Xhafer Rama ’17 was a small child when his house became a casualty of war and was burned to the ground. The war in Kosovo left his family and his community devastated, and now he lived in a tent. Survival became a daily struggle as the family tried to rebuild. Rama and his siblings would go over the mountain, observe the rigid daily routine of the American soldiers and hatch a plan together.
“The soldiers would come in fixed intervals,” Rama said, “at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. So, I’d go there at 4 p.m., stop them, tell them we have no food. The soldiers would bring us back cans of food to take home.”
By middle school, things had improved somewhat for the Rama family. They had solid walls again, even if they still had no running water. Because Rama had become decent at English, he was able to enroll in a private school that was only a short distance away by bus. He understood quickly that education was going to be the ticket to a brighter future for him and his family. For generations, the Rama family had done timber work in the mountains, but Rama had different ideas.
“I knew, without a doubt, that I was destined for greatness beyond the mountain’s confines, and I held on to this conviction,” he said. “In high school, I was doing well academically and saw that higher education would be the door to endless opportunities. This inspired me to pursue an undergraduate degree.”
Rama excelled in high school, knowing that earning scholarships to college was the next step for him. When he took the stage as valedictorian, he had also accumulated recognition for community service and leadership. He organized a recycling club to clean up the surrounding neighborhoods and tutored the younger kids in math and English.
“My efforts were unwavering because I knew the gravity of what was at stake,” he said.
He discovered Berea College while searching for schools that offered scholarships to international students. In 2013, one had to print the application and mail it to the Admissions office. Rama pestered the admissions representatives with emails for weeks to make sure they received his materials. Not long afterward, he boarded a plane bound for Kentucky.
Rama was greeted at Blue Grass Airport by Kye Anderson, international student and scholar advisor, who gave him a ride to Berea. When he finally made it to his new room, Rama found his bed already made. Soap and toothbrushes adorned a care package arranged just for him. Having arrived with minimal possessions, Rama’s feelings of appreciation swelled.
Though a tiny place to most who encounter it, Berea seemed enormous. Campus buildings dwarfed the structures he had known in Kosovo, and the available abundance of American life also struck him. At Walmart, he marveled at the rows of canned beans on the shelf, just like the ones American soldiers had provided to his family when he was a child. Everywhere he looked, he was awestruck by what Americans might consider mundane or automatic. He’d save his money from his campus job as a math teaching assistant, join friends at the Cracker Barrel on the weekend, or he’d take home a stack of $1 McChicken sandwiches.
“Admittedly, fast food was not the healthiest choice,” he noted. “However, it gave me a genuine flavor of what I perceived to be the American experience.”
The hospitality, the food, the budding friendships, the range of perspectives—all that, of course, were icing on the Berea cake. He was here for an education, and he made certain to get the absolute most out of his experience. While at Berea, Rama triple-majored in mathematics, computer science and economics, just because he didn’t want to waste a single moment during his four years of college.
“While I reveled in the generosity of Berea College’s no-tuition promise, I felt a profound sense of responsibility towards those who placed their faith in my potential. This sentiment served as the catalyst for my academic fervor,” he reflected. “Perhaps I did spread myself a bit thin, but I felt like a kid in the candy store who had all these opportunities and courses to choose from, for free! In hindsight, I might have focused solely on computer science, balancing coursework and my well-being. Yet, my zeal was driven by gratitude and ambition.”
Upon graduating from Berea College, Rama embarked on a new chapter of his life, one that took him to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where he developed a software platform for the U.S. Department of Defense that collects data about the mosquito-borne illness Chikungunya. Rama won the 2018 Piers J. Sellers Award for Interdisciplinary Science for his efforts. He also was the first person from Kosovo to ever work at NASA and had to wait a week for a building access badge because NASA staff had to enter his country of origin into the system for the first time.
Following his tenure at NASA, Rama engaged in a variety of projects, from developing software that aided Red Cross disaster recovery efforts to creating interactive dashboards for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) as a means for better understanding the spread of certain communicable diseases, to using his expertise in front-end development to aid the performance of certain applications at NBCUniversal, one of the world’s leading media and entertainment companies.
He has since relocated to Winchester, Kentucky, just one county over from his alma mater, where he does software development work. Winchester isn’t quite as exciting as the Washington, D.C., area, but that’s okay with him.
“I’d walk around the National Mall and be in awe, pondering the juxtaposition of my humble roots in Kosovo and the grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial,” Rama said. “In 2019, I moved here because I just love Kentucky. The people here are so friendly and hospitable, always prioritizing personal rapport over perfunctory exchanges. I also appreciate the beauty of the farms and mountains which remind me so much of my beloved homeland.”
Since graduating, Rama has not forgotten the folks back home. He helped his parents improve their living conditions, making sure they were set up with running water and other needs. And he founded a school for underprivileged kids who want to learn robotics and computer programming. This school currently serves 60-plus students, with hundreds having completed the available programs.
Looking forward, Rama’s vision is clear. He aspires to establish his own software consulting company, using the skills and experiences he has gained through the years to build a successful venture. His long-term goal involves creating opportunities for skilled programmers from Kosovo, offering them employment and a chance to contribute to meaningful projects.