As a second year PCV I feel so lucky to have so many talented students with the desire to go to university outside of Albania and the support from their families to do so. It’s been such a pleasure to help them prepare for the SAT and teach them about the application process. I just didn’t know that I would be starting at square one. Sometimes I forget where they people come from (I’m talking historically, not geographically).
So back in August we started planning how they would buy the prep books, write their essays, get their recommendations, look for scholarships, and all that stuff that kids across America are doing at the exact same time. But kids in America have one giant advantage- they come from an online culture.
With the way Albanians are hooked to their cellphones and their facebook accounts and instagram and everything else, you’d think it was the most tech-savvy generation yet. I swear, these kids are constantly online. But to many of them, the internet means facebook. They have no idea how to conduct basic research, check their email, or create accounts online. This is probably because the internet only came to this country about 10 years ago. It’s incredibly rare if not unheard of to find families with personal PCs. Communism really messed things up there for awhile. Instead, students here go to internet cafes and pay by the minute or buy cellphone plans with data packages. When it comes to technology, this is a totally different world.
Okay, so back to my story. One day as we were sitting around studying for the SAT and discussing essay topics when I asked them “have you registered for the exam yet?” Blank stares. “How do we do that?” they asked with a terrified look in their eyes, “I’ve never shopped online before!” I couldn’t help but smile at the association. “Okay, you have to go to the College Board website and create an account, then you have to put in your information, choose the date…” I could tell immediate that I’d lost them. “Nevermind, tomorrow I’ll bring my laptop and we’ll do it together.” This is what I’m talking about. This is square one – how to use the internet for things besides uploading photos and liking your friends’ status.
The next day we met and I opened the registration page. We started filling in all the information and after 20 minutes I said, “Now we need to pick the date, the location, and enter your credit card information.” Oops. I should’ve known. There is not a single location in Shkoder that accepts payment by credit card and people here have very little reason to leave Albania let alone Shkoder. Why would anyone have a credit card? So instead we figured out how they could pay their uncles abroad and in the capital directly and get their credit card information and do the payments later. No problem. I sent them home having thought that everything was clear.
A few days later I got phone calls from students absolutely panicking. “Danielle! It’s not working! There’s no place to enter my credit card. Help me! What should I do?” I took a deep breath, “Describe the page to me…okay scroll to the bottom of the page and press continue…good…press continue again…good…do you see the button that says process payment? click on it…good…” 20 minutes and 6 phone calls later everyone was registered. Definitely not short and definitey not sweet.
But then a few weeks later they needed to email the universities and ask about the interview process for international students. Simple, I thought. Wrong again. I had no idea that none of these students had ever sent an email. Email to them was the thing that allowed them to open a facebook account. The didn’t know how to create a message let alone go to the webpages and find the email addresses of the admission people. I’m toatlly addicted to my crackberry and never have my computer on without my email open, so I was totally taken aback. Square one, once again.
All this time I had been helping these students learn math terms and reading comprehension questions when I should have been teaching them how to use the internet. After all, that is the American way. If they get into school in America, they will have to do all kinds of internet registrations and payments and orders. And these poor kids won’t even know when to start. Who would’ve thought one of my greatest strengths as a PCV was knowing how to use the internet. It seems so simple, but it’s true.
I remember being a college student at George Washington University surrounded by international students, yet I never stopped to consider where they actually came from. I’m sure there were Albanians there and I never even noticed how much they probably struggled with basic things that Americans know like the backs of their hands. We’re so lucky to grow up in a culture that leads the world. Places like Albania literally take their directions from us. We’re always one step ahead. We don’t know what it’s like to play catch up. I’m so proud of these students for learning a whole new system, stepping out of their comfort zone, and committing themselves to a difficult path.
Sometimes I wonder if its harder to be an American living in Albania, or an Albanian living in America.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”