Celebrating 25 Years of SPARK

Kosovo, like much of the Balkans, experienced significant conflict at the turn of the century. The breakup of Yugoslavia brought old ethnic animosities back to the fore and the relationship between Kosovar Albanians and Serbians quickly deteriorated throughout the Kosovo war in 1998. The subsequent fragmentation of the region left Kosovo as a self governed territory with a majority Albanian population. Yet there were segregated Serbian enclaves using a different language, religion and currency. Nevertheless the youth in Kosovo, much like in Bosnia, were hungry to learn.

The Prishtina Summer University
The Youth in Solidarity with former Yugoslavia (former name for SPARK) had just spent 3 summers successfully running the Bosnia Summer Universities, which brought international professors from across Europe, Turkey and the US to teach young students from both sides of the ethnic-divided Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Despite being drained from the experience, Ilir Dugoli, who was then a Central European University Master’s student (and went on to become the Kosovo director of NATO) got in touch with the group of Dutch students to ask them to also consider the needs of Kosovo’s youth. “I believed it was indispensable to embrace new opportunities in the field of education, especially after so many years of being deprived of a proper education,” shared Ilir. 

It was decided that the YSY group would set up a similar summer course in Prishtina, Kosovo in 2001, this time under a new name: Academic Training Association (ATA). 

When ATA arrived, they found the students in Prishtina eager to learn. In the first four years, the Prishtina Summer Universities brought together more than 250 international professors, and over 2000 local, eastern European and international students. 

University of Prishtina. Photo: Atdhe Mulla (Photographer).

Valentina Qarri, the first employee in the Kosovan office, remembers how meaningful the first summer university was for the people. The classes paired local staff, who were often young academics, with experienced international professors so they could exchange up-to-date knowledge and teaching skills. In 2005, the programme officially became part of the University of Prishtina.

“For me it was a real pleasure to work with them [ATA members] from curriculum development to logistics, at a time when everything was in short supply, except enthusiasm”. 

International Business College Mitrovica
Mitrovica, a city in Kosovo, is divided by the Ibar river. To the north of the river is a Serbian enclave, and to the south the majority of the population is Albanian. An infamous bridge crosses the river but stands as a stark reminder of the separation. Both communities had suffered during the Kosovo war and deep grievances were held against one another. However, Bosnia was proof to ATA that education can bring conflicting, multi-ethnic communities together. 

Despite ATA’s previous experience, they found that challenges in Mitrovica were far greater than in previous cities as they began to set up the International Business College Mitrovica (IBCM) in 2008.

Old postcard of the dividing bridge in Mitrovica.

IBCM aimed to slowly and healthily reintegrate the youth from northern and southern parts of Mitrovica, so that past conflicts would not be repeated by the youth. Despite huge international support for the project, local officials were strongly against it. It took two years before the first IBCM was founded in 2008, and the first batch of students entered the doors and began studying in 2010. 

Students at IBCM in 2014.

All the classes were taught in English, a neutral language that welcomed the two communities. The focus of the college was on the transition from theory to practice, and providing youth with the  necessary soft skills to increase their employability. 

For the young people of Kosovo, IBCM was an opportunity to get an EU accredited degree at an affordable price. 

Maria Maringona, a former IBCM student remembers the integration between the two campuses. First they had professors visiting from across the river and giving lectures, as well as student exchange visits with universities in the Netherlands and Denmark. Many of the young people had never left Kosovo before and now had the opportunity to interact with foreign people, gaining new perspectives. 

Maringona also recalled the two phases of the integration process between the campuses. Once IBCM had established itself as a good, affordable university, different fields of study were introduced or moved to different campuses. This physical restructuring made it easier for students to transition from one campus to the other one as they already knew the professors and trusted that IBCM was providing them with a unique opportunity for learning.

Maringona and friends in IBCM 2010.

Maringona shared: “One of the first things I learnt at IBCM was how to learn. We were taught that it is important to focus on critical thinking and not just facts. We learnt to think ‘why’ and ‘how’…That is why it is one of the best experiences of my life.”  

The first IBCM students in 2010.

The impact of IBCM can still be felt today. There are still two campuses on either side of the river where students from all backgrounds enjoy high level education and are able to put the ethnic tensions that still remain in Kosovo behind them.  SPARK’s involvement in IBCM has been gradually declining, empowering the institution to run itself. In 2017, SPARK developed a five year sustainability plan for IBCM for the full self-sustainability of the institution. At the end of the academic year of 2017/2018, IBCM became self-supported, ending SPARK’s involvement.

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