the youngest. A majority of citizens are under age 35, and 42% are under 25. As a result, educational quality and opportunity are top priorities. Several projects have worked to improve Kosovo’s schools and universities, and many international agencies have provided support and expanded educational opportunity. Efforts include sending scholars to the United States to do graduate professional certificates and degree programs.

The war formally concluded in 1999, but the international community remains engaged, seeking to bring peace, resolution, and rebuilding to Kosovo and the region, according to Barnhardt.

After getting his master’s degree at Iowa, Berisha is now working in higher education and developing the higher education sector in Kosovo. He works as a campus administrator at Universum College, a private higher education institution in Kosovo, while continuing to engage with the UI College of Education visits and interactions over the years.

“His presence in our program kicked off a number of initiatives,” says Barnhardt.

A lot has changed since the beginning of the partnership over the past four years.

Initially, the collaboration between Iowa and Kosovo focused on strategies to reform primary and secondary sectors of education in Kosovo, with only a small part focused on higher education. Now, the work Barnhardt and her colleagues continue to do is primarily focused on higher education.

Stroup is grateful for these relationships because he knows they will last a lifetime.

“Iowa and Kosovo have been investing in developing mutual understanding over the last few decades based on our shared values,” says Stroup. “Our economies are similar. Our democratic beliefs are similar. Our principles about the transformative power of education are similar.”

Looking ahead, Barnhardt wants to see the research further developed. The College of Education has several new projects focusing on Kosovo and other Balkan states in the region.

Barnhardt says that any collaborative work focused around reform or capacity building will continue to take time, but she is hopeful that the relationship with Kosovo will continue to grow.

Currently, leaders at Iowa and in Kosovo are working to develop multiple agreements or MOUs. Iowa is in the process of renewing its MOU with the ministry of education science and technology, as well as with the University of Pristina, which is Kosovo’s flagship research university. In addition, leaders at both universities want to develop an MOU between Iowa and the University of Prizren, a regional public university in Kosovo, to formalize some relationships within the next year.

“These relationships take time, and we are really starting to see the fruits of them,” says Barnhardt.

Learn about the University of Iowa College of Education's global partnership with the University of Oslo.

Read more from the Annual Report