From learning Albanian culture and the language from his host family to teaching music, art and preparing local children to compete in an English spelling bee, California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) alumnus Paul Shawkat has already experienced quite a lot during his brief time in the Peace Corps.
Shawkat (’13, B.A., English) was accepted into the Peace Corps in March to serve in Albania for two to three years. He is finishing his training in Fier, a city of about 90,000 people located near the ancient Greek site of Apollonia where he will carry out his service. He is currently learning teaching strategies and service essentials, such as how to be safe within the country and issues regarding gender and sexual orientation.
When he first arrived in Albania, Shawkat spent a few months with a host family to become fully immersed in the language and culture.
“I’ve learned so much from my experience living with a host family. Our first meeting was a little tense for me—maybe them as well—but we’ve grown comfortable with each other,” said Shawkat, a Rancho Mirage native who lived in Redondo Beach before leaving for Albania. “Where I now live in Fier is only a couple hours away from them. I think that I will be going to visit them often for a nice home-cooked meal and some ‘guy-talk’ with my host-brother, who’s about my age.”
The Peace Corps sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. There are 76 volunteers in Albania working with their communities on projects in health, community economic development and English education, and more than 605 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Albania since 1992.
Volunteers also work at the grassroots level with local governments, schools, communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, agriculture and the environment.
Fier’s main industries are oil and gas, according to Shawkat, and the city has a serious pollution problem related to those industries. On the outskirts of the city he has seen “rolling hills of oil rigs,” and says one can smell gasoline in the water when walking across a local bridge.
“But Fier is also a beautiful city with a lot of potential, beautiful pedestrian areas, and smart people,” he said.
Some of the projects Shawkat has been involved with while in training have included teaching basic computer classes and hosting English games and activities for the children at local women and family centers, as well as teaching English classes at the local library and helping some students prepare for an English spelling bee.
“Much of our involvement in the Peace Corps involves what is called ‘Intentional Relationship Building,’” he said. “Using and practicing my limited Albanian language ability, I often play sports with some of my students at the local Italian-sponsored sports center, have coffee with teachers and community members in town, or just go for an ‘xhiro’—an early evening walk. I’ve also become friends with some of the local Mormon missionaries in town and play soccer with them.”
When his training is complete, Shawkat’s main responsibility will be teaching English at Shkolla Jakov Xoxa, a 6th- through 12th-grade school.
“The high schools students are required to practice an art—whether it be musical or visual. Currently, I teach English here with the help of two English teachers, one of which is my primary counterpart,” he said. “We have been practically connected at the hip. What’s great is that she’s really interested in trying out new teaching styles in the classroom. This summer consisted mostly of us hanging out, discussing plans for next year, and meeting new community stakeholders in the city.”
Since the Peace Corps was established in 1961, 77 CSUDH alumni have served—Shawkat and Kayleigh Davis (2014, B.A., interdisciplinary studies) are the only two currently volunteering.
Shawkat says he was motivated to join the Peace Corps by his mother, who had also wanted to be a volunteer. After high school, he had spent a few years in different colleges trying to find the right course of study.
“After struggling to find a new way in life not defined by music, performance, or show business [his artistic passions], I found myself gradually feeling at home at my new school [CSUDH],” he said. “My ego and my understanding of the world were challenged. I began to become a more sincere person and truer to myself.”
When Shawkat returns home from the Peace Corps he plans to tap the knowledge and experience he will have gained in Albania to help guide his life.
“I came to Albania for two main reasons: to have an adventure to help me become more confident, knowledgeable, and in-tune with myself, and to gain practical experience teaching in a classroom, which will tell me whether or not I really do want to be a high school English teacher,” he said. “I can say that one thing has started to occur. I’m already more confident in many aspects of my life, able to communicate my needs better, and have become more patient.”