NFGL alum Liridona Sopjani: ‘Sweden is now a part of me’

NFGL alum Liridona Sopjani: ‘Sweden is now a part of me’
Liridona Sopjani is currently a third-year PhD student at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), and a former Swedish Institute scholar. SI News talked with her ahead of tomorrow’s kick-off about how she first came to Sweden as a scholar from Kosovo, what she’s doing now, and her plans for the future.

Liridona is the first to admit that seemingly small choices sometimes have big consequences.

After gaining a bachelor’s degree from the American University in Kosovo, she studied economics and public policy, as well as design.

Then something interesting happened.

“I randomly chose a course in environmental policy,” she recalls.

Looking abroad

Before she knew it, she was hooked, and her interest in sustainability and the environment continued to grow. But Liridona quickly found that there were very few courses on the topic offered in her native Kosovo, prompting her to start looking abroad.

“Initially, I was interested in going to the UK, but unfortunately the scholarship opportunities for countries like Kosovo were quite scarce,” she explains. “And as I was looking for sustainability courses around Europe, I found that Sweden focused a lot on sustainability.”

Liridona researched Sweden more deeply and grew increasingly interested in the country. She found that the Swedish Institute offered scholarships for students from her region, and that settled it.

“I just thought, okay, this is it – I’m only going to focus on this. I didn’t search for any other opportunities,” she recalls.

“I found that Uppsala University offered a degree in sustainable development, and everything just kind of matched together and I decided to apply.”

‘There is an error’

Receiving the email notifying her that she’d been awarded a Swedish Institute scholarship was an exciting moment and one that all SI scholars surely remember fondly. But for Liridona, the excitement was of a different kind.

“I just couldn’t believe it!” she says of a moment that literally had her jumping for joy.

“But a minute later I received another email saying ‘oh there is an error.’”

Her excitement fizzled as she wondered if her dream of studying in Sweden would ultimately come crashing down.

She at first refused to open the email, not wanting to face what she assumed would be bad news. But eventually Liridona read the message only to discover it was a small administrative error and that yes, her scholarship was confirmed.

She went into her boss’s office and hugged her: “I got a scholarship! I’m going to Sweden!”

Grandma knows best

Liridona didn’t really have any expectations ahead of coming to Sweden. She was looking forward to studying something she was passionate about and meeting other students in her class. But, since then, she says, “everything changed”.

She thanks the Swedish Institute for offering scholars broader possibilities during their studies:

“SI got us engaged during the programme, and for me it was a really rewarding experience. I got engaged in our NFGL Local Network, combining the activities from the network and things that I was interested in to go further than just being a student.”

And then she took her engagement to the next level and started a business in Uppsala.

“Our idea was to see how we could combine the knowledge of the university and our interests to create something new, and we created Grandma Knows Best.” (You will hear more about this project from Liridona herself at Saturday’s kick-off.)

From Uppsala to Stockholm

She didn’t stop there: her master’s dissertation at Uppsala explored opportunities for innovative solutions in transportation in Kosovo, and it brought her into a collaboration with KTH in Stockholm.

“I wanted to explore what future innovations in transportation would be and how we can design services that help society and also benefit the environment,” she explains.

“And that project turned out to be really interesting work, and in the end, I got offered a PhD position.”

Liridona is now in the third year of her PhD at KTH, and continues to be engaged in many interesting projects:

“I am part of this really amazing project called LEV-Pool, where we did what we call a living lab experiment by trying a new alternative way of commuting to work in two large workplaces in Sweden,” she explains.

She’s also engaged in a project known as Mistra SAMS, one of the largest transportation projects in transportation involving a wide range of institutions.

“We are exploring disruptions in mobility and accessibility services, and how we can lead to the transformation of Sweden to a low carbon society by 2030,” she says.

‘Sweden has become a part of me’

With her background in design, Liridona is also involved in projects at KTH to integrate virtual reality (VR) technology and science education.

“We are working on how we can use VR and new technologies to communicate about science and to enable a new way of learning for students,” she says.

When asked whether she plans on staying in Sweden for the long-term, Liridona says she is still not sure:

“Sweden has become part of me. It has a leadership role in the world when it comes to sustainability issues and climate change, and since this is in line with my research, I see that I can contribute a lot here,” she explains.

“However, I come from a developing country, with a large need for new ideas and new approaches to how we can transform our societies. So a big part of my heart longs to go back home.”

Be open to change

Thus Liridona continues to look into possible collaborations in Kosovo, including working with her old university to engage students to work on projects that originated in Sweden but could be implemented back in Kosovo.

She says the key for NFGL scholars is to be open to change.

“All scholarship holders come from developing countries, usually closed, narrow-minded societies, and usually societies that have been through conflict, political problems, or that are poor. We don’t get the opportunity to see new things, even if we want to,” she explains.

“Sweden is the place where you can actually see that, and be open and be what you really want to be. So embrace that opportunity, and be curious and engage in what’s going on. Because that will lead to new opportunities, and new openings, and basically make your dreams happen.”