Blerona Rexhaj was 23 years old when she left her home in Istog, Kosovo for the first time and moved to Des Moines, Iowa — a city five times the population size of her home. She was selected from hundreds of applicants from Kosovo to embark on a two-year, fully-funded associate degree program at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) to study technology, science, math, and electrical engineering. On May 1, 2021 Blerona, along with 25 other women from Kosovo, participated in a graduation ceremony that included virtual remarks from the President of the Republic of Kosovo, Vjosa Osmani, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Acting Chief Executive Officer, Mahmoud Bah.
“It has been a good experience,” said Blerona. “I have learned and grown professionally and personally. It was impressive to connect theory and practice…and I have had the opportunity to meet new people from different cultures, exposing me to new ideas and experiences.”
This inaugural graduating cohort is part of a scholarship program stemming from a partnership between Millennium Foundation Kosovo (MFK), DMACC, and MCC. In 2017, MCC signed a $49 million threshold program agreement aimed at strengthening Kosovo’s power sector. Among the goals of this program are promoting women’s economic empowerment in Kosovo’s energy sector and boosting data use and market-driven approaches to lowering energy costs and encouraging energy efficiency.
“The experience in the United States has been full of adventures and joy, but professional development as well,” said Alketa Sahiti, a member of the graduating class and student of power plant technology. “Attending classes in a different approach, especially with the many lab opportunities has been a tremendous experience and adding this to my previous studies will only fulfill my professional growth. The knowledge we took here will be an asset for our careers and has also helped us prepare to bring this experience back in Kosovo and contribute to its development.”
In Kosovo — one of the newest countries in the world — women’s participation rate in the workforce is around 14 percent. The absence of women in the country’s workforce, especially in fields such as energy, is a factor that restricts overall economic growth. The scholarship program was developed in response to this, and it specifically addresses gender inequality through education and aligning the skills of young women entering the workforce with the needs of industry.
In his message to the graduates, Bah stated: “Countries cannot succeed unless women succeed, and investments like this scholarship program to support the key role of women in Kosovo’s energy future play an important part in making that happen.”
By emphasizing both theoretical and practical education, including a focus on work experience and internships for its students, DMACC provides a strong academic and collegiate structure. Founded in 1966 as a vocational and technical learning center, DMACC is Iowa’s largest and most diverse community college, serving a district that encompasses 6,560 square miles — 11 percent of the land area of the state — and is home to 20 percent of Iowa’s population.
Ironically, many of the Kosovar students had advanced degrees prior to attending DMACC but sought more practical knowledge in applying for the scholarship. In addition to in-class work on electricity circuitry, tool and die making, DMACC will place each student in paid internships to apply their learning and gain practical work experience and skills.
Ezra Rama, whose associate degree is in wind technology, shared her colleagues’ views. “DMACC presented me with an opportunity to fully focus on achieving the best we can in the energy sector and serving our community in the best ways,” she said. “The focus on educating women in the energy sector, thus helping the Kosovo economy grow is inspiring and I believe we can execute those aims in the future with the plenty of practice we received while studying at DMACC.”
According to Anita Maloku, who got an associate degree in energy efficiency, the experience made her more “resilient, more knowledgeable, [and] more confident.” She added, “it showed me that everything can be achieved with a little determination and motivation.”
Blerona, Ezra, Anita, and their fellow graduates likely found their time in the United States a bit different than they imagined below traveling to Iowa. COVID-19 limited their ability to fully experience the surrounding community and changed the way they participated in class. Despite the challenges, they report having gained valuable skills in a traditionally male domain. In Blerona’s case, this includes learning to mount a motor, work on electrical circuits, and use a Programmable Logic Controller — the computer system that controls manufacturing processes.
MCC’s Kosovo Threshold Program addresses two key constraints to Kosovo’s economic growth — an unreliable supply of electricity, and government accountability and transparency. MCC’s investments are designed to strengthen the power sector by fostering a market-driven approach to lowering energy costs for households and businesses, encouraging energy efficiency, and developing new sources of electricity generation. The program also supports the Government of Kosovo’s efforts to improve decision-making and accountability by increasing the accessibility and use of judicial, environmental, and labor force data.