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Interview with A/S of State for Education and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce with Thimi Samarxhi of Vizion+
October 20, 2020

A man and a woman speak across a desk in a TV studio

Vizion+: Madam, thank you very much for being here. I appreciate it and it’s an honor having you here.

A/S Royce: Thank you, Thimi.

Vizion+: Given that this is probably your first visit to Albania, what is your first impression?

A/S Royce: The first thing I want to say is how appreciative I am of being here in Albania. I’ve been wanting to come to Albania since I came into my role in 2018. What has really struck me, Thimi, are people like yourself. The people have been so warm and welcoming and also the incredible culture that you have. I just want to add that the United States has been with Albania since the beginning and these people-to-people ties continue to endure. And even during this pandemic, when I started coming back on the road again internationally, Albania was my first choice of a country to come visit.

Vizion+: During your time as Assistant Secretary, you have met many exchange alumni from Albania and maybe they have told you about Albania. Now that you are visiting here in Albania, you are touching the people, the streets, and everything, what is the first thing that goes to your mind of the things that they told you?

A/S Royce: Everyone that I spoke to said how incredibly warm and welcoming they are to Americans and the fact of the matter is that you are also an alum. That’s great. I know you’re a 2018 alum of IVLP and you went to three cities…

Vizion+: …It was Washington D.C., Louisville, Santa Fe, and Tampa.

A/S Royce: …Oh, Tampa, so an incredibly impactful and transformative experience that you had…

Vizion+: …Yes, it was amazing, changed my life…

A/S Royce: Yeah, the great news is that we’ve had 2346 Albanians come to the United States on various exchange programs, and I have had a chance to meet some of these incredible alums here. In fact, even in Washington, D.C., your ambassador to the United States from Albania, Ambassador Floreta Faber, she’s also an IVLP alum from 2010. And this morning, I had one of the biggest honors in my entire life, I received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Tirana, and a Fulbright alum introduced me from the stage. So, it’s amazing. Last night also we had an alum, a journalist who is a colleague of yours… This year is the 80th anniversary of the IVLP and we have 80 faces of exchange. Now imagine this, we have about 200,000 people who are alumni and we are celebrating by unveiling 80 faces, and last night, Mr. Dervishi who is a journalist, was unveiled and we did a dinner in his honor with fellow alums from IVLP, recognizing him as one of our 80 Faces of Exchange. So, everywhere I’ve gone, the Minister of Culture’s office, there’s an alum; our Embassy has a Fulbright alum. So, it’s been wonderful and everyone that I’ve met is really just exceeding my expectations and their incredible support for our bilateral relationship.

Vizion+: You mentioned it before, I’m honored that I am one of the thousands of IVLP alumni in Albania, I want to say to you that it was, I don’t know, I can’t find the words to explain this experience. Thanks to that, I broke many stereotypes in my mind about the American people…

A/S Royce: Thank you…

Vizion+: …and thanks to that, I have now a network of 47 other journalists from around the world. Considering the pandemic situation, you cannot feel the home hospitality that was in Lousiville that I had. How is it working now with IVLP and other programs, with online, with the pandemic, the lockdown?

A/S Royce: When the pandemic struck, we pivoted to the virtual and consequently, the people-to-people relationships and those engagements never stopped. In fact, next month, we’re doing the Professional Fellows Congress, which I look forward to every year. We have 175 participants, 46 countries that will be part of it, but we’re doing the whole program virtually. Additionally, we have the virtual IVLP programs; I just did one the other day with one of our ambassadors in Africa with 12 individuals that wanted to study the American political process. So here they are coming to three different cities of the United States as a group of 12. They are getting to speak to mayors and political activists. They’re doing it over five weeks but they’re doing it all virtually. So that’s pretty exciting. We do have one program, we have some students that are in the United States and that is the Fulbright Program. So, we’ve got close to about 3500. Fulbrighters that are active in activities and we have Fulbrighters from Albania that are studying in the United States. One thing I will add, too, is that we have 3 American Spaces here in Albania. They are active with virtual programming and the things that people do in an American Space, we’re continuing to do that, educating people for free on EdUSA for educational advising, teaching English, doing alumni activities and cultural programs.

Vizion+: I still believe that if you go there, it’s something different, going there to meet the people. But these online things change our way of life, but we hope that it will end soon.

A/S Royce: I will just add one thing. We hope that more people-to-people exchanges will happen in the future, but now with the pandemic, we’re doing the best we can and people are still having some very robust engagements.

Vizion+: After the earthquake, the United States donated $800,000 for historical and cultural preservation at three important sites in Kruje, Preze, and Durres. Why did the United States choose this project? Are they considered some of the most vulnerable?

A/S Royce: Thank you for asking that question. Back in November 2019, I remember very well when the earthquake happened in Albania and my heart went out to the Albanian people. I received a letter from your government requesting support for cultural projects for preservation. I wanted to share with you that we made a decision with the Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation to support the three most damaged sites. And that is why the sites that you described – Kruja, Preza, and Durrës – were chosen. And I also want to share that yesterday I was able to see Kruja and also Preza from a distance with two architects. I’m just so happy that the United States was able to provide close to one million dollars with grants from the Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation.

Vizion+: So we can say that this is not only a one-time support but there will be longtime support for this kind of projects…

A/S Royce: Yes, I want you to know that we’re committed to cultural preservation in Albania. Our team has been involved in projects for close to 20 years. In fact, we’ve provided close to 1.2 million dollars in grants to Albania. We will continue to consider projects for the Ambassadors’ Fund through our work for the cultural affairs team.

Vizion+: Madam Assistant Secretary. Albania is lucky that it is full of historical and archeological sites. You have been in Kruja and have seen and touched what is there, but, do you believe that this area has received enough attention from all of Albania’s governments over the past 30 years? Should they do more?

A/S Royce: Well, I can’t comment on the Albanian Government, but I can comment on the United States Government and the fact that I want to just reconfirm my commitment. Again, I’ve said that the United States has been with Albania from the start. I’m so proud of our efforts together. Our people-to-people exchanges and our work continues so I just want to say that we continue to show our commitment to cultural preservation and also exchange programs.

Vizion+: Now on education, education is another area of specialty for you. On that topic, there are many well-known programs here like YES, Fulbright, etc. Why does the United States pay so much attention to this area? Do we have a number, you mentioned 2000 but that is a total; do we have a number of how many YES students, Fulbrights and these kinds of projects?

A/S Royce: We have a number of initiatives and, first of all, I’ll start with Fulbright. I want to say that last year, on the sidelines of the United Nations, one of my proudest moments on this job, was the fact that I was able to sign an MoU with the Government of Albania to increase the number of scholarships. Now, Albania will have three more scholarships a year for Master’s Degrees, for students to study in the United States. So, that’s incredibly exciting and it’s going to make a big difference. You mentioned the YES program, that’s for high school students and that’s actually one of the best events when high school students come to the United States, they spend their high school time with us. The IVLP program. We’re also introducing a new program, called the Micro Access Scholarship for underprivileged youth to learn English over a two-year period. That’s very exciting. And last week, our Embassy launched a very important program, I’ll see it later today, it’s part of the White House initiative to bring more women into the global workforce. It’s called the Women’s Global Development Prosperity Initiative. The acronym is WGDP. There are three pillars; the first is bring women into the global workforce but the second is helping them succeed as entrepreneurs. So now we have a new program called the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs. So through the Thunderbird School of Global Management and a company called Freeport-McMoRan – it’s a global mining company – we’re supporting the women in a cohort, we’re trainers. They’ll learn business planning, marketing, how to raise capital. They’ll also benefit from the extensive network of alumni here in Albania who’ll help mentor them. So we’re really looking forward to seeing the success of these women. In fact, I’ll share that a woman in another country, last year she had one employee, one year later, she now has eleven. These are the kinds of results we’re hoping to see from the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs program here in Albania.

Vizion+: Speaking about high schools, I want to ask something. When I was in Louisville, we visited a high school that had a journalism program for its students. There, I understood how much attention the United States pays to the press. I looked all around Albania and did not find something like that, a school with a program that teaches how to check whether a story is fake news or real news. They do their own newspaper, a short radio program, it was just amazing, something I never saw anything like that in my life. Will the United States support these kinds of projects in Albania, in one or two high schools?

A/S Royce: We’re already committed in the projects that we have in journalism. As I commented on the 80 Faces of Exchange, one of those faces, Mr. Dervishi who also comes from a journalism background. Just like you, making sure that you have facts and figures, critical thinking skills. And, I’d also add, even in the area of Fulbright, that program is also in every field. So, not only can you have them in STEM, but you can have them in journalism, or in the arts. So, of all the fields, I’ll just say that in journalism we’re very committed to having critical thinking and supporting the efforts here in Albania.

Vizion+: Madam Assistant Secretary, one last question, a message for all Albanians who see the United States, during all our lives, as a savior for everything. Why should they believe that the United States will help Albania?

A/S Royce: Thank you for asking that question. I’ll just say that just the fact that I’m here is a demonstration of my commitment. I’ll also add that we’ve always been there and we’ll continue to be so. The United States cares really deeply about Albania and the people-to-people relationship. You yourself mentioned that you met 47 people, made 47 new friends, and I bet you made a few friends in those cities that you came to. I’d also like to encourage as part of my responsibility is education, there’s 4,700 universities and community colleges in the U.S. and sometimes people say, I can’t afford to go to college in the United States but we promote what we call the 2 + 2. Go to a community college for a couple of years, improve your English, it’s less expensive, and then go to university. I want to say that my dad did that. My best friend, she started community college and got her PhD. And we can help you by giving you free educational advice to the students who are listening or hearing or people who maybe are thinking of going back to school, to think of the U.S. as a destination for study. But in general, whether it’s cultural, relations, sports diplomacy, professional exchanges, educational, we have a very strong relationship. My bureau says we move people to move ideas and I think even just this conversation today is a testament to that. The ideas that we’re sharing. We basically have invested in your past and we’ll continue to do so and also to invest in your future. So, thanks for having me on the program.

Vizion+: Madam Assistant Secretary, thank you very much. I appreciate it and it’s an honor. And I hope that when you are next time in Albania, the weather will be better so that you can also enjoy the south of Albania that is amazing.

A/S Royce: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been beautiful.