Kristina Milaj
Kristina Milaj stands at her locker on her last day at Santiam Christian High School. She is the first woman from her Albanian village to finish high school. (Andy Cripe/Gazette-Times) ANDY CRIPE

Faces of the 2010 Class: The Gazette-Times asked several Benton County high schools to nominate students for profiles. We were looking for students who had overcome considerable obstacles to graduate. Today’s profile is the third of five that will appear in the Gazette-Times between now and June 12.

Today: Philomath High School, Santiam Christian High School

ADAIR VILLAGE — Vrithe is a small, remote village in northern Albania. It’s also located within one of the more traditional regions of the Balkans. Girls raised there usually finish their education after the eighth grade. By the time they are 18, most of them are married. Few even consider college or a career as viable options.

Kristina Milaj hopes to help change that — starting with her own example. When she strides across the gym floor at Santiam Christian High School on Saturday to receive her diploma, Milaj, 18, will be the first girl from Vrithe to graduate from high school.

“I’ve done more than I ever expected to,” Milaj said. “I’m so grateful and thankful for the opportunities I have received here.”

Milaj was encouraged to further her education by Corvallis resident Steve Cook, a geosciences instructor at Oregon State University who is the president of the Albanian Alps Institute. The nonprofit organization aims to improve the quality of educational opportunities for the children of the isolated Malsia e Madhe region of northern Albania.

However, convincing some of her family members of that was difficult for Milaj. She said they wanted her stay in Vrithe and help her mother, who is a widow.

“They didn’t understand why I was going against the culture,” Milaj said. “Some still don’t. It was really hard for my mother at first, but she’s become more accepting of it. She realizes how much it has helped me.”

Milaj lives with Cook and his wife, Terri, who have been supportive. Milaj is graduating with a 3.96 grade-point average and has especially enjoyed her elective classes, which aren’t offered in many Albanian schools. She even participated in a play at SC this year.

Having better access to technology also has been a welcome change. Milaj’s school in northern Albania didn’t have running water or electricity, much less computers.

“The only time I used computers was at Internet cafes,” Milaj said. “Even then, all I could do was check and write e-mail.”

It took awhile for Milaj to get used to the culture and freedoms young people enjoy here. She recalled that she was shocked when she overheard another SC student mention that her mother prepared lunch for her every day. Milaj said she’d be ashamed to admit something like that. At home, she has been taught to be of service to her mother.

“I was already doing a lot of cooking and cleaning on my own,” Milaj said. “So I didn’t get that attitude at first.”

Milaj will attend Oregon State University this fall and plans to major in civil engineering. While she said she wouldn’t mind returning to Albania, she is keeping her post-college options open.

“I would love to work in a Third World country,” she said. “I want to promote education and help other girls go to high school and college. There’s so much they can do.”

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