'Kosovo Chose Me': Faculty relates experience as first black Fulbright in Kosovo

November 15, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Nicole Webster may have expected to see many things in her life — but the small nation of Kosovo, in southeastern Europe, was not necessarily at the top of her list.

“Once I arrived, I was like, ‘What have I done?’” she recounts with a laugh.

Dr. Nicole Webster (Ag Sciences) on a bridge in Kosovo

Nicole Webster sitting on a bridge in Kosovo.

IMAGE: Provided

Webster, associate professor of youth and international development in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, has dedicated her life to youth development. In Fall 2017, she was approached by a member of the Fulbright Committee Specialist Program at the U.S. Department of State about an opportunity to use her expertise in youth development and organizational capacity-building to help a Kosovar organization called TOKA.

“TOKA is an incredible organization,” Webster says. Its focus is on the development and empowerment of youth, particularly in the areas of self-expression and civic engagement. In a country with such a recent history of war and conflict, getting youth involved in building stronger institutions is paramount.

The organization focuses on development through workshops, camps and service learning programs. However, its members found they were struggling with the organization's growth, and wanted an outside expert to come in and help them instill a more systems-oriented mindset and to increase capacity. They were particularly interested in the 4H model, a model which is prevalent in the United States, notably in Pennsylvania — and one that Webster is very familiar with.

“Just like 4H, TOKA wanted to focus on aspects of life that are important to young people, and to instill in them some key principles that help throughout their life,” Webster says. For example, one of TOKA’s programs focuses on the use of technology — how to use it productively, for example as a tool for information-gathering and civic engagement; and when it can be detrimental. Even though the programs are Kosovar-focused, they reflect issues that face youth across the globe.

“Young people are the same the world over,” Webster said. “Everyone wants a better life, everyone wants to make their parents proud — even if some of them won’t admit it! They’re all just figuring out who they are.”

What struck her about these kids, she said, was the amount of support and acceptance they showed to others — even when they were different. She recounts a talent show that served as the capstone of a service learning process. The participants all built the stage together, planned the show, and executed it. Even students who couldn’t participate in the same way as the others were given an opportunity to take part.

“There was a young man with a severe learning disability who was not able to perform with the others,” Webster said, “so they up a station for him on the stage with a canvas and paints and he painted the show as he saw it happening through his eyes.”

“I was blown away,” she said. “I still get chills thinking about it.”

None of that would have been possible without TOKA. Webster says what truly sets the great organizations apart is a strong, unified vision.

“An organization is only as strong as the vision of its leaders,” Webster says. Furthermore, “That vision must be shared to be realized.” Everyone in TOKA shared the same vision for the youth of Kosovo — to help young people find their voice and the right fit in society to make a difference.

“I was proud to be able to help their organization. I felt like I made a difference … multiple people came up and told me how much better the structure of the organization felt.”

And what did Webster think of her time in Kosovo?

“It was challenging at first. I was literally the only black woman I saw in my time there. At times it was uncomfortable, but I never felt unsafe,” she said. “And by the end of my assignment, I loved it. I would definitely recommend travel to Kosovo. Just have confidence in yourself and be willing to step outside your comfort zone."

  • A wall with various "teach me" phrases
    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated November 15, 2018