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Reflecting on a summer in Kosovo: What I learned while traveling, writing and not sleeping

As I walked down Mother Teresa Boulevard on my last day in Pristina, Kosovo, I was overcome with a wave of bittersweet nostalgia. Eight weeks prior, I walked sluggishly down that same white stone street, jetlagged and disoriented. My mouth was agape as I took in all the new sights and smells, experiencing the gentle bustle of the hot early summer day. The crowded corner coffee shops, the vendors lining the streets with books, sunglasses, and children's toys, the head-scarfed beggars sitting in the shade of the sapling trees, heads bowed in prayer, the statues of revered wartime heroes, the husky Albanian language drifting from the mouths of the people that call this city home, that was all new to me. But in that moment, I ambled down this street with ease, perhaps with the air and language of a foreigner, but with the look of someone who had truly experienced this place. That city had so much soul, and I was not quite sure if I was ready to leave it.

My eight-week summer study abroad in Pristina, Kosovo the Miami University journalism department was a whirlwind of studying, traveling, learning, growing and barely enough sleep. I visited six countries - Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, and Turkey - which showed me beauty I didn't know could exist. Within Kosovo, I explored four cities - Pristina, Podujevo, Peja, and Prizren. I wrote three, in-depth news stories for my internship at KosovaLive, an online news agency that was founded during the war. I completed eight credit hours worth of college classes. I established strong friendships with several of the students who joined me on this trip, and lasting relationships with professors who can help further my career. The amount I experienced in that short time seems enough for several lifetimes. I couldn't begin to describe all I have learned, all that has opened my eyes and changed me as a person. But I will tell you what I have found most important.

Kosovo is a tiny country (only about 4,000 square miles and 2 million people) in the Balkan region, sandwiched between Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia. Kosovo used to be part of a region called Yugoslavia, which seven independent republics now constitute. Yugoslavia dissolved in the 1990s as a result of increasing nationalism among its states. Because of ethnic tensions and years of war, Serbia and several other countries still do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Kosovo and Serbia have been locked in warfare on and off for centuries, mainly because both ethnic Serbs and Kosovo Albanians contend that they have lived in Kosovo since the beginning of time, and claim rights to their "Jerusalem." It is impossible to resolve the matter since records only go back so far, but you will hear a different story of how Kosovo was settled and who really belongs there depending on which Kosovar you talk to.

Despite its contentious history, during my time in Kosovo I learned that the country's character and development is rooted in the thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions of its people. Upon arriving here, one immediately sees the Turkish-Ottoman influence, with the red-roofed villages speckled across the mountaintops. They may be struck by the Muslim influence, with the eerily beautiful call to prayer reverberating five times a day from the mosques across the city. They will notice the American flags rippling in the breeze alongside the blue and yellow of Kosovo's, and Bill Clinton's statue saluting the heart of the city.

They will pass by the shell of the Serbian Orthodox Church and know who also claims rights to this land. In addition, of course they will hear the gorgeous symphony of various languages echoing down the street-corners, with Albanian -a testament to Kosovo's dominant population - the loudest voice of all. While Kosovo's mosaic of cultures may make it difficult for one to stand out, that is the point. Kosovo isn't just the diamond-shaped country with a controversial history nestled in the Balkans. Its identity is found within its people, who blend millennia of different cultures, traditions, and belief to generate a new, unique personality.

Since returning I am not yet sure of the extent to which this program as changed me. I know I have become much more grateful of my easy life in the United States, of the safety, security and money that brings structure and predictability to my sheltered little world. I cannot take for granted the endless opportunities that lie before me, the various paths, beaten, remote, or well traveled, that I can choose to take me into my future. But I wish I wasn't re-entering a culture of apathy toward the government, of lack of participation in decision-making that affects the wellbeing of our extremely powerful nation. I am especially going to miss the easy-going lifestyle in Kosovo. Americans are in such a rush to be somewhere or do something by a certain time.

Life is far too structured by time and schedule. When do we ever get a chance to breathe, to sip a macchiato in a café without worrying about when the waiter is going to bring the check? Our lives are dictated by deadlines that we create for ourselves. Despite how busy I have been during my time here, traveling has taught me to take a deep breath and see what exists outside the endless buzz and stress of work and school: a world teeming with unspeakable, indescribable beauty that is patiently waiting for all of us to stop and open our eyes.

I am not sure what my future holds, but I can say with certainty my passion for journalism has been revitalized. I hope to pursue it long into my life. Kosovo has provided me with the perfect place to discover how impactful and vital journalism is to a community. I realize I have the power to inform the members of a society so they can perform their proper duty and citizens as fully participate in governmental decision-making. And by doing so, I have also realized how important is for me to participate in my government, as well.

I know I will come back to this rugged little country and see how it has progressed a few years from now. I realize sadly that there is so much I am leaving behind undone and unfixed. I hope to see the stray dogs well-fed and in loving arms. I want to see the skinny, haughty eyed children roaming the streets for money in school with full bellies. I want all the ethnic tensions and hostilities that persist here to be put aside so a new country with a new identity can develop and flourish.

Kosovo is so much more than a tiny little country the size of Connecticut that was once ravaged by war and is now neglected by the media. It has taught me the power of storytelling, it has ignited a passion for travel in my soul, and has urged me to look inward and discover things about myself I never knew before. Even when I am gone, this energetic, quirky little place will live on quietly in the rolling mountains of the Balkans. I cannot wait to explore others like it one day. After all, in the words of Michael Palin, "once travel bug bites, there is no known antidote, and I know I will be happily infected for the rest of my life."