A strange feeling overcame me as I walked up to the Vitosha Park Hotel in Sofia on Wednesday. My last stay here had been for our Fulbright orientation almost nine months ago, and the familiar setting caused memories from my first few weeks in Bulgaria to come flooding back.
Recalling my initial interactions with the other English teachers in my group was fun. I remember the enthusiasm everyone exuded as we eagerly learned about each other’s interests and backgrounds. At our wrap-up seminar this week, those conversations were replaced by talk of future plans and the imminent, tearful goodbyes that awaited us in cities that just a few months before we had struggled to even pronounce.
Thursday and Friday were busy. Instead of the Bulgarian language classes, mock lesson-planning sessions, and cultural overviews that had comprised orientation, we would each attempt the impossible: summarize our Fulbright experience in a short, fifteen-minute presentation.
I really enjoyed hearing my peers share the many things they learned this year about Bulgaria, about teaching, and about themselves. It was clear that I wasn’t the only one who viewed our time here as a truly transformative experience. I’ll share more about my personal takeaways from the program closer to my departure date (school doesn’t end until June 30th), but I did want to highlight some of the awesome work my fellow ETAs have been doing in Bulgaria. A few things that stood out to me:
- Mary helped empower girls at her school by leading a Women’s Club in Varna
- Chris recently worked with his students in Pernik to clean public parks, so they could be more fully enjoyed
- Anna has launched a volunteering initiative to provide much-needed support and education in Bulgarian refugee camps
- Athena, Ettie, Alex, and Sarah are leaving behind what I think is one of the most impactful organizations in Bulgaria—BEST (Bulgarian English Speech Tournaments); this group has taught thousands of Bulgarian kids important lessons about confidence, hard-work, sportsmanship, and critical thinking, and promises to reach thousands more in the future
- Chase has shared his passion for lacrosse by starting a team in Burgas and promoting the sport all over Bulgaria
I want to elaborate a bit more on Chase’s efforts because on Saturday, I had the unique opportunity to watch his team—the Burgas Titans—take on the Sofia Ninjas (currently the only other lacrosse team in the country). I’ve admired the work Chase has been doing all year, and was thrilled to learn I’d be in Sofia for one of their matches.
My friend Caleb and I took a cab to what we expected would be a relaxing afternoon of watching lacrosse. After about two minutes as spectators, that thought was shattered. Following the injury of one of his players, Chase ran over to us.
“Do you guys want to play?”
Despite having never played lacrosse and not being familiar with the rules, Caleb and I both eagerly accepted the offer. We quickly threw on the extra uniforms Chase had on hand, and became Burgas Titans for the next hour or so.
I only had the chance to ask two of the thirty or so questions I had about lacrosse before being thrust into action. As a defender, it was my responsibility to mark an opposing attacker, and thwart their efforts to score. Unfortunately, that becomes pretty hard to do when you’ve never held a lacrosse stick. Even though more than just a couple goals were scored on my watch, I had an absolute blast. We lost 10-14, but it was a big improvement from the last time the teams competed (the Ninjas had won that match convincingly with a final score of 24-3).
It was really fun to see Chase in his element too. It became very clear to me that spreading lacrosse, a historically Native American sport, is a great way to fulfill the Fulbright’s mission to “enhance mutual understanding.” In addition to teaching about a sport with American roots, Chase is instilling important values about sportsmanship, teamwork, leadership, and community.
Here are a few thing that stood out to me from my experience on Saturday:
- Sportsmanship – Chase sets a great example for his team by loudly cheering for every goal scored, even if it was scored by the opposition; he also led the group in cheers to rally our goalie after an injury and to congratulate the Ninjas on their victory
- Teamwork – Individual and team feedback was delivered constantly to talk about how teammates could work together better and function as a unit; although he’s very skilled, Chase has committed to not shooting, preferring to set his team up for scoring opportunities instead
- Leadership – Chase challenged his older, more experienced players to lead and help coach the younger, more inexperienced ones
- Community – It was very apparent that Chase has successfully created a strong lacrosse community: parents beamed as their children ran off the field at the end of the game, the rival teams solidified plans to go bowling after the game, and locals sat along the sidelines, intrigued by such an unusual sport
Titans–thanks for letting me play with you on Saturday! Your energy and enthusiasm were infections, and I had a great time learning about lacrosse.
On Friday night, we had our wrap-up dinner and celebration at Tavan Restaurant. While I hope to see my Fulbright friends again soon, I realize this weekend was probably the last time we’ll all be together as a group. I’m excited to stay in touch and hear about the many great things they will most assuredly accomplish in the future!