Anuela Ristani (‘05): ‘Once AUBG Puts a Spell on You, It Never Goes Away’

April 02, 2024 Dimana Doneva, Tsvetana Haydushka
Anuela Ristani (‘05): ‘Once AUBG Puts a Spell on You, It Never Goes Away’

AUBG alumna Anuela Ristani (’05) currently holds the position of Deputy Mayor for Sustainable Development and International Relations at the City of Tirana. A passionate advocate for social change, she has previously held the role of Chief of Staff at the City of Tirana and Head of the National Youth Service at Albania’s Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth. Anuela has also held managerial positions in marketing at various international companies and served as the Director of Operations at The World Bank (SPI Albania).

Additionally, the alumna holds a Master of Business Administration degree with an emphasis on Marketing and Strategic Communication from the University of Missouri-Columbia. This professional and academic success, however, traces back to her formative years at AUBG.

The AUBG Experience

Anuela says there is nothing that gives her more pleasure than talking about her AUBG journey. 

“My personal connection to AUBG was due to the fact that early in the 90s when I was very little, there was this TV documentary on this amazing school that had just opened,” she said.

“This was the first class, which hadn’t yet graduated back then, and we were talking about, you know, how these guys are so good and they studied so hard.” 

The American University in Bulgaria was a “Plan B” for many excellent Albanian students in the early 2000s who couldn’t make it to the U.S. due to visa-related reasons, she said. 

“And I do remember thinking back then, well, ‘if you don’t make it to the States you go there.’ It was always in the back of my mind that no matter what happens, I’ll just go to AUBG. No matter what It takes, I’ll always go to AUBG.” 

In 2001, Anuela began her AUBG education, an experience she said “exceeded the expectations” she had in college. 

“I only now realize how lucky we were to be tutored by amazing faculty that had done everything in their life, they were high achievers in their careers, and at some point, they had decided to come to this corner of the world and teach these excellent students.”

The four years at AUBG offered an intellectually challenging environment that created lasting connections, Anuela said. 

“You have these conversations with people that you wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said.

“I don’t think people have them in any other setting. And it’s because we live together. It’s because we share everything together. It’s also because we’re taught similar principles, right? We keep sharing these principles up until now.”

“Once AUBG puts that spell on you, it never goes away. You cannot be a person of ethics when you’re a student and forget about that once you graduate.”

“We’ve talked about integrity in Bobby Phillips’ classes for weeks. In Cosmina’s classes, god bless her soul, we talked about the philosophy of what is real value, what is real character, what is consistency. Once that is embroidered in you, it can never go away.” 

Anuela double majored in Business Administration with a concentration in marketing and European Studies at AUBG and completed a minor in Political Science. 

“And then of course I did what every other respectable AUBGer does, which is a lot of theater,” she said. “And I do think I have a major in Underground [a night club in Blagoevgrad that AUBG students frequent] but I’m not sure (laughs). So I had a full plate but I did enjoy every single minute.”

Alumna Anuela Ristani (’05), Deputy Mayor of Tirana, meets alumnus Vassil Terziev (’01), Mayor of Sofia

The Start of a Remarkable Career

Upon graduation, Anuela returned to Albania to gain practical experience before continuing her studies. 

Initially, she wanted a job in EU integration but “back then there was no job in integration,” she said. “So I pulled out my other major, Business Administration, which came in very handy, and I worked in marketing.” 

After working for leading companies such as Porsche Albania, AMC (T-Mobile), and Raiffeisen Bank, Anuela joined the World Bank (SPI Albania) as the Director of Operations, where she worked on the privatization and the modernization of the financial sector in her home country. 

Then, together with her family, Anuela moved to the U.S. where she pursued her Master of Business Administration from the University of Missouri-Columbia. 

“Then I came back here in Albania for a vacation, which turned out to be a permanent move back because I was offered to join a team with which I am still working today,” she said.

Anuela was offered to establish the National Youth Service for the Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth in Albania. Afterward, together with the then Minister of Social Welfare and Youth and the current mayor of Tirana, she ran for the city mayoral elections. They won the elections, and the alumna has been serving as the Deputy Mayor for Sustainable Development and International Relations for five years now. 

“Working in politics is a challenging task, but AUBG teaches you the flexibility, adaptability, and openness to experience to thrive in any setting,” Anuela said.

The university also builds people with strong convictions, she said. 

“I think that if you are an AUBGer you are going to have a full life,” she said.

“Not just a full career but a full life. And a full life is lived when you are in line with who you are, right? Because there are so many things out there and so many people who want to teach us what to do, how to do a job, and what career to choose. And a lot of people fall into those traps. But we already know that. We are taught to be true to ourselves and be strong enough to handle the world out there.”

The AUBG Impact

Anuela said she never thought she would end up in politics. 

“I never thought I would do this, I never wanted this, and I never knew I would want this,” she said. 

But a story her parents told her years after graduation revealed an unexpected remark from her former professor, hinting at her future in politics.

“When I graduated, my parents met Bobby Phillips [AUBG professor in Political Science and International Relations] and I wasn’t there,” she said. “And Bobby told them: ‘Congratulations on the next Foreign Minister of Albania.’”

“And my parents were like ‘What is he talking about? Didn’t she do Business?’ My mom told me that many years after and I thought that, well, Bobby probably knew me better than I knew myself.”

The turning point of Anuela’s career path was when she completed her Master in Business Administration and began her PhD studies, she said. 

“I realized that none of the education that I would have, no matter how prestigious, scientific, or highly rated, would ever compare to the experience I had at AUBG.” 

She found that her AUBG education profoundly nurtured her, shaping not only her professional skills but also her personal growth. “I felt like I wanted to replicate that at a later stage in my career,” she explained. 

While pursuing her PhD, Anuela realized that she would rather embark on a career directly impacting people’s lives. “Instead of wasting my time… I might as well just go into something practical and something that helps, and something that has meaning for me,” she thought. “And I think that is how I ended up doing what I do.” 

Technical skills are important but there are other determinants of success, Anuela said. 

“That’s the beauty of the liberal arts education, the critical thinking that is the main ingredient of liberal arts,” she said.

“You are not a technical person, that is something a career will teach you. You are a person of value in whichever career you choose. You are not in your silo but you have a more comprehensive view of the world.”

“A lot of universities do not give you that,” Anuela said. “And I feel that’s the ingredient that makes the difference. And I think that’s what completes you as a professional but also as a human being.” 

Commitment to Social Impact

Anuela recalled a pivotal moment when she began to prioritize social impact over corporate success. “While I was doing my PhD I was working for corporations with billions of dollars in revenue using highly technologically sophisticated means of collecting and analyzing data,” she said.

“There’s a long-shot argument that by helping corporations you’re helping humanity go further. But I’m just one of them lots who believes that humanity needs to progress through some really basic things before we go there. And I didn’t feel that my analyzing data for a multibillion company would help people who don’t have a home or people who’ve lost their home.” 

As the deputy mayor of Tirana, Anuela works on projects that directly impact the daily lives of the city residents like improving the air quality, supporting marginalized groups, building a child-friendly infrastructure, and advancing cultural tourism. 

“Things like that are very tangible,” she said. “With this kind of job that we do, the impact of a decision that you take is completely measurable the next day. I feel that it is a big privilege to be able to see the result of your work.” 

Reflecting on Democracy 

As a political leader, Anuela reflected on how democracy has changed over the years.  Democracy in the region has come a long way since AUBG’s mission to educate democratic and ethical leaders was first conceived three decades ago, she said. New technology, artificial intelligence and social media, however, pose novel challenges to the democratic system, she said. 

“It doesn’t matter today if you’re in Albania or if you’re in Berlin,” she explained. “You are exposed to the influence of technology very similarly. So it doesn’t really matter how robust your democratic system is. It can be attacked anyway because it’s not visible and tangible and physical like it used to be. It’s amorphous and it adapts to any regime that it faces.”

In light of these complexities, Anuela advocates for integrating discussions on digitalization and ethics into educational curricula. “That should be definitely explored for the next generation of students,” she said. “Even in the way lessons are taught or in the way integrity is taught. It’s one of those new pillars that should be added as a component of understanding democracy and its threats in the light of this new context.”