Lorenc Gjoni '98
“Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.”
― Albert Einstein, The World as I See It
We all have a story. The details vary – where we were born, how we were raised, where we are today – but as alumni, our stories share a common thread. No matter how you look at your life, Grove City College is part of your story, and you’re a part of its story, too.
Lorenc Gjoni ’98 has a story that’s quite a bit different. He was born in Albania, the son of truck driver and an accountant, and raised in a land ravaged by communism until the early 1990s. He spent the early part of his life as a self-proclaimed atheist. Despite his circumstances, Gjoni sought something greater. He relentlessly pursued truth. He dreamed of bigger opportunities.
Gjoni’s thirst for knowledge led him to study English. Seeking mastery of the language, he was eager to get his hands on any and every written piece from abroad to read and study. He studied philosophy, consumed various science textbooks and read the entire New Testament to perfect his English and gain background information on other Western cultures.
As Gjoni continued to study, he had lots of questions and began to see ways he could learn from the “fairy tales with good messages” he read in evangelistic publications. He was curious about religion and Christianity and wanted to be a better person. After much deliberation, study, and discovery, he came to the belief that God did indeed exist and accepted Christ.
“I know now that God was reaching out to me in many ways, finding me wherever my needs were in order to bring me to him,” Gjoni said.
A new chapter in his story had begun.
Throughout the early 1990s, Gjoni served as an interpreter for groups visiting Albania, and he found numerous opportunities to serve churches and missions organizations in this capacity.
While going to college in Tirana, Albania’s capital city, Gjoni was a regular at a Bible study held at the International Protestant Assembly. He stepped up when a visiting missionary was trying desperately to get his message across without the aid of a translator. Soon he was was translating the regular Sunday morning service. When the Billy Graham Association reached out to the church’s pastor for an Albanian/English translator, he readily recommended Gjoni for the job.
That put Gjoni in place to serve as translator and self-appointed tour guide/historian for a John Guest evangelistic team that visited Albania in October 1994. Many people from the group were from Pittsburgh, including a woman named Carol Burnett, who got to know Gjoni and took note of his desire to study in America.
Later that month, the Billy Graham Association asked Gjoni to plan a trip to America in March of 1995 to do voiceover translation work in Minneapolis and to interpret at a three-day global mission conference in Puerto Rico. When Burnett heard of Gjoni’s upcoming trip to the States, she convinced him to extend his visit and travel to Pittsburgh. She also offered to take him on a college search.
On Maundy Thursday 1995, Gjoni found himself on an unplanned visit to a church in Pittsburgh, sitting next to Sally Cheney, who had just volunteered at the Billy Graham conference in Puerto Rico where he served as a translator. Their conversation at church prompted Cheney to mention Gjoni to her dear friend Irene Bailey, who had also gone to Puerto Rico and, more importantly for Gjoni’s story, was a huge supporter of Grove City College. Bailey’s husband, John, was a professor at the College. (Their daughter Melanie is a 1983 graduate who married another alum, Alejandro (Alex) Chafuen ’84, who currently serves as a College Trustee.)
Cheney arranged for Bailey and Gjoni to meet at church on Easter Sunday and, after hearing his story and of his desire to attend college in the states, insisted Gjoni visit Grove City College.
“I can still visualize that visit,” Gjoni said. “We parked in front of Crawford Hall facing the creek. As I got out of the car and my right foot hit the pavement, I knew God was calling me to come here.” |
Deciding to attend Grove City College was one thing. Figuring out how to pay for it was another matter. Bailey was the key. She introduced him to Louise (Slavcoff ’56) Baird, a Board of Trustees member and legacy student of Grove City College. Baird’s father, Alexander Slavkov, was a 1927 graduate of the College and a scholarship had been named in his honor to support students from overseas. After hearing Gjoni’s story, Baird was immediately interested in him as a scholarship recipient. After much discussion, the scholarship was expanded to cover Gjoni’s full tuition cost – something that hadn’t been done before.
While Gjoni was grateful for Baird’s incredible generosity, he still couldn’t afford the remaining cost of room and board. One year’s bill was equivalent to the net worth of his parents in Albania. But Bailey wasn’t willing to give up. She contacted then-Trustee Bill Pendleton who enlisted Bill Mehaffey ’64, now a Trustee, and a handful of other alumni to co-sponsor the cost of Gjoni’s room and board throughout his time on campus. Through the selfless giving of alumni and friends of Grove City College, Gjoni’s dream to study in America was finally realized.
There were a few hurdles to overcome before Gjoni could begin his career as a student at Grove City College in August 1995. He chalks up a friend’s connections that got him a quick appointment at the embassy to acquire his visa and his making reservations early for the flight to America (they were all booked to capacity by the time of his departure), along with other potential roadblocks avoided to “divine assistance.”
Gjoni’s time at Grove City College was like that of many other students. He studied math and computers, lived in Ketler and Hopeman and branched out into social life after a semester of focusing solely on his studies. He specifically remembers attending Warriors for Christ one night instead of studying more for a final in Calc III. It was hard for him to make the decision to put something ahead of his work, but an excellent final grade seemed to support his choice.
“If you put God first, you’re not making a bad bargain. He’ll repay for that faithfulness,” he said.
As his time as a student wound to a close, Gjoni had a chance to apply for a lottery to earn a permanent resident visa and extend his stay in the United States while pursuing dual citizenship. Andy Toncic ’77, then dean of men and in charge of international students, gave Gjoni and application and explained the process. In the midst of studies, papers, and final exams, Gjoni missed the submission deadline. He gave up hope of winning the lottery and blamed himself for missing the opportunity.
But the story of Gjoni’s life had a few more plot twists. To his surprise, he received a note of congratulation on winning the visa lottery. What Gjoni didn’t know is that his parents had also received an application in Albania, filled it out on his behalf, and submitted it to the lottery. He could stay in America and work.
With the help of Jim Thrasher ’80 and the Career Services Office, Gjoni prepared his resume and began the search for a job. He quickly landed four interviews and was offered four job offers. He selected a position with PPG Industries in Pittsburgh. The job came with an education assistance benefit that allowed Gjoni to earn a Masters in Business Administration from Carnegie Mellon University. Gjoni worked for PPG for 11 years after graduation from Grove City College. He became a United States citizens in January 2003.
Over time, Gjoni began to see positive economic and governmental changes being made in Albania. He felt that he could take the knowledge and experience he had gained in America back to his home country to make a difference. He amicably parted ways with PPG and returned to Albania in 2009.
Gjoni is planning to open his own business in Albania and is currently looking for U.S. investors to support his ideas for hydroplants and an import distribution company. He even talks of founding a Christian high school and dreams of sending the top graduating student to Grove City College each year.
Lorenc Gjoni’s story is far from over, but so far it’s a quintessentially Grove City College story: A quest for knowledge leads to faith, and a with the support from a community of like-minded individuals and thanks in no small part to the guiding hand of God, a dream is fostered until it becomes a reality.
“There some great themes in Lorenc Gjoni’s story, ones of God’s providence, the reward of our submission to His will, and the care and support of generous people like our alumni,” according to Gjoni's supporter and friend, Bill Mehaffey '64. “Lorenc sees the value of his education at Grove City College. He truly appreciates how the College and those loyal to it have impacted his life.”