Class of Fall 2022: CECS graduate Klea Hoxhallari

December 12, 2022

Nothing could stop this Albanian first-gen student from pursuing her dreams to study at an American university.

A collage graphic featuring a headshot of student Klea Hoxhallari wearing a cap and gown
Graphic by Violet Dashi

Many UM-Dearborn students can no doubt relate to bioengineering senior Klea Hoxhallari’s often challenging path to the graduation stage. No one in her immediate or extended family had ever attended college, so she had to figure out a lot of that on her own. Her family didn’t have a ton of financial resources to devote to her dream either, so she looked to community college as a way to earn some less expensive credits before eyeing a transfer to UM-Dearborn. More than anything, she saw education as a key to unlocking the opportunities that would lead to a more financially stable and fulfilling life.

Among these familiar themes, however, there is one very unique plot point in Hoxhallari’s story: She was figuring out how to make her college journey happen while living 5,000 miles away from Dearborn, Michigan. Hoxhallari hails from a small town in Albania, and for as long as she can remember, she'd dreamed of a life that was bigger than the future she saw for herself there. Her family life wasn’t the best: Though she calls her mother the most important person in her life, her father was emotionally abusive to the family, and physically abusive to her mother. She was also kind of a misfit — a quiet kid who loved math and science and had more in common with her teachers than her peers. “Honestly, I saw my hometown as a prison,” she says. “Because of my dad, I couldn’t even say ‘hi’ to my guy friends, even when I was young. And things are just very different in Albania as far as opportunities. The vision for someone like me is you grow up, you find a guy — or your family finds a guy — you get married, and that’s how it ends. But that was not the life I wanted. I wanted power.”

Fueled by what she’d seen in American movies, the goal was to somehow get to the United States and start a new life on her own terms. It seemed so beyond the realm of possibility that she mostly kept it a secret, rather than face people’s doubts and dismissals. A smart kid, she figured out early on that going to an American university was likely her best shot to get to the U.S. But navigating the logistics was a huge undertaking. For international students, of course, there are not only college applications, but language exams and student visa paperwork, not to mention the challenges of finding a place to live and affording the more expensive tuition. Hoxhallari mined what resources she could, like the few people she knew who’d lived in the United States, including some who had settled in Michigan. Through those conversations, she learned about the U.S. community college system, where lower tuition rates give students a chance to launch their studies on a budget and transfer later to a four-year university. It seemed like a viable path, and when one of her Michigan contacts recommended Schoolcraft College in Livonia, she applied and crossed her fingers that her application, English exams, immigration paperwork, and search to find a place to stay would all go her way. Against a few odds, they did, and in 2018, Hoxhallari got on a plane and headed for Detroit.

Her first day in the U.S., she slept off the effects of the long flight. The second day, she cried — a lot. “It was just not what I was expecting. What I knew of America, I’d learned from movies,” she says. “So I was picturing New York City and Chicago and very fancy neighborhoods, and what I saw was not that. I thought, what have I done? But it was too late to go back.” In addition, she said her English was “broken” and the culture shock and high prices for everything hit her hard. It took a few months, but she eventually started to get more comfortable, especially when she began her introductory classes at Schoolcraft. Suburban Detroit might not have had lots of skyscrapers, but she found plenty of friendly, encouraging Americans like she’d seen in the movies. Back in Albania, Hoxhallari was a shy kid with few friends; at Schoolcraft, she was downright “popular.” And despite jumping right into her classes without any additional language courses, she thrived academically.

Everything was going better than she’d hoped, but as it came time to make the leap to a four-year university, Hoxhallari wondered again if her dream might stall out. “I guess I got a little comfortable at Schoolcraft with the small classes, and the community and having so many friends,” she says. “I worried that the professors would be difficult to communicate with or the classes would be too hard. It was just a very scary time, because everything was about to change.” It came down to a choice between UM-Ann Arbor and UM-Dearborn, and she ultimately chose the latter because of the more affordable tuition and the good things she’d heard about the bioengineering program. Once she got here, she learned the academic environment was indeed more challenging. Her straight As turned to Bs her first semester, but her fears about the stern professors were quickly put to rest. Inside the College of Engineering and Computer Science, she formed tight bonds with Professor Alan Argento, whom she describes as a master explainer, Assistant Professor Zhen Hu, whom she worked with as a supplemental instruction leader, and Associate Professor Gargi Ghosh. She got a research assistant spot in Ghosh’s lab, and those Bs started turning into As. “The people at Dearborn became my second family,” Hoxhallari says. “I’ve changed completely as a person. I’m outgoing, I have so many friends, and I have the power to shape my future. More than anything, that’s what I wanted and now I feel like my goals are within reach.”

When Hoxhallari graduates in a few days, it’ll be a huge milestone for her and her family. They’re extremely proud of her accomplishments and the person she’s become. But Hoxhallari considers herself a person who is “becoming successful,” more than someone who should be counting her achievements. In the near-term, she defines success as getting a solid post-graduation job in the bioengineering field, and she’s currently interviewing with several companies, including for a medical technology position with Johnson & Johnson. She’s also moving forward with her education: She’s been accepted into two master’s programs, including the bioengineering program at UM-Dearborn, and plans to start applying to medical schools next year so she can one day work as a medical researcher. Hoxhallari’s long-term, true-north goal is to open a school and hospital back in Albania, though she says, for her personally, she’d like to make her life in the U.S. “I love the United States, because it gave me freedom, and safety and the power to be who I want to be,” she says. “But I also don’t want to be someone who forgets about their country. The conditions there are not good for many people, and I know there are a lot of girls like me who really want a future they feel like they can’t have because of family or finances. So I want to do something to change the realities over there.”

It’s a big dream, for sure. But given what she’s accomplished on her own so far, who would count her out?


Story by Lou Blouin