Meet Ilda Zhulali (ACT Class of 2001)

Meet Ilda Zhulali (ACT Class of 2001)

Note from the Editor: the text of the following interview first appeared on the ACT website. Ilda Zhulalia attending Michael Dukakis' inaugural address at Anatolia College in September 1999, which marked the launch of what was then known as the Dukakis Chair in Public Policy and Service. She participated in the first season of Dukakis Center events, which featured such speakers as American Ambassadors Nicholas Burns, Mike Einik, Derek Shearer, US presidential advisors Eugene Skolnikoff and Richard Schifter, and senior Greek statesman and academicians Nikiforos Diamandouros, Mihalis Christidis, and Stelios Perrakis.

Ilda Zhulali graduated with Honors from ACT in 2001 with a B.A. Degree in History and International Relations, with concentration in Foreign Affairs. She notes that the academic and student experiences that ACT provided left an important impression on her life, encouraging her to pursue a career as a diplomat.

Since 2017, Ms. Zhulali has served as Advisor for European Integration for the President of the Republic of Albania, and has emerged as a strong advocate for democratic institutions, respect for individual rights, the rule of law and a more prosperous economy. In her alumni interview she recalls some of her childhood memories, student experiences, and personal beliefs that empowered her as a professional and as a woman to bring a positive change in her country.

How did you develop an interest in History, International Relations, Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs? What fueled your aspirations to follow a career in this field?

It really came to me as a natural choice, mostly by circumstances and curiosity.

During communism, my father sat almost every evening next to a small radio to secretly listen to “The Voice of America”. When old enough, my sister and I were also allowed to listen to the program in Albanian language, after promising not to tell a living soul. I was mesmerized by the whole “procession”. This was the sparkle which, with time, evolved into a magnetic attraction for politics and foreign affairs.

By the time I finished high school, my country, Albania, was in its early years of transition from the brutal isolationist dictatorship to a new democracy, building its pathway among the free nations. I was very young to genuinely understand what this drastic change really meant, but I was very curious to explore and find out what we had missed from the world. A major in IR would certainly satisfy this interest of mine.

Upon my return home, the Albanian diplomatic service was reforming itself seeking to employ young people with a new outlook on global affairs, free of past ideology and parochialism, who would contribute to boosting Albania’s perspective towards what was then called “western values”. In short, an opportunity not to be missed.

Looking back, I didn’t really know what experiences lied ahead of me, but I certainly made the right choice. Loving my experience first at ACT and later at the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led from one thing to another. I built a solid career, contributed to historical processes for my country as a policy maker, and became part of a great network of talented professionals and friends from different backgrounds and nationalities.

You graduated with Honors from ACT in 2001 majoring in “History and International Relations, with concentration in Foreign Affairs". How did your studies at ACT prepare you for your professional life?

ACT was a wonderful blend of talent, hard work and fun, with excellent mentors, lecturers and a great mix of student body, who all left an important impression in my life.

I am a big fan of the American system of education. I feel it is by far the best, with a perfect balance of developing a solid academic background, encouraging individual critical thinking and training for real life challenges through active engagement.

This equilibrium made my transition from ACT to work very easy to cope with.

The extra-curricular activities were an absolute asset as well. I still remember our meetings with then the US Ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns, such an impressive speaker and personality. I cherish the experience in the Model United Nations simulations, including the one we first organized at ACT led by the ever enthusiastic Dr. Wisner. I was so inspired by our project with the Roma children and the relationship we all developed thereafter. And I could go on and on…

What do you remember fondly from the years at ACT and Thessaloniki and/or Greece?

I am still nostalgic of my time both at ACT and Thessaloniki, a city very dear to my heart. I always say that Thessaloniki is the best city for student life. It’s beautiful in every season, big enough not to ever be bored, and small enough not to feel lost.

But the best memory of all is the life friends I made. Kostas, Maria, Victoria, Thanasis, Alexandra, and so many others who made me feel at home.

Churchill once said that “the Balkans produce more history than they can consume”, and are loaded with prejudice and hard feelings against each-other. But my time at ACT and in Thessaloniki was a walk in the park, where I always felt most welcomed and fully integrated as an Albanian. I am very happy that more and more Albanian students have chosen ACT to pursue their studies since my time, when we were just a few.

How would you describe your priorities and challenges as advisor of European Integration to the President of Albania?

Being a policy advisor to the President of the Republic is a privilege that comes with a lot of responsibilities and challenges. I have to always be well-informed, sober in my analysis, creative in providing solutions, and effective in strategic relationships with stakeholders.

Albania is the most Euro-enthusiastic country in the region, and maybe even in Europe, with more than 98% of its people in favor of EU integration. This is the guiding star in my daily work.  

EU integration is a very challenging process which will transform my country fundamentally. I have lived through many of these changes, but more should be done to ensure fully functioning democratic institutions, respect for individual rights and freedoms, rule of law and a more prosperous economy. I am sure that once we commence accession negotiations, progress will be both faster and more sustainable.

In recent years we see more women in politics. Do women today have equal opportunities to advance in the fields of diplomacy and politics or do they still have many “glass ceilings” to break? What piece of advice would you give to a young girl who wishes to pursue a career in diplomacy?

When I joined the MFA there were very few women diplomats, of whom only two Ambassadors and none in other leading positions. In 20 years this ratio completely changed, once increasingly more women were recruited in the system.

For sure the classical Balkan man will not leave an empty seat for the woman to sit. But as a great champion of women’s right, Eleanor Roosevelt once wisely advised, “Above all, every woman in political life needs to develop a skin as tough as rhinoceros hide”.

Educated young women undoubtedly need to develop a less tough skin these days, but should be persistent in nurturing their talent and ambitions. I will use the captivating words of the very young poet Amanda Gorman as an advice to all women, “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it”.

Ilda ZHULALI was appointed as Advisor for European Integration of the President of the Republic of Albania in September 2017.

Earlier she held the position of Political Advisor of the President of the Republic, during April 2014 – July 2017. Mrs. Zhulali has broad experience in foreign affairs, and her area of expertise includes European integration and the Western Balkans region. During her career, she has represented Albania in various high level meetings and conferences. Upon her return to Albania in 2001, she worked as a career diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs holding different positions as expert in regional affairs, Director and Director General for European Affairs, until October 2013.

Ilda Zhulali graduated with Honors from the American College of Thessaloniki in 2001, majoring in “History and International Relations, with concentration in Foreign Affairs”. She was the recipient of two academic awards and full scholarship for her years of study.

She was the recipient of 2003-2004 Chevening Albania Scholarship, and completed with merit her “Postgraduate Studies in Diplomacy” from the University of Oxford, in the United Kingdom.