A woman wearing a U.S. Army uniform standing in front of flags.
Gabriella Zenelovic, an international studies major with a minor in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at VCU. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2023: Gabriella Zenelovic pairs military and Arabic language training as she considers federal service career path

International studies major found her way to VCU with an assist from the basketball team.

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Gabriella Zenelovic’s family roots heavily impacted her decision to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. So did the Rams basketball team.

Her father’s family emigrated from Albania, and Zenelovic, who grew up in upstate New York, was always interested in international conflict. She considered colleges in other parts of the country but wanted to study Arabic, and few schools offered the program.

“One day I was watching a VCU basketball game on TV during March Madness,” Zenelovic said. “It was my senior year in high school, and I decided to look up the school. I had a very specific path that I was looking at, and VCU happened to offer that.”

Zenelovic studied Arabic for three years at VCU and is now graduating with a degree in international studies and a minor in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies from the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“My family is Muslim, and I decided to focus on the Middle East and learn more about the religion and more about the culture,” she said. “VCU had everything I wanted along those lines.”

Zenelovic enrolled at VCU in 2019 and soon decided to make the military a part of her life. During her sophomore year, she took off the spring semester and enrolled in the Army Reserves. She spent 17 weeks at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training. The experience was grueling, but she completed training a few weeks before the start of fall semester.

Zenelovic serves one week a month in the reserves, and she has fulfilled her military obligations on top of her studies and working as a server. She also joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at VCU.

“It’s definitely challenging, partially because of my schedule. I keep myself very busy,” Zenelovic said. “ROTC is huge time commitment, but I have enjoyed it. It matched what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Through ROTC, Zenelovic has been given leadership opportunities. She has been sent to training at Fort Knox in Kentucky, among other locations.

Among her other interests, Zenelovic played club basketball and lacrosse at VCU and was a member of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority. She also helped found the Albanian Student Association with several Albanian friends.

Zenelovic is looking forward to her next chapter in life. With her military background and Arabic language skills, she wants to work at a federal agency and has applied to the Department of Homeland and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, among others. The process is daunting, she said, and will take months to complete. She also is applying to federal contractors.

In the short term, Zenelovic will continue to serve in the reserves and work as a server, with appreciation for her VCU experience.

“I really enjoyed being here for my whole four years,” she said. “I left for a little bit, but it was worth it.”