Amanda served as LIFE’s student administrative assistant from 2015 to 2017. She received a Fulbright scholarship after graduating from UCF in 2017. She was selected for assignment to Bulgaria and agreed to send back periodic emails to LIFE about her experiences there. Her online blog about her Bulgarian experiences can be found by clicking here.
Below are her informative emails.
March 27, 2018
Здравейте от България
(Hello from Bulgaria!)
Dear LIFE friends,
The time has absolutely flown. It was my intention to write a page for the LIFE TIMES much sooner, but somehow it is already April! There’s no way I can fit all of my recent thoughts and adventures into this space, but I’ll do my best to share the highlights. Buckle up!
I have called Vidin, Bulgaria home for the past seven months, a small city in the northwest region of the country. My primary task here, teaching speaking-focused classes in English, finds me inside a high school classroom every Monday through Thursday. Each day I am met with the challenges of quelling rowdiness and relating to teenage students in a language that isn’t their first, along with the joys of sharing thoughts and laughs with bright, blooming, completely unique young minds. I try to make my lessons engaging and fun, but every hour is a different mix of successes and failures, as can be expected.
Many aspects of everyday life here are difficult and unfamiliar to me; morale is overall low, and people are generally perceived as rude or pessimistic in this region of the country. However, at the end of the day, I nearly always find friendship and welcome enough to make me happy where I am—and I have my students, fellow teachers, and various helpful people throughout the community to thank for this feeling. They rarely believe me when I say that I am glad I came here, but they also don’t realize the great impact that they all have on me.
On my weekends and various school breaks, I have been able to do tons of traveling. So far I have visited eight different countries, and will be gallivanting through two more on my Spring Break by the time you read this article. Being located in Eastern Europe is a prime chance for such adventure—and comically enough, because of Bulgaria’s mountainous geography and lack of transportation infrastructure, it usually takes me many hours longer just to get by bus to the nearest airport than to fly to a completely different country!
One of my favorite excursions thus far was a visit to Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine. I was floored by the precise way in which everything there is preserved just as it was when the city was evacuated, and the entire scene felt like an eerie movie. Only tour groups and government workers are allowed within the tightly controlled exclusion zone, and there was so much to learn about the (still leaking) reactor and the events surrounding the explosion. I’m sure you can imagine that returning to school to teach the next week was more than a little bit tough.
Outside of classes and traveling, various things keep me busy. Along with the other American Fulbright teacher in my city, I volunteer at Organisation DROM, and NGO based here that works to combat discrimination and promote equality of the Roma minority in Bulgaria. Our work with them involves research on grants and integration strategies, writing occasional articles for their website, and giving weekly English lessons to the adult staff. Due to communication barriers, our start there was a bit rocky, but we are now in a good routine that finds us comfortable, well-utilized, and always learning. Additionally, I teach Spanish lessons to a small group of students after school once per week, which simply evolved out of a shared interest and love for the language. They are extremely curious and motivated, and I am delighted to have a way to keep my own skills sharp in the language that I studied heavily during college but haven’t used very much since. It is a win-win situation, and I have so much fun with them. I also host Conversation Groups every Thursday, where I gather with students at a café to just relax and talk in English. I love these interactions with them, and it certainly doesn’t feel like work.
There is so much more that I could share about my time in Bulgaria. This is a country with fascinating history, beautiful natural features, tasty cuisine, and a unique language (which I am still learning very slowly). Without discounting the struggles of living day-to-day in such a different culture, I can emphatically report that this Fulbright experience has affected my life in a positive way, and there is yet more ahead. I will return to the United States in either late June or early July, and until then, I promise to keep enjoying myself.
A final, special tidbit that I wish to share: I prepared a lesson on Lifelong Learning for my classes a couple of weeks ago, where my students learned about the idea of continued education and some of its benefits. Of course we talked all about the LIFE program, and I was so pleased by their positive reactions. They were thrilled to see the website and find out what you all are learning and doing, and many of them wrote their own notes for you which are on their way to Vonnie in the mail! I hope they arrive before your classes end for the year, so that you can see what these kids have to say. They will make great lifelong learners in the future!
I think of you all very often, and it seems like only yesterday that we were in the Pegasus Ballroom together every Tuesday morning. Thank you for keeping up with my adventures— keep living, learning, and having fun!
St. Michael’s Monastery, Kiev Chernobyl Supermarket Chernobyl School
Krakow, Poland Madrid, Spain My School
Sharon, my adopted cat_ best friend
October 2, 2017 at 2:27:25 PM
I will share some perspectives I have gained on the country throughout the past month or so.
Firstly, there is definitely a detectable attitude of negativity observable in the Bulgarian people as a whole. As the poorest country in the entire European Union, Bulgaria’s so-called “transition” from socialist rule to a democratic and capitalist system has been going on for more than 25 years, and problems such as high unemployment and political corruption are persistent with no end in sight. This is all reflected in a high rate of population decline, as people seek better jobs and higher standards of living abroad wherever they can.
Because 1989 was not so long ago, many of the folks with whom I interact are able to recount their own personal stories of life under communist rule, its sudden end, and how things are different now. I think it is really neat to be able to hear this firsthand.
It seems largely true that the older, retired generation displays a reverence and nostalgia for the socialist regime, because everybody was employed, the cities were well kept-up, and society seemed to be working. Now, infrastructure is weaker throughout the municipalities, and in my city alone, there are dozens of abandoned factories that testify to hundreds of jobs that no longer exist.
The generation below these pensioners— to which many of the teachers belong— seems to have a more mixed perspective; they recognize the positive aspects of socialism, but are also very aware of its ills. Most want their children to learn English, go abroad, and live a better life than what Bulgaria can offer them— which does present a paradox, because their children may be the generation that can change the way things are, if only they decide to stay.
However, as I understand this situation more and more, I feel like I better understand my role as an English teacher at the high school. Talking with the students about their plans and hopes for the future, I’ve yet to hear a single one say that they hope to stay in Bulgaria, and if I were in their situation, I know I would feel the same way. So I am focusing my energy on getting to know them better, coming up with creative ways to teach them conversational English, and supporting them as much as I can both inside and outside the classroom. Some of my classes make that mission easy by participating and working hard, while others are rowdy far more difficult to handle in class. However, it’s high school, so of course it will be a mixed bag. Every day is a new adventure!
I teach 16 classes in total, ranging from 8th to 11th grade. My class is focused on speaking and conversation, and is a supplement to their formal English classes, which focus on grammar, writing, etc. in accordance with government standards. I try to make my classes fun, and despite incendiary challenges, I really am enjoying the task so far.
As a final note, my personal experience with the people here has revealed a welcoming and generous spirit which, I believe, is just as much a hallmark of the Bulgarian personality as the pessimism which I mentioned earlier. The teachers at my school have welcomed me with open arms, and even the non-English speakers among them are constantly showing me gestures of kindness and support. Meanwhile, I am trying to (slowly) learn more of the Bulgarian language so that I can communicate better around town. Right now I only know “survival” phrases, and I can manage very simple interactions at the grocery store or on the street. I will keep you updated as that progresses 🙂 And the food is AMAZING. Some of my favourite staples are cirene (a white Bulgarian cheese), banitza (flaky bread, also with cheese), and their sour yoghurt which contains a specific bacteria (bacillus bulgaricus) that is only found in this country. I am having a blast trying the cuisine… wish I could send some home!
Please give all my best to everyone at LIFE! I think of you all, often and fondly. I am also attaching some pictures of my town, my school, and a trip I took to Belogradchik last weekend (a natural rock formation dating back 230 million years). There is a lot of natural beauty here!
Tue, Sep 12, 2017 at 6:29 AM
Hello from Vidin, Bulgaria!
I write to you from a place of beautiful weather, and I am so sorry to hear of all the destruction that Irma brought to Florida. I hope your home and neighborhood are not too much the worse for wear, and that everyone you know is safe.
I will be in touch with Alli at some point so that she can share a blurb in the newsletter, but I wanted to take the opportunity to say hi to you! I sure miss spending my Tuesdays with LIFE, and I hope this school year is off to a great start despite weather-related interruptions. My mom sure loves being a part of the program, and she has raved about it so far.
Although it’s early on, so far my time in Bulgaria is proving to be great experience. We finished a very extensive 2-week orientation in Sofia, and have now all spread out to our various cities. I am up in the northwest of the country, sitting right on the Danube River. It is the poorest region of Bulgaria, and much more small/ run-down than the capital and the more metropolitan areas, but I am adjusting to the style of living here and settling into my very traditional communist-era apartment. The school year officially starts next week, so I am dividing my time between exploring my surroundings, planning some lessons, and trying to learn a bit more of the Bulgarian language 🙂