Bulgaria: A Year in Summary

So it’s been about two months since I arrived back in the United States, which means I’ve had plenty of time to reflect back on my year in Bulgaria. The idea of summing up the most transformational year of my life in a single blog post seems absurd, but I’m going to give it my best shot. I tried to boil down my thoughts into a few key takeaways, which proved to be pretty challenging.

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Coffee mug from my 8A and 9A classes…fitting for my year in conclusion post

Diversity produces the best learning experiences.

My time in Bulgaria kicked off with the Fulbright International Summer Institute (FISI). This two-week set of intensive courses covered a variety of topics including but not limited to politics, international relations, business, economics, law, education, science, and culture. The expense of this conference was not covered by my grant, so I had to think long and hard about whether it was worth going on my own dime. Ultimately, I decided that the allure of what sounded like an invigorating learning experience outweighed the cost, which turned out to be the right decision.

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FISI friends take a break from class for a hike

While the content itself was interesting, what really made the experience worthwhile was the diversity of my classmates. Despite having attended an undergraduate university that boasts diversity, this learning experience was unlike any I had previously encountered: PhD students from Bulgaria sat next to members of disaster response teams from Pakistan; Businessmen from India debated with business students from the University of Michigan; Linguists from the U.S. not surprisingly viewed conflicts differently than Russian graduate students. The result was passionate, dynamic, and sometimes even a little heated discussion about topics like Ethnic Tensions in the European Union and International Conflict Resolution.

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Last day of week 1 classes

Too often we view conflict as a bad thing. We’re taught to believe that conflict breeds animosity, and so it should be avoided at all costs. Especially after this experience, I tend to believe that quite the opposite is true. Conflict and diversity of thought can lead to a more thorough analysis of a complex situation, and if involved parties can remain focused and level-headed, it can be quite constructive. There were times when I felt compelled to step in and defend the United States and others when I found myself questioning previously held beliefs. Ultimately, these were two of the most eye-opening weeks of my life, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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FISI farewell party

Friendship comes in unexpected places.

For a whole year, my social life revolved almost entirely around my eccentric 60-year old neighbor whose English vocabulary was limited to “Deep Purple” and “Let it Be.” And I loved it. From the moment Krassy walked into my life (in his underwear, interestingly enough), he has treated me like family. Many of my fondest memories from Bulgaria involve Krassy: making rakia together, learning how to cook banitsa, road tripping to Serbia, and so many more. But I think the thing I’ll miss most is just daily life with Krassy. Whether we were eating dinner, practicing Bulgarian, watching a soccer game, or just aimlessly putzing around town, there was never a dull moment.

Buds

Simply put, my relationship with Krassy and Nadia was a big part of what made life in Silistra so enjoyable. Their generosity and friendship played a huge role in shaping my view of Bulgarian hospitality. What frightens me about that is that I was close to not pursuing this friendship at all. Early on, I was concerned about letting my social life revolve around someone that seemed different in every way possible. In fact, I even remember ignoring the doorbell a couple of times to avoid joining Krassy for dinner. People are wired to seek out people who are similar. While that can be easy and comfortable, it can also be incredibly limiting. I learned that friendship comes in many forms, and that sometimes the most rewarding friendships can come in the least expected places.

My second family

Challenge the status quo.

Many of you followed along or even participated in my 10A class’s fundraising campaign to build a school in Ghana with Pencils of Promise. Fortunately, the project was wildly successful, and my students significantly surpassed our $25,000 goal. Getting there wasn’t easy though. Had my class not been willing to challenge their preconceived notions about what is and isn’t possible in Bulgaria, this never would have happened. I applaud my students’ willingness to take a chance on accomplishing something big in an environment where there isn’t a culture of volunteerism and there’s a lingering “communist hangover” effect that sometimes thwarts progress.

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10A – The class that built a school

For those who have been following our story, check out my latest update on the school build. We’re almost finished!

Get out of your comfort zone.

I’ve told many of you about the note my dad has on his desk reminding him to get out of his comfort zone. That’s something I have tried to incorporate into my own life as well, and it was a big motivator as I considered moving to Bulgaria. Over the past year, the best example I have of this came back in March. As someone who doesn’t love public speaking, I experienced a mixture of excitement and dread when an e-mail hit my inbox asking if I’d be willing to present at the annual Berlin Fulbright Seminar. My knee-jerk reaction was to reject the offer; it was just an e-mail after all, and saying “no” would be easy.

But I decided to sleep on it, and when I woke up the next morning, my attitude had changed. I knew that the discomfort I experienced when I pictured myself in front of 250 people wasn’t a good reason to avoid the situation entirely. In fact, that was exactly the reason I should be seeking it out.

Was I nervous leading up to the seminar? Absolutely.

Did I spend way too much time preparing and rehearsing? No doubt about it.

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Presenting at annual Berlin Fulbright Seminar

But the presentation went well, and the enjoyment I had presenting and participating in the panel discussion following it far outweighed the slight anxiousness. I am a firm believer that the best way to grow and learn is by doing the things that make you uncomfortable.

Think from others’ perspectives.

Growing up in the United States, it’s easy to view America as the greatest force for good in the world. We see ourselves as global peacekeepers, promoters of freedom, and good samaritans. But what we often don’t realize is that much of the rest of the world doesn’t see us that way. In fact, there were times during my year abroad when even I started thinking that maybe America’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

I remember going to a concert in Silistra one of my first nights there, and meeting a couple of Bulgarians my age. “Friends!,” I had thought as I tried to use my Bulgarian (quite limited at the time) to strike up a conversation. After a few minutes, they wanted to introduce me to another friend of theirs who happened to be Russian. That sounded great, so I introduced myself to their third friend. However, as soon as he found out I was American, things changed quickly. He got aggressive and started shouting at me for reasons I didn’t understand. His friends and I tried to talk him down, but it was clear that he had some ingrained distaste for Americans, and my insistence that I was a decent human being wasn’t going to change that; I went home baffled, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.

Perhaps I had been a bit naive, but this was an eye-opener for me–not everyone loves Americans. And in fact, many people have quite a strong distaste for us. I recently stumbled along the below map, which shows the most common responses by country to the question: “which country do you see as the greatest threat to world peace?”

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Greatest threat to world peace

Prior to living abroad, I think I would have found this map surprising. That’s why I think the Fulbright mission to “enhance mutual understanding” is so vital, especially in the world today. It’s our responsibility to advocate for America to do the right thing, and be the global force for peace that we claim to be. When we see things like the current Syrian refugee crisis, we ought to be vocal about making sure America does its part. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be stepping up in a big way to help the millions of families being displaced by war and devastation. Not doing so will only further tarnish a reputation that’s already damaged in many parts of the world.

Laugh at yourself.

As a bit of a perfectionist, I hate making mistakes. Usually, I think that’s a good thing because it causes me to be intentional and thorough, but I had to take a different approach in Bulgaria. While trying to learn a new language and culture, you’re bound to make mistakes; I made many. Perhaps my favorite mistake came during one of my many cross-country journeys from Silistra to Sofia. With 20 minutes left of our bus’s coffee break in Ruse, I decided to strike up conversation with a shopkeeper. Things went well as I explained my background, profession, and reason for moving to Bulgaria (he was shocked by the last one). But when I told him that I knew two other Americans living and teaching in his hometown (what’s up Nora and Anthony!), he burst out laughing.

“Аз знам две други учители че живеят в Русе. Момичето има руса коса и се казва Нора и момчето се казва Антони. Той има картофи коса,” I repeated emphatically, trying to improve my pronunciation that I assumed he was laughing at. Here’s what I thought I said: “I know two other teachers who live here in Ruse. The girl has blonde hair and is named Nora, and the boy is named Anthony. He has brown hair.” Unfortunately, instead of saying кафява (kafyava), the word for brown, I used картофи (kartofi), the word for potatoes. “He has potato hair,” I had said. I wish this had been the sole mistake I made, but instead, it was one of dozens I made in that day alone. I learned early on that getting comfortable with making mistakes is essential for language acquisition, and learning in general. Fear of messing up and looking silly can cause one to avoid taking chances, which stifles learning. As I start business school, I’m trying to more fully embrace this mindset, as I expect there are many more mistakes to come as I grapple with new information.

The potential of (Bulgarian) youth.

When I first arrived in Bulgaria, I expected the English level of my students to be quite low. I thought I’d be up in front of the classroom teaching very basic vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentence structure. What I found instead was a group of highly intelligent, capable, and passionate students whose English abilities far surpassed my expectations. I remember introducing myself during the first week of school, and explaining that I had previously been working for Target, a big retailer in the U.S. A bright-eyed senior sitting in the front row shot his hand up in the air, and before waiting for me to call on him belted out in perfect English: “What were the annual revenues of Target last year?”

Just like that, my previous lesson plans were out the window. My students were capable of having very mature, intellectual discussions about topics that really matter. Some of my favorite lesson topics that my students seemed to enjoy too were: crowdsourcing, literacy rates, and the Nobel Peace Prize.

The creativity of my students was further demonstrated in our Speech & Debate club. Debating complex topics like how to thwart the spread of ISIS, how to reduce the gender pay gap, and how to decrease social inequality is hard enough in your first language…my students were doing it in their second or sometimes third! These kids are impressive!

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Kaloyan from my Speech & Debate team hard at work!

My takeaway is that despite the many problems that exist in Bulgarian education, young people can and will thrive when given the chance. I have trouble imagining that this isn’t the case in other parts of the world too. Education can unlock potential, and I’m frustrated by the fact that so many people don’t have access to the basic resources needed to learn. I’m thrilled that my 10A class was able to help tackle a small part of that problem in Ghana, but the fact remains that 250 Million children lack basic reading, writing, and math skills. Improved education is one of several avenues I will be exploring in business school as I seek to play a role in helping alleviate global poverty.


The above takeaways are just a few of the thoughts that flooded my mind as I drove away from Silistra for the last time (on this trip at least). Looking for any excuse to further delay my departure, I pulled to the side of the road to soak in the beauty of Bulgaria one more time. While enjoying the vibrant yellow of Bulgarian sunflowers, I reflected on what had really made my experience so worthwhile: the people. And with that, I want to take a minute to say Thank You to the many people who made this past year possible and awesome.

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First and foremost, thank you to my family, friends, and Lindsey for encouraging me to take advantage of this opportunity. Your support meant the world to me, and helped me get the most out of my time in Bulgaria.

Secondly, I want to thank Valentin and Alex, my friends from FISI who entertained my nonstop questions about all things Bulgaria. Your patience and willingness to share taught me so much about politics, history, sports (Само Левски!), and culture. I value our friendship, and look forward to future meetings!

Alex, me, Valentin

Alex, me, Valentin

Thank you Iliana, Rada, and the rest of the Bulgarian Fulbright team for being there for me and my peers throughout the year. I greatly appreciate your commitment to making our time in Bulgaria as comfortable and productive as possible.

Next, I want to thank the Peyo Yavorov Foreign Languages High School Community. I felt at home at Peyo on day one, and really appreciate you welcoming me with open arms. An extra special thanks to Principal Atanasova and English teaching partners Kremena, Ani, Margarita, and Valentin. Working with each of you was an absolute pleasure, and I learned so much about how to be a better teacher. Valentin, thank you for your mentorship that extended beyond the classroom. I would have been lost in Silistra without your guidance.

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Peyo Yavorov English Department

Students of Peyo Yavorov–you are what made my time in Bulgaria so special. While I didn’t advertise this blog at school, I know several of you tracked it down, and have been following along. Your engagement both inside and outside the classroom motivated me to be a better teacher. You have such bright futures, and I can’t wait to hear about the many great things you go on to accomplish. Please continue reaching out to me from time to time to let me know how things are going!

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Some of my 8th and 9th graders on the last day of school!

Thank you to the many generous donors who helped my 10A class learn what it means to accomplish something monumental. Your commitment to the project (either financially or by helping spread the word) instilled a new sense of what’s possible in the minds of young people, which can be very powerful. I think my students say it better than I can.

A big shout out to the other Bulgarian Fulbrighters! It was a pleasure getting to know each of you over the past year. Our weekend getaways kept me sane, and I wish you the greatest of success in the future–keep in touch!

Bulgaria ETA friends

And last but not least, thank you, the readers, for your interest in and engagement with this blog. I appreciated your comments, e-mails, calls, and conversations. My goal for this blog was to help fulfill the Fulbright mission to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” My hope is that with nearly 10,000 views from 69 different countries, this blog has generated at least some interest and discussion about Bulgaria.


For those of you interested in continuing to learn about Bulgaria, I highly recommend following my successor McKinley’s blog. He is living in my same apartment teaching many of the same students, and seems to be off to a great start! Most importantly, he’s already met Krassy, which guarantees another year of entertainment!