Capital on AUBG: The Blagoevgrad Oxford
AUBG takes a central place in leading newspaper Capital's special regional edition about Blagoevgrad. Read author Martin Dimitrov's intriguing story on AUBG's 'magical start', its relationship with the city and how the university compares to Oxford.
The article has been translated from Bulgarian by Mirela Harizanova, AUBG student and intern at the university's Office of Communications and Marketing.
Observe the highways of a certain area and you will find out everything about it. If trucks are moving - the industry is evolving, if it’s empty, that means that the people are gone. The billboards around will also tell you stories about the place. Like for example that of the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG). The slogan Blagoevgrad - Home of American University in Bulgaria appears frequently on the road from Sofia to Blagoevgrad and synthesizes in a single sentence the new history of the city, made famous mainly by the location of the most prestigious and highly - ranked (by all national rankings) school in the country.
It’s hard to say that the South District Center is developing thanks to AUBG, but the college is definitely the cornerstone in keeping it afloat. The young people from both universities (AUBG and Southwestern) are literally bringing life back to the place. Blagoevgrad benefits not only from the fact that they shop, rent houses and are thirsty for culture and fun. It also wins good reputation - both nationally and internationally.
The Spirit of America
It would not be an act of boastfulness to say that AUBG is the most successful foreign project in Blagoevgrad, and among the best in Bulgaria.
Today, the locals and over 800 students can walk freely around the highly - maintained campus that meets all American standards, but its success and even its very survival were far from being a given through the various stages of its 28-year-old history. Created under the lucky star of a series of unlikely coincidences and a lot, just a lot of work in 1991, AUBG survived the turbulent decade of the 90s and has been growing stronger since the beginning of the new century. "We are survivors," summarizes Robert (Bobby) Phillips, Professor in Political Science and part of the university since its founding. And not only is it surviving – it’s becoming a leader in Bulgaria in almost every major that it offers.
The American University, which operates in accordance with the US traditional teaching system liberal arts*, certainly gives Blagoevgrad a lot – hundreds of highly educated Bulgarian and foreign young people come to study here every year, and not only do they invest their money in the city, but they also enrich it through initiatives that they organize. On the other hand, they usually come and go after their four-year of study, with the number of the remaining permanent settlers in the city being negligible.
The reason for this is that in Blagoevgrad and the region they simply cannot offer a suitable job for highly qualified students preparing for international careers, high pay and jobs in sectors such as IT, finance and management.
A Magical Start
Reading the draft for the story for the first year of AUBG's creation, which Bobby Phillips shared with Capital, one is left with raised eyebrows not once or twice. Even the Professor himself, who has talked to most of the still - living main characters that have participated in the creation of the university, does not understand exactly how the complex combination of events that culminated with AUBG happened.
What he certainly understood is that within about a year, between the fall of 1990 and the following September of 1991, the actions of several dozen people miraculously created one of the first American universities on the other side of the already fallen iron curtain. According to Phillips’ study, some of AUBG's "ideologues" include the then-press secretary of the US Embassy in Sofia John Menzies, and the first director of the Open Society Foundation Georgi Prohasky. They attract a number of popular Bulgarian "non-returnees", like the dep. editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest Dimi Panitza and the publicist Stefan Gruev, who stand behind the initiative. The connection to the U.S. is established by the last U.S. ambassador before the changes Sol Polanski. However, one of the key names that has surfaced several times, is that of Eliana Maseva, then leader of the interim executive committee of Blagoevgrad, who a bit later would become the city's first democratically elected mayor after the changes. Her the role key - she convinces the leaders of the still unreformed BCP (Bulgarian Communist Party) that a potential US university will not turn the city into a hive of American spies but will be helpful instead. Thus, the future institution acquires the building of the former party house in the heart of the city, and with the help of the U.S. Embassy and philanthropist-financier George Soros AUBG receives the funding it needs to get started for its first year.
Blagoevgrad in the Ivy League
Then the University of Maine intervened, which attracted some of the first exchange students from Bulgaria, and at the invitation of Menzies the university became involved in the physical creation of the university and in accrediting its programs in the first years of its existence. They’ve sent a large team of administrators and teachers to lay down AUBG’s foundations - literally. They’ve entered the house of the party house and cleansed it, repaired it, conducted SAT and TOEFEL exams within a span of a few weeks, in order to select the first generation of students ... All of this happens during the stormy summer of 1991, while in Sofia the political environment is volatile, and the project is left hanging by a thread on several occasions because of the conflicts during the negotiations for a new constitution.
But while all this is happening, several enthusiastic Americans find themselves in the middle of the early post-socialist Blagoevgrad and wonder what has happened to them. "The city was so poor, the infrastructure was crumbling, there were packs of dogs and every time you’d go out, you’d be risking your life. There weren't many stores, "says David Flanagan, a former chairman and board member of AUBG. As he sits in the comfortable new campus, he recalls the very different situation in the party house, which was just about to be turned into a learning institution. "Because electricity did not cost anything under socialism, every room had so many lamps that it would eventually become hot and unbearable. Before, if you had a working toilet, you were in luck! It was an attractive a monumental building, but not comfortable to teach in, "says the American.
In contrast to the shocking poverty in the city, the first to-be students Flanagan met impress him to this day. "The first graduates were so intelligent! It was their first opportunity to come out of the limits of communism and they caught it. The results of their SAT exams, which they took with almost no preparation and in a foreign language, were higher than candidates for the Ivy League. They were pioneers, " he says.
All 25 graduating classes have passed before the eyes of Bobby Phillips - from the first one, in which there are about 270 people – all of them Bulgarians, with the exception of one Norwegian, up to the last one, which graduated in the summer of 2019, studying 197 bachelor's and 21 master's degrees from 17 countries; and Bulgarians are now just over half. And behind the numbers stand true stories of changed life trajectories, says the political scientist. "A young man from provincial Romania, who now works on Wall Street. A Sofian who now works in the finance sector in Boston. A young woman from Romania, who’s currently in the UN Secretariat. Many people in the structures in Brussels. Ex-ministers, " lists Phillips as part of the alumni he is proud of. "Being such a small university without having the resources of Harvard, but leaving such a big mark, is an achievement," he adds. "I'm very proud of the way this has unfolded. When we started, it was a simple experiment of idealistic people like Panitza and Polanski and who would have guessed what would have happened. It's good that one thing in my life has gone so well," David Flanagan concludes with a smile.
Strong Bonds at University and Beyond
The AUBG concept of education and the successes behind it are not only a result of the teaching of a wide range of subjects, but of the overall lifestyle of students during the years of their studies as well. Irena Macheva, Director of Development at AUBG, who is responsible for alumni community relations and fundraising, says living together on campus is of great importance for the formation of a sense of community among the students. "They grow up as a family, which is very unusual for Bulgaria. But the most typical thing for this community is that through the academic and the extra-curricular time they spend together, they acquire a very similar mentality and a way of thinking. That's why the relationships between them are very strong, "she says.
Her role is to engage university graduates after the end of their studies. That means both attracting them as donors - something typical for an Anglo-Saxon system - and as participants in the life of the university.
In the first aspect - fundraising - the university is gaining momentum as the graduates enter the "golden years" of their careers. The ambitious goal that the alumni association has set for itself in the next decade is to raise $5 million. Donors not only pour money, they can determine exactly what they should go for.
"Most tend to donate to scholarships, because they empathize with the students and know how much easier their situation can become, giving them the opportunity to focus on studying and engaging in extracurricular activities, without having to worry about looking for a summer job, "says Macheva, adding that any donor can arrange a scholarship to their own name, which bears prestige. The fact that students get financial benefits from the graduates, according to Macheva, creates a moral obligation in the younger ones to help the next generations. According to her, on average about 25% of the university's total revenue comes from donations.
Beyond the financial aid, former university graduates are expected to remain actively involved in campus life. Successful alumni give open lectures, participate in the social and academic life of the university, and recently they’ve started assisting students with starting their first business. Just a few weeks ago, AUBG announced that their alumnus and one of the partners in the venture fund Eleven Daniel Tomov will launch the first of its kind entrepreneurship training program, called Elevate AUBG Accelerator Program. Elevate will also help the university, which will receive a 5% share of each company created through the program.
According to Bobby Phillips, the program is a rare chance to strengthen students' connection with the city. "If we can create more startups, they will be connected to Blagoevgrad. And we are just about to create real synergy with the city," he says. This is also the plan of President David Evans, who wants to strengthen the university's role among the local community. "I want students to do more community service - from simple things like painting graffiti and cleaning the riverbed, to more significant ones, like internships at the local administration and fundraising for causes in the city, he says and sums it up: "The idea is: part of your duty as a citizen is to help improve the environment around you. "
A Temporary Home for Students
There are however some objective restrictions on the development of links between the city and the university. One of the main ones stems from the specificity of the liberal arts education, which fully fills the students’ life. "Because our work is very intense, we focus mainly within ourselves and are not always as connected to the community as we can be," says Bobby Phillips.
The most serious factor however is different - graduates simply cannot stay to live and work in the city because of the limited labor market opportunities. According to Macheva and Evans the only way to change this is for Blagoevgrad to attract at least one big business with an international outlet that needs highly skilled managerial staff, the kind that AUBG produces. At the moment, the only place where graduates can realistically work in the city is at the university itself. "That’s the sad part - there really aren't many opportunities for realization here, businesses are closed, and people - if they are like me and want to stay in Bulgaria - go to Sofia, and many also abroad," says student Kristina Kukoleva. She says she hopes people with their capabilities would someday create conditions that will make more young people stay in the city.
In the Rhythm of the Small Town
Living in a small town is both a curse and a blessing for AUBG. On the one hand, students can focus more on learning because of the lack of distracting factors. The peace and quiet, as well as the short distances are what’s most enjoyed by the students that Capital talked with. "Cozy" is the word used by the sophomore Mirela Harizanova to describe the city. "I like that everything is relatively close. I'm from Sofia, and traveling, especially during rush hour, was a bit too much for me. And here I can go as far as I need to without using a car or public transportation, which is what I like," she says. She adds that the cleaner air, warmer weather and the access to a theater, a cinema, and mountains make the city ideal for most students. At the same time Blagoevgrad is not too far from Sofia and from the airport. "I’ve lived three hours away from the nearest local airport, while now I'm only at an hour and a half from the largest Bulgarian airport," says David Evans.
On the other hand, the small town comes with its downsides. Bobby Phillips thinks that the university is a little far from the political and economic life in the country, which comes with its consequences - less networking opportunities with the big companies, where AUBG already has connections. To some extent, the lack of presence in Sofia is offset by the MBA program taught at AUBG in the capital, as well and the university's joint master's program with SDA Bocconi in finance, banking and real estate. "It would be far easier to attract more foreign students if we were in Sofia," Evans says. The fact that the university is a liberal arts type, limits the ability to attract professors who are engaged in research. "I can't imagine being a hub for PhD students, but we are the perfect place for people who just want to be good teachers," Evans summarizes.
He wishes for more collaboration with the municipality in the coming years, as well involvement of stakeholders, including AUBG, in the planning of the development of the city. But he's optimistic - like everyone else around - about its future. "There were so many things that could have gone wrong, but look here - we're still here," says Bobby Phillips and gives an example with the expulsion of another famous American college in Eastern Europe – the Central European University - from Budapest. "No one expected the little university in Blagoevgrad to survive. But we did," he concludes. All that remains is for Blagoevgrad to figure out exactly how to tap into the potential of its jewel better.
* The approach can be described as a combination of teaching a wide range of exact and social sciences, with specialization happening at a later stage of the study. Most often students live on campus and the intensive studying is combined with the expectation of their active involvement in the social life on campus, including in sports or interest clubs.
Achievements by the Dozen
According to the latest edition of the Bulgarian University Rankings, the American University is ranked first in 4 out of 5 available majors – business administration, economics, political science, journalism and mass communications; the computer science major is second in its category. Thanks to the liberal arts education system, 63% complete their higher education with two majors, and what’s more - they receive two diplomas – an American one and a Bulgarian one. Academic achievements also have material dimensions - unemployment among graduates is virtually non-existent, and the realization in the labor market is impressive. According to a 2016 internal representative study of the university among its graduates from the last 20 years, more than 50% of alumni earn salaries of over $40,000 a year, and 20% - over $100,000 a year. Among those living in Bulgaria, the percentage of people receiving more than $30,000 a year is 65%. About half of the graduates stay in Bulgaria, and about 1/8 leave to the USA to either specialize or work. One of the main elements of this type education is the highly developed extracurricular activities. AUBG has 37 clubs in which students are very active. Among them is the TedX club, which organizes the motivational speech conference of the same name, as well as the business and IT clubs, whose main activities include the organization of thematic conferences and competitions. The university also has a student government which is involved in negotiating important decisions, such as the distribution of the annual budget for the clubs.
At AUBG, sports are also important. The educational institution is known for its Olympics, which includes different disciplines - swimming, athletics, basketball, soccer and volleyball, tug of war, and more.