Growing up as a Millennial, part of Generation Y, technology has almost always been a big part of my life. Once I hit middle school, I began spending copious amounts of time on AIM, Myspace, and other social media outlets. The constant connection to people through technology and social media continued into high school when I received my first Facebook in 2004. Facebook was originally only a social outlet for college students and then it opened up to high school networking. When I first joined Facebook, users had to be invited to join and you could not join without an invite from a current member. Oh how the times have changed! Technology and social media have been a central part of my life; I have almost had Facebook for half my life. That being said, I have always been connected to these sites, spending hours chatting with friends, posting photos, and catching up on the Newsfeed. I probably like Facebook and social media a bit more than your average person (or I can at least admit my time-consuming love). Sometimes social media is somewhat of an addiction, but it is what it is. I was initially worried when I applied to join the Peace Corps that I would not be able to stay in contact with my friends and family back home, but luckily I was sent to Albania – where internet connection is prevalent and there is an opportunity to get wireless internet set up in volunteer’s homes through the local internet providers.
After I finished Pre-service training in the village, I moved into my own apartment and had the opportunity to set up internet in my home. At first I decided to not have internet because I didn’t want to use it as a crutch for my boredom (which I definitely do at times – it’s inevitable). After a couple weeks without internet, I caved and set it up. It was definitely a good choice because a lot of Peace Corps communication is sent via email and since I am on several committees we also use email and the internet to do most of our communication. Being in Albania, two major social media outlets have completely changed my experience here for the better: WordPress and Facebook.
WordPress: My Blog
At first my blog was just a small attempt of updating my friends and family back home about my life and adventures here in Albania. When I first began writing the blog it was very mundane and just followed my daily happenings in the community. It was hard to update my blog during pre-service training because I did not have consistent access to internet in the village while living with my host-family. After writing blogs mainly about my daily routine, I decided to describe “50 Unique Observations about Albania” based on my initial impressions of the country and my small travel experience abroad. A lot of my observations that seemed unique to Albania, can actually be seen in several parts of the Balkans. However, at the time I had only traveled outside of the United States to Mexican resorts with my family, so I didn’t really have much experience abroad under my belt. Sometime in the late summer that blog post went viral and received over 50,000 views in under a week. Super overwhelming, to say the least. At that time I was still in culture shock, having a hard time adjusting to living and working on my own in a completely different culture. There was nothing that I could do to stop the attention. People had gotten a hold of my blog and began sharing it on Facebook, and then their friends shared the link, and so on until I received thousands and thousands of views per day. Some people were mad; others found my posts inspirational and eye-opening. Can’t please them all. Since my blog went viral, I have used my presence on WordPress to educate people back in America about my experiences abroad, as well as Albanians within the country. Several publication companies, including the Tirana Times, a newspaper in the capital of Albania, have contacted me to publish pieces. Pink Pangea, an online community for women abroad, published the most recent piece regarding sexism in Albania. Now over six months later, I still continue to receive hundreds of views a day. Just the other week, I was stopped while traveling outside my community by a nice Albanian woman who is an English teacher in Tirana. She recently read my blog and was using it in her classroom as a discussion topic! Hopefully, sometime during my service I will be able to guest lecture in one of her classes.
My blog acts as an avenue for discussion about Albania today and how we can all work together to improve this beautiful country for the better. I am so happy that I decided to begin writing a blog because this experience will forever be a part of me, even if my bad-memory persists. I will always have this journal of my time here and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful to all the Albanians and people around the world that do read my blog and continue to praise me for my work and time spent here. All of your comments really do fuel my fire and help me feel better about the work that I’m doing here. I am glad that I can serve as an inspiration and fresh perspective.
After my blog went viral I decided to set up another Facebook account under my Albanian name Xhilli Xhastin (it is how you spell Jill Justine in Shqip). This Facebook account opened up so many new doors for me because it became a way for me to network with Albanians all across the country. Students from national Outdoor Ambassadors events, followers of my blog, other volunteers I met through Special Olympics, people in my community, and anyone who adds me is welcome to be my friend and get an inside look at some of my experiences in Albania.
Through this Facebook account I created a health promotion page called Këshilla për Shëndetin Shqipëri (Advices for Health in Albania). The page posts information according to annual health calendar distributed by the Ministry of Public Health. I post information in Albanian about health advice, community health events, and basic health information. My Albanian counterparts help me with the page through translation and identifying pertinent information. As of now, the page has 497 likes and I hope to have at least 1000 likes on this page before I finish my service. Hopefully, after I leave Albania, this page will become sustainable through the work of other health education volunteers in group 17 and their Albanian counterparts.
I am also in charge of several other Facebook pages including ATIP Albania, Outdoor Ambassadors Albania, and Outdoor Ambassadors Kavaje. These Facebook pages follow the work of Peace Corps volunteers and students in their community. The ATIP Albania page focuses on the anti-trafficking efforts in Albania through the Peace Corps anti-trafficking committee. The Outdoor Ambassadors Albania page highlights the work of environmental youth leadership groups across the country and the Outdoor Ambassadors Kavaje page shows what activities the youth group in my area is working on.
Having Facebook pages has been a wonderful way to promote my service in Albania, as well as a great way to promote the work of awesome Albanians and other organizations in this country. Along with Facebook pages, Facebook groups have been a wonderful way to communicate with students in my community. These groups allow for Peace Corps volunteers and students to discuss youth group initiatives, homework help, etc. We use a Facebook group to plan Outdoor Ambassadors projects and community work in my site. It is an easy way to communicate because a lot of the students have a Facebook app on their phones.
Facebook has been such a great way to keep in contact with Albanians and people back home. It has also introduced me to another aspect of Albanian culture, because Albanians LOVE Facebook. Observing how Albanians use social media and Facebook has really given me another insight into their culture and has allowed me to become better friends with people that I wouldn’t have been able to connect with otherwise. A big thing that I have noticed about how a lot of Albanians use Facebook is that they love to “like” everything. I will post a photo and within the hour it will usually have 20+ likes and some photos even have over 100 likes. Especially selfies, most Albanians love selfies. I enjoy using Facebook and having another account has vastly improved my service. My online persona is just as important, if not more so, than my persona within my own community.
So, if you haven’t already, please add me on Facebook and follow these Peace Corps pages. Peace Corps Albania is even hopping onto the social media buzz and we are the first Peace Corps country to have our own Facebook page. Social media is a powerful tool and using it to my advantage has been an integral part of my time here.