Fatjon Kaja is, by all counts, an exceptional student here at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. Furthermore, his good humor, sensitivity, and commitment to service for the public good have made him a trusted peer among the school's students and fellows.
Kaja, a recent immigrant to the U.S. from Albania, is enrolled in the B.A./M.A. program in Economics and has a second major in Pre-Law, with minors in Italian and French. He is a Legal Scholar in the Skadden, Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies, the Co-founder and Vice-Director of the Guidance for the Legal Empowerment of Youth (now the ACLU Chapter at the City College of New York), and Deputy Policy Director of the Economic Development Policy Sector of the Roosevelt Institute at the City College of New York. He was a Partners for Change Fellow in 2013-2014 and has held numerous leadership roles in other campus offices and activities, including student government.
In his free time, he likes to explore New York City, listens to classical music, and plays soccer with his friends and relatives. In this interview with Neighborhoods and Nations, we ask Kaja to describe his path from rural Albania to Harlem. Along the way, Kaja offers insight into why he believes Colin Powell School students have an edge as they pursue civic and global leadership roles after completing their studies at The City College of New York.
What brought you to City College?
When I started applying for college, I only had been living in America for two months. Despite the fact that I possessed a strong application package, I applied only to the City University of New York due to its affordable tuition rates and because of its alumni roster, comprised of numerous self-made men and women who rose in prominence in the highest ranks of their respective professions. The idea that I could emulate such persons remains the cornerstone of my American dream.
What experiences growing up in your home country shaped your academic interests?
I was born and raised in Peshkopi, a small city in northeast rural Albania. Located between mountains, Peshkopi is the poorest district in Albania with a high unemployment rate. Growing up in such an environment was tough: educational resources, justice, and meritocracy were hard to find, while corruption, disorder, and nepotism thrived. These factors pushed me to focus my studies in two interconnected fields, economics and law. Specifically, I am deeply interested in exploring the impact of law on economic processes and outcomes, and the reciprocal influence of economic conditions on legislative acts.
How do you relate to your fellow students within the Colin Powell School? Do you feel you've found a community? If so, what do you think brings you together?
One of the things that I share with my fellow Colin Powell School students is our eagerness to learn about new material. I think the majority of us are children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves, and many of us are striving to integrate ourselves into American society. Additionally, we all have the desire to better ourselves, which in turns encourages us to expect more of each other. As students of the social sciences, all Colin Powell School students are interested with issues regarding the role of the state, civil rights, economic development, social movements, or global issues. What brings us together is our belief that social and political ideas need to be debated extensively. In my classes, I have found a community of eager scholars, who have aspirations to become leading public servants or executives of Fortune 500 companies. I feel like this is where I belong.
In addition to your demanding academic and extracurricular load, you applied for and received a Partners for Change Fellowship, which had its own stringent demands. How did the fellowship serve your professional development, and how did it complement your academic work?
My academic work is mostly focused within the fields of law and economics. The majority of the courses that I've taken offer a deep, insightful analysis of theoretical concepts. As a Partners for Change Fellow at the Colin Powell School, I had the opportunity to complement my academic work with empirical research and service in the field of economic development, financial literacy, and leadership in the community. I attended weekly seminars about financial institutions such as banks and credit unions, gained industry knowledge about their respective structures and services, and learned about the role that financial literacy plays among college students in the United States. Through close collaboration with other fellows and our Leader-in-Residence, I implemented a survey on campus to test the financial literacy of City College students. The results were incorporated in a research project that is being developed further and will soon be published. Part of the fellowship is the component of the internship, where I was assigned as a Business Development intern to the Community League of the Heights, a nonprofit organization in Washington Heights. There I worked on a number of projects that helped develop the structure of the organization and increase its value to the community. Through this fellowship, I honed my ability to make good decisions, plan and organize my time, work well on a team, and developed sound interpersonal, oral, and written communications skills.
Have you had mentors who've helped you during your time here?
I have been blessed with numerous mentors. I've benefited a lot from great guidance and support from Professor Andrew Rich, who is my undergraduate thesis mentor. He has been a generous source of ideas and insights on my project since its inception. Dean Boudreau has always encouraged me to be rigorous and thorough in every aspect of my academic and professional life. I am grateful for his high standards and for his continuing influence on how I think about leadership. Professor Richard Bernstein is a superb source of good ideas, useful information, and helpful criticism. Professor Kevin Foster of the Economics Department has broaden my understanding of economics and its utility in our daily lives. And Gaslin Osias, Senior Admissions Advisor at City College, has always been available to look over at multiple drafts of my personal statement, resume, and cover letter and provide valuable feedback and interview tips. Outside school, I would like to mention my mentors at the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP, who have always provided precious advice about law school and the legal profession.
Where do you see yourself in a year? Five?
In a year from now, I see myself completing my last semester of my master’s degree here at City College and waiting to hear from law schools. In five years from now, I aim to graduate from a top tier law school with honors. After graduation from law school, I would love to work for a few years in the banking group of a prominent law firm.
Other than tuition savings, why might competitive and ambitious students choose to attend The City College of New York for undergraduate or graduate studies over some of the more prestigious private colleges in the city?
I think there are many advantages that CCNY students have over students attending NYC private colleges. First of all, City College is one of the most diverse institutions in the nation, with students representing over 150 countries and speaking more than 99 different languages on campus. This allows for us to engage in intellectual debates with people who hold fundamentally different perspectives about issues and offer competing viewpoints about the role of the government and public policy. It is extremely beneficial to engage in such debates because it makes us aware of things that we have never thought before and, for those who aspire to take on leadership positions, it is essential to take into account all opinions.
Another advantage that City College students have is the small class size, as it allows for the students and faculty to easily forge bonds. The professor has the opportunity to get to know you closely; he or she learns about your background and your academic passions. When one applies for professional schools, the professors are able to write a solid letter of recommendation, which in turn can be a determining factor of whether or not you get into your dream school.
Being a student at the Colin Powell School has allowed me to explore my academic passions under dedicated faculty such as Professor Marta Bengoa of the Economics and Business Department and Professor John Krinsky of the Political Science Department. Being part of the Skadden Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies and the Partners for Change Fellowship at the Powell School has been an amazing experience. Both programs have allowed me to pursue topics of interest and have challenged me academically. Besides providing me with a full merit-based scholarship, these programs have helped me get internships, offered research opportunities, and provided me with insightful guidance. They truly have pushed me to test the limits of my potential.