When Tana Lala came to Latta High School as a 17-year-old exchange student, civil unrest was rampant in her native Albania and war was raging in neighboring Kosovo. So she stayed in Ada and enrolled at East Central University. The rest, as they say, is history.
Lala went on to become the first international student to be awarded the prestigious George Nigh Award as ECU's top graduating senior. She was the 2003 recipient.
Today, she's Tana Lala-Pritchard, a British citizen working for the Serious Organised Crime Agency at the British Embassy in Tirana, Albania. She's applying for the British Foreign Service and some day she could become a British ambassador.
She returned to Ada recently for a visit and to help her 20-year-old niece, Iva Asllani of Tirana, Albania, enroll and get settled at ECU.
"Iva decided to come to ECU largely based on the experiences I recounted," Lala-Pritchard said. Like her aunt, Asllani also plans to major in political science.
Lala-Pritchard graduated in December 2002 and returned to Albania where she worked for about eight months for the Arms Control Section of the Defence Policies Directorate in the Albanian Ministry of Defence.
Tana Lala-Pritchard (right), a December 2002 graduate of East Central University, sits on ECU's Crabtree Honor Plaza with her niece, Iva Asllani of Tirana, Albania. Asllani is an ECU freshman this semester. Lala-Pritchard, a native of Albania, now is a British citizen working for the Serious Organised Crime Agency at the British Embassy in Tirana, Albania. She hopes to be accepted into the British Foreign Service.
On her way back to ECU in May 2003 for the presentation of the Nigh Award, problems with connecting flights caused her to miss the ceremony.
From September to December 2003, Lala-Pritchard completed an internship with the Global Programme Against Trafficking in Human Beings at the Centre for International Crime Prevention of the United Nations in Vienna, Austria.
She had married Grant Pritchard in October 2002 before she graduated from ECU. He is a British citizen she kept encountering "all over the world."
"I went back to Albania one summer and he was there as a British representative to a conference regarding the Kosovo conflict," she said. "We sort of kept running into each other. I was at Pepperdine University (in California) doing research, and he came to visit one of his professors. We had the same professor. It was a string of coincidences that we couldn't ignore any more."
Pritchard is the consul at the British Embassy in Tirana, Albania. His office looks after the interests of British and Commonwealth citizens who visit and live in Albania.
In 2004, he was the British governor's representative to the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific, the isolated home of the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the crew that seized the Bounty of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame. She was the gender issues coordinator/assistant to the governor's representative.
"There were high-profile sex abuse trials (that year) that involved the mayor and many of the men on the island," she said. "I managed a project to help ease tensions."
And tensions ran high. It had been several years since allegations of rape and child molestations had come to light -- allegations that in some way affected most of the 47 inhabitants of the island. Women began telling their stories to British investigators, but many recanted once they realized their male relatives could be imprisoned.
"What do we do after the trial?" Lala-Pritchard asked. "My project was to develop the economic empowerment of women."
Although the island had little communication with the outside world, she connected the women to the Internet to sell their crafts and jewelry "so they could see a future."
She also became part of their lives. She learned from them how to weave baskets and taught them French so they could do commerce with other South Pacific Islands. She learned to play the piano for their church services and became a teacher for the seven school-age children.
She also worked to raise awareness about women's and children's rights and access to justice and social services for those who were victimized, as well as the women's participation in local government.
"It was the most intense experience of my life," Lala-Pritchard said. "It was so unique. It is hard to describe it unless you lived it."
She coordinated all logistical arrangements for trial and government officials, journalists, social workers and other support staff who traveled to Pitcairn.
"The media were everywhere during the trials," she said. "There were no hotels, no places for them to stay. The (British) judges stayed with us. I cooked their meals but made them do their laundry."
The couple returned to the United Kingdom in mid-2005.
"My husband was posted to a duty station where I couldn't go," she explained. "He went to school a year in Jordan to learn the language before going to Iraq."
Lala-Pritchard worked part-time in customer relations for a private company and enrolled in the London School of Economics and Political Science. She earned a master's degree in international relations, graduating with a distinction of merit in 2006.
"It's easy to get lost there, it's so big," she said. "Everyone is pumped on adrenalin."
Students in one of her seminars were asked to introduce themselves and each told where he or she had gone to school before.
"It was Yale, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, Yale," she said. "Then it came to me and I said "East Central. They said, 'Where is that?'
"I guess my adviser noticed my hesitation and came up to me. He said, 'You know, you have nothing to worry about. Their families have probably been going to those schools for years. They didn't need to work as hard to get here. I want to hear your story.'"
Was coming to ECU an advantage for Lala-Pritchard?
"Definitely," she said. "In life, it's a combination of hard work, the opportunities offered to you and what you make of them. ECU and life in Ada offered opportunities to me. People believed in me. They were impressed by my academic record and what I wanted to do with my life. They put so much trust in me and gave me tangible support.
"There was a better sense of community, of relationships with students and professors. It was a more cozy environment," she said.
Lala-Pritchard calls the residents of the Ada community and ECU faculty members who helped her "unsung heroes." She said she really appreciated the love, unconditional support and nurturing that several families and faculty members gave her.
"It is really important to nurture international students," she said. "What we bring to the campus, the exposure that happens on both sides, it opens up the minds of college students."
After completing her master's degree in London, she worked a year as a senior public information and media development associate in the Civil Society and Media Development Unit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Presence in Albania.
For more than a year, she has been a liaison aide/office administration manager for the Serious Organized Crime Agency in the British Embassy in Tirana.
The agency was established to identify better ways to combat organized crime such as drug, human and arms trafficking and money laundering in Albania and Kosovo. Lala-Pritchard is a facilitator between the London headquarters and law enforcement and judicial authorities in the two countries.
"Criminals are more and more sophisticated," she said. "Our methods so far have proved deficient. We're not thinking like them."
Money laundering is a new phenomenon in Albania, and there is no law to deal with it. Albania has applied to become a member of the European Union, but first must align its laws with EU laws, she said.
"Sometimes I deal with real cases," she said. "Not many people can say they do a job where they can see they are making an actual difference in people's lives, like seeing trafficked women find justice.
"Sometimes I take a step back and say, 'Wow -- I'm really doing this?'"
Lala-Pritchard said her experiences growing up in Albania shaped her involvement in promoting the cause of human rights. Her father was a linguist, writer, historian -- and a communist dissident. The family's struggle to resist the communist regime led to deprivation and social ostracism, she said.
Next year Lala-Pritchard and her husband probably will be posted back in the United Kingdom. She is in the first stage of getting into the British Foreign Service which will make it easier for them to be "posted together in the world."
Because of her experience and the skills she honed, she's confidant she will be accepted and become a British diplomat, probably in a fast-track program. Then she could progress through political jobs, be posted in an embassy and progress through the grades, one day possibly becoming a British ambassador.
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