For Blagovesta Momchedjikova ('96), Hard Work Pays Off
Positive, cheerful, helpful. These are the three words I would use when talking about Blagovesta Mihaylova Momchedjikova (’96). We met on a Saturday morning and even though we were seeing each other for the first time, it felt like we had been longtime friends. She greeted me with a smile, which did not fall off her face during the one hour talk we had.
Blagovesta became the first female commencement speaker of the American University in Bulgaria when she graduated in 1996 with a major in English and a minor in Theater. The three words she used to describe AUBG were friendships, theater, and professors. She believed that she had something to say to her fellow classmates and to the people attending. “I felt very proud. When I got on the podium, there was complete silence but when I said the first sentence, everyone erupted,” Blagovesta says.
Many people reacted to her commencement speech in a positive way. Dimi Panitza, one of the founders of the university, paid for a roundtrip ticket to the United States, so she could continue her education at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York University. “It was an incredible opportunity to graduate from AUBG. It showed absolutely new horizons and broadened my thinking. The speech opened great doors,” Blagovesta says. It even got her a place to stay upon arriving in the Big Apple. “Sandy Feinstein, a professor at AUBG who I had no lectures with, had heard my speech and talked to her mother if I could stay with her. In my first few months in America, I lived with her in Upstate New York,” she says.
Blagovesta has always been interested in Contemporary American Culture and Theater. In AUBG she did an independent study in Contemporary American Poetry with Jonathan Fairbanks serving as her advisor and took every theater class available with Vivian Mason and the late Ned Bobkoff. She also owes a lot to David Durst, who was her philosophy professor at AUBG and now a good friend. Blagovesta continued studying American culture for her master’s and PhD in Performance Studies in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which she earned in 1998 and 2006, respectively. Performance Studies is dedicated to the analysis and study of cultural enactments of all kinds. Since 1998, she has been a professor of writing, art, and the city at NYU.
Blagovesta is very interested in how cities are represented on scale models and in memory. The Panorama of the City of New York in the Queens Museum, which Blagovesta has been giving public tours of since 2003, is a gigantic miniature with all five boroughs on it. She wrote her dissertation on the topic. “The tours made it easier for me to write my dissertation,” she says.
Blagovesta did not like the atmosphere of New York in the beginning, as the high buildings did not allow her to see the sky. “I was worried because it was something new and unknown,” Blagovesta says. Her parents supported her decision to move, because they knew it was an incredible opportunity, but they were also worried about her, as she is an only child. “It was hard to stay in touch because at the time it was not possible to connect as fast as today, but we managed,” she says. Blagovesta decided to stay in New York because she started feeling good there and liked the diversity in the teaching, which in Bulgaria is non-existent.
She fell in love with the city when she started going around it on her rollerblades. “When I got my pair of rollerblades and started exploring the city on them, I realized that this city was made for me. That’s how I got interested in what cities are and how they make us feel,” she says, explaining her personal as well as academic interest in everything urban. Blagovesta would often rollerblade down the East River, all the way down to the World Trade Center. She was in New York City when 9/11 happened and believes that she is lucky to be alive. She owes it to her pair of rollerblades, which she lost a week before the disaster and was not able to rollerblade down to the Towers as usual. “I had heard from someone that there were models of the city up on the observation deck, to help visitors orient themselves better, and was planning to go see them. Losing my rollerblades might have been a blessing,” Blagovesta says. She managed to call her parents in Sofia only in the afternoon. “My mother started crying when she picked up the phone because she did not know if I was alive,” she says.
Blagovesta is the chair of the Urban Culture area in the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association (MAPACA), for which she solicits presentations, arranges panels, and leads writing workshops annually. It is an academic organization dedicated to critical analysis of various aspects of popular and American culture. A dream of hers is to one day have an Urban Culture Institute, where she can curate talks, classes, writing workshops, and various events related to the city.
She is the editor of the book “Captured by the City: New Perspectives in Urban Culture Studies,” which was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2013. It is a collection of eighteen essays on urban places, people, and phenomena. The cover, a biker on a city bridge, is from her former student, Alex Q. Arbuckle. The overall design was retouched by a friend of hers — architect Burak Pekoglu. “ Finally the book looked the way I wanted it to look,” she says.
Blagovesta met her husband, Mady Cisse, a CISCO engineer, in 2003 at a bagel shop in Manhattan. They got married in 2005 and have two kids, Moussa Toni, 14, and Malick Mikayil, 13. Moussa is the Arabic name for the prophet Moses and Toni is Blagovesta’s mom’s name. Malick is the Arabic word for king and Mikayil is Blagovesta’s dad’s name. Before the kids were born, the family moved to Brooklyn, where they currently live.
For now, coming back to Bulgaria is not on the table for Blagovesta. She does not believe that there will be work that will satisfy her professionally and also does not want to be worried all the time for her kids, as they are biracial. If she could change something in her life, it would be the death of her father, who passed away last year, and her resistance to new technologies. “Online teaching is very different from in-person because you only see the faces of the students on the screen and not their body language. I think that face to face interaction is very important,” she says.
While Blagovesta is proud of many achievements in her life, she thinks that believing in yourself matters the most. “I am proud that I became known in the United States with my professional achievements and I counted on myself, not on someone else.”
This story is part of a series of alumni profiles by current students for professor Laura Kelly's Advanced Writing for Media class.