Interview with Guljed Birçe, Office Manager and Policy Advisor on Foreign Relations in the Boston-based staff of former US Senator (and current Secretary of State) John Kerry
Interviewed by Ruben Avxhiu
You have been working for several years now in the staff of US Senator John Kerry. What is generally the feeling there now that he is leaving to become the Secretary of State?
A: After over five years in the office I have seen many members of the Kerry family come and go. At the farewell speech, in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, I had a chance to meet with many of them. It seems that we share similar feelings regarding his departure. We are all extremely proud of Senator Kerry. He has been an inspiration, a mentor, and an exemplary leader. We will miss him deeply, as I am sure the state of Massachusetts will too. We are deeply honored to have worked for him, no matter for how long, and are certain that Senator Kerry will do an extraordinary job representing the United States around the world. Personally, I feel Massachusetts has lost yet another great Senator but, primed an ideal Secretary of State.
Q: How did you get involved with the Senator’s team?
A: I entered the Kerry family as an intern in the summer of 2007. At the time I was working for the State Director, Drew O’Brien. At the end of the summer, Mr. O’Brien took a chance in me, a young immigrant of 23 from Albania. I still don’t know exactly what it was that convinced him to take me on but, I give credit to my diligent upbringing—a dedication to hard work, patience, surrounding myself with and learning from those wiser than I, and just never giving up. Obviously, luck has a lot to do with this but, I like to credit my hiring and stay in the office to my family and the values they instilled in me.
Q: What is your position and some of your current duties now? Is this the Boston-based part of the staff?
A: I am the Office Manager and Policy Advisor on Foreign Relations in the Boston office. As such, I try and make sure the office has everything they need to serve the people of Massachusetts. As office manager I am responsible for ensuring equipment are all functioning, keeping up with technological advancement, training staff and interns on Senate rules and regulations, and, at times, answering phones at the front desk. The key is to keep in mind that no job is beneath me and the sky is the limit. As Policy Advisor I work closely with my counterparts in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the remarkable Foreign Service colleagues in U.S embassies around the world. Moreover, I have been lucky enough to hold meetings with foreign diplomats and representatives from nonprofit organization on behalf of Senator Kerry.
Q: Do you travel to DC? Or to various parts of Massachusetts?
A: Trips around Massachusetts are quite frequent. Very often our constituents are unable to come to us in Boston so we go to them. We have offices in Fall River and Springfield but that’s not always enough. Going to towns and cities around Massachusetts is an extremely humbling experience. I try to do it as frequently as possible. We started an effort where we would hit every city and town in MA and we have done so nearly twice now since I started in 2007. Trips to DC are less frequent. The office in DC is responsible for legislative matters while the Boston office is responsible constituent matters—that being, casework. Thus, most DC trips are for training purposes on Senate rules and regulations. However, I have been fortunate enough to travel for official events and hearings a number of times.
Q: I assume some people from the staff may consider following the Senator to “that other side” of the town. But I think that you have said this would not be your case and that you’d rather stay in your line of career. Is that correct? What is that you like most about what you do?
A: Right now I have no plans to leave the Senate, but who knows, life has a funny way about doing what it wants not what we want—thankfully, I am fond of surprises. I enjoy very much working for the legislative branch. I find it immensely rewarding to see the will of the people translated into legislations in DC. That’s the most exciting aspect for me. It is for this reason that I would like to work as a Legislative Aide and make a contribution towards this process one day. I feel that I have learned quite a bit here in Boston and would like to continue doing so in DC.
Q: John Kerry has quite a life and we have learned a lot about it during the 2004 elections, but you have a story of yourself to tell. You were born in Albania and then you were working for one of the best Senators in the United States of America. What happened in between?
A: I moved to the United States in 2000 after completing one year of high school in Albania. Once here, my family and I went through the extraordinary process of learning as fast as possible the way of life in Boston. Although I had some knowledge of the English language it was a rough start as the “Queen’s English” is quite different. I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in regular English classes—as supposed to English as a Second Language classes—the day I went to register for classes at the English High School. I will never forget the counselor that enrolled me in regular English, Ms. Perez. I acted that day as an interpreter for my father, whom had accompanied me to school to register. Ms. Perez credited me able enough but, that first semester I barely got myself a C, which made me doubt her decision. Fortunately, she saw something in me I could not at the time because I graduated as salutatorian of my class—the valedictorian was my very good friend Fuada Kasollja, another Albanian.
In the fall of 2003 I enrolled in the College of Engineering at Boston University, on full academic scholarship as a Boston Scholar, to pursue my childhood dream of becoming an Astronaut. However, quickly through my freshmen year I found my decision to be selfish. Even though I knew that as an astronaut I would make a contribution to my peers, I could not bear the idea to work as an engineer in a lab when people in my community needed a great deal of help. I realized that my heart longed for something greater than myself.
It was my AP U.S. History teacher senior year of high school, Ms. Milagros, she too a BU alumni, that first kindled the desire to dedicate myself to a life in public service. She put us through a rigorous program that taught us a great deal about the founding fathers and civil engagement. Freshmen year at BU I learned even more about civil engagement and I knew it was what I wanted to do. It was during my college years, after the shock of immigrating to a new country had dissipated, that I started to understand what was happening back home in the Balkans. From childhood I remember clearly the fall of the Berlin Wall, the student protestors in Tirana that shook the country and changed what seemed an unchangeable system, and the subsequent1997 civil uprising sprung by pyramid schemes. I also remember the flood of Kosovar Albanians fleeing the war in Kosova in 1999. This episode in particular—perhaps because I interacted first hand with Kosovar Albanians who had found temporary refuge in my city—led me to switch majors. I enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences and triple majored in International Relations (Security Track), Political Science, and Psychology. During this time I also interned as a research assistant at the National Defense University, which is found inside Fort Lesley J. McNair compound in DC. Upon graduation I was employed in the Boston office of Senator Kerry, but could not stay away from school for long. Thus, I attended Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School and was fortunate to complete an MA in Public Administration and an MS in Crime and Justice Studies in the summer of 2012. In the mean time I try and give back to the Albanian community as much as possible by working with the Massachusetts Albanian American Society and the Albanian Human Rights Project.
Q: We have a number of successful Albanian-Americans, but few have “dared” to get involved in politics, at least until recently. In New York, we have now an Assemblyman and we may have also a City Councilman soon. We had a few similar efforts in Michigan and Connecticut, but Massachusetts seems a bit shy. Do you imagine yourself running for office one day? What does it take in your opinion?
A: I was very proud to see Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj win his seat and traveled to NY to congratulate him in person in fact. I hope many more will follow because not only can Albanian-Americans benefit from this type of civil engagement but the United States too will benefit from the contributions our community can bring to the table. Massachusetts is no exception. I see so many able members of the community that could win elected office. Perhaps, like you said, they are just being shy.
What does it take to run for office? I am happy to say that there is no set formula. I have seen well-off men and women win elected office and I have seen many men and women who come from nothing win elected office. I think one has to have the ambition, a lot of guts, and thick skin to run for office. As for me, I do not have the ambition to run for office—not yet at least—but, like I said, life has a funny way about doing what it wants.