All Spotlights » Erion Veliaj: Social Change in Balkans
As graduation day drew near at the end of 2002, Grand Valley political science major Erion Veliaj was faced with two career paths. He could work at the United Nations, where he had served as a delegate for the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism, or join a grassroots social crusade in impoverished Albania, his native country.
He put it simply: "Between a high-paying job in the U.N. and a satisfying citizens' campaign for my own people in Albania, I chose the second." Veliaj began 2003 as campaign director for Enough!, a comprehensive effort to reverse the massive corruption and poverty that blight Albania.
Veliaj's choice didn't surprise Grand Valley political science chair John Constantelos, who calls his former student a "shining star" of the department. Veliaj's resume includes managing relief efforts for Kosovar refugees, participating in post-apartheid reconciliation initiatives in South Africa, and co-founding a leadership-training organization for Balkan youth. He has consulted with U.S. and European government agencies, traveled to more than 60 countries, and is fluent in at least four languages. He is 23 years old.
"He's done more in his 23 years than most of us would ever hope to do," Constantelos said. "He's the most enterprising student I've met."
As a teenager in Albania when the country was going through tremendous political upheaval in the 1990s, Veliaj found a niche in working with street children and orphans. In 1998 he traveled to the United States, where he was named an honorary citizen of Memphis, Tenn., for his philanthropic work with Eastern European orphanages.
Veliaj was a freshman at Grand Valley when the war in Kosovo broke out in 1999, drawing him back to the Balkans with the Michigan-based organization, International Aid, Inc., to manage relief efforts for Kosovar refugees. In 2000, weary of working to patch up the devastating after-effects of war and corruption, Veliaj and his friends decided to instead focus their efforts on the Balkan region's future leaders. The result, the far-reaching organization Balkans YouthLink (www.balkansyouth.org), was recently commended by the U.S. Congress.
Over his time at Grand Valley, Veliaj consulted for agencies of the United Nations, the U.S. Department of State, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and several civil, relief, and philanthropy groups. His awards include Best Prime Minister at the model European Union (from among 400 students) and being named GVSU Distinguished International Student three years in a row.