From Chicago to Tirana Suzanne Weiss
Photograph courtesy Suzanne Weiss

From Chicago to Tirana

Suzanne Weiss, ’79, left academia to join the Peace Corps, following a ‘spark’ she felt from a young age.

When is the right time to follow a dream? For Suzanne Weiss, it came near her 60th birthday. After a divorce, and with a daughter grown and out of the house, the senior marketing lecturer and former associate director of administration at the Illinois Institute of Technology Stuart School of Business quit her job, sold her house, and packed her bags for a stint in the Peace Corps. In the spring of 2015, she found herself in the tiny Albanian farming village of Shushicë, “15 minutes and 40 years” from the nearest big city.

At eight years old I heard about the Peace Corps for the first time. Something inside me triggered; I got a shot of adrenaline and every part of me felt (not thought), “Wow, I want to do that.” I could feel the spark, but I didn’t have the language to describe or explain it, and as I grew up, the spark became more and more deeply embedded in that youthful part of me.

I didn’t want to keep on feeling like this is a dream that just never happens for me. As my 60th birthday present to myself, I decided to apply. 

When I first arrived in Albania, I stayed with a host family. For eight weeks, I had intense training: six-day-a-week classes and endless presentations, workshops, and homework. 

I stayed in Shushicë, near our training center in Elbasan. Shushicë is a poor farming village of maybe 3,000, with unbelievable unemployment. Chickens and cows are a common sight. At my host home, my acclimation consisted of bucket showers, as my family had no hot running water. 

Albanians are incredibly gracious and welcoming. When my host sister turned 21, they had a dinner for her, and even though it was her birthday, as the guest in the home I was served the sheep’s head, a real delicacy.

It was right there. The brains, the eyeballs. Flattered, I said, “Oh no, I need to share this,” and passed it around. I ate a little and hid the rest under bread.

The buzz phrase behind the USAID project is ‘capacity building,’ meaning, ‘I don’t fix it for you. I give you the tools.'

Suzanne Weiss

In mid-May I was sworn in as a full-fledged Peace Corps volunteer along with the rest of my training group. The 55 or so of my fellow volunteers are incredibly bright, motivated, and eclectic, and there’s much diversity in age, race/ethnicity, skills, and interests. 

My assignment took me to the capital city of Tirana. I am the liaison between USAID’s Planning and Local Governance Project and the volunteers working in bashkias, or local municipal governments. I try to find ways to create connections that advance the work we are all doing in Albania. It sort of doesn’t feel like the Peace Corps in a way because I’m working in an office building, in a regular job where you dress up and wear high heels, write reports, attend conferences, and take business trips. 

My apartment is a 20-minute walk from the office. Tirana is a bustling city with crowded outdoor cafés, a lot of street life, and, confusingly, no one knows the names of the streets. 

The Communist-era apartment buildings aren’t insulated and they’re made of cinder block. Even if you have heat, you wear your coat inside, and you sleep in a heavy down sleeping bag. 

I get homesick for art museums and Mexican food, but I’m so unbelievably thrilled to be working here. The buzz phrase behind the USAID project is “capacity building,” meaning, “I don’t fix it for you. I give you the tools.” It’s about teaching local leaders how to engage with constituencies and how to plan. 

—As told to Deborah Ziff, with excerpts from Weiss's blog