Fulbright scholar seeks identity in Eastern Europe

Of the many ways college graduates spend their first year out of school, researching in Eastern Europe probably isn't the most common. For Jonathan Eaton, however, it was ideal.

Eaton spent this past year in Albania, a country about the size of Maryland that borders Kosovo, Greece and Macedonia. His purpose was to research national identity through museums in a country still recovering from communist rule. The Fulbright Program, an extremely prestigious awards program, sponsored Eaton's research.

Eaton is no stranger to success so his acceptance to the Fulbright Program probably didn't come as a surprise to his professors and peers. He graduated from Sequim High School in 2005 as a valedictorian of his class and received a half-tuition scholarship to Valparaiso University in Indiana. He graduated from Valparaiso in 2009 with a degree in history and an impressive 3.89 grade-point average.

During his time at Valparaiso, Eaton spent a semester in Cambridge, England.

"I got the travel bug," Eaton said. "I decided I needed to go somewhere for a longer period."

Fullbright program paves a way

Upon his return to the United States, Eaton learned about the Fulbright Program from a professor who looks for promising students to apply for the scholarship. Funded by the U.S. State Department, the Fulbright Program provides opportunities for participants either to teach or do research.

Eaton was interested in researching and spending a year in the Balkans, a region in southeastern Europe, because of the area's history in the last century. His professor had contacts in Albania, a country that interested Eaton.

"I realized it's very unique as a region and has an interesting history," Eaton said. "It had a unique position during the Ottoman Empire and had a strict Stalin regime, so it's a unique look at national identity."

He spent much of his time in museums and at archaeological sites, studying how the Albanians present their history and view themselves.

He said the majority of the museum content is left over from communist rule, which focused on folk history. Since the Albanians want to forget anything regarding communism, they are losing touch with their folk history and as a result are losing many aspects of their heritage, he explained.

"Maintaining national

heritage is important to personal identity," Eaton said, "and to having a sense of who you are as a person and where you fit into a community. It gives you a sense of human dignity and humanity. It's more than food, water and shelter can provide you with."

Another thing they have lost, Eaton said, is some of the beautiful landscape. During communist rule, the land belonged to the government so when communism ended, everyone seemed to claim land and do whatever they wanted with it.

"What used to be pristine land is now covered with half-built buildings," Eaton said.

Obsessed with the West?

His research found that Albanians are consumed with items from the West, especially goods they didn't have under communism. Cars are one such example. Until 1990, only state officials were permitted automobiles so when the communist reign ended, everyone wanted one.

"Albania became a huge destination for stolen cars," Eaton said. "Here you see tons and tons of nice cars, more than in most other countries."

Due to the high number of Mercedes Benz cars in the country, he calls Albania a Benz collector's paradise.

"Nice cars are not something people would expect of Albania," he said.

For the duration of his stay in Albania, Eaton lived in the capital city of Tirana. At just over 600,000 people, Tirana is much different from the rest of the country in that it is the only real metropolis and is technologically savvy. However, Eaton said, in some ways Tirana is like a big village.

"People keep animals in the dense parts of the city," Eaton said. "I've seen sheep grazing and cows in the city parks."

Getting around

The biggest challenge for outsiders, though, is the transportation system. Travel outside of the city is done by bus and passengers must stand on a specific street corner in Tirana to catch a bus to the area of the country they wish to travel. The problem, though, is that streets

aren't labeled.

In addition, the buses don't sound very safe.

"It is a suspicious-looking rattletrap bus that has a ratty old driver who smells of raki, the local moonshine he probably had with breakfast," Eaton said.

There are no major highways, so travel takes longer than in the U.S. According to Eaton, the roads are twisty and bad.

"To get from one end of the country to the other, it takes 14 hours," he said. "In the U.S., the same distance would take just a few hours."

Learning the native dialect

Despite the differences Eaton has found between

Albania and the United

States, he has enjoyed his time immensely.

"I love it there," he said. "It was an adjustment, but I felt really comfortable."

Learning some Albanian certainly helped.

"I've picked up enough of the language to be conversational," he said. "The people are lovely, especially when you can speak some Albanian."

Eaton returned to Sequim last week and will spend time this summer with family including his mother, Becky, his father, Steven, a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church, and his brother Aaron. He brings home with him not only his research but also a renewed love for travel and appreciation for another part of the world.

"My formative years were

in Sequim," he said. "My love of learning and history stem-med from schooling here."

This fall Eaton begins a master's program in anthropology at the University of Toronto where he is going on a scholarship. Down the road he can see himself working in a cultural emergency relief nonprofit organization, the kind that goes to countries devastated by war or national disaster.

"I would like to help them sort through the rubble of their cultural heritage and rebuild what needs to be rebuilt."

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