I’ll be completely honest: because I found the possibility of Erasmus exchange at the American University of Bulgaria (AUBG). This is an American university that offers programs accredited both in the USA and Bulgaria, which was enough for me to be interested in this possibility. After visiting the university's website, the information obtained, the additional “photo review”, careful check of the curriculum (it seemed promising both from the professional and cultural point of view) and cost calculation, the decision was quickly made… Bulgaria it is.
The first step is always the hardest
Already a day after the application was sent, I received confirmation and a friendly message. The coordinator of the programme offered assistance with accommodation, transport to and from the airport, as well as two trips. I was also pleasantly surprised by the message that they will wait for me in front of my accommodation in the morning of my first day and take me to the university. I felt welcome even before I came there. Two days before arrival, I was informed that I would share a taxi from the airport to Blagoevgrad (almost 2-hour drive from Sofia – depending on the vehicle's performance) with a Czech and Italian girl. Great! So even before coming to the town, I'll meet two people who will be “in the same shoes” as me. I could not wish for better company: Iveta, younger than me, and Germana, a bit older than me, both communicative, nice and immediately ready to explore the town.
Life is a journey of uncertainty
Blagoevgrad is a safe town. As always on trips, however, better safe than sorry. The standard of living outside the capital is significantly lower. You could also say that I felt like entering the time machine at times. Some participants with less travel experience thus experienced a small cultural shock: children begging for food and at the same time their arrogance and giggling over surprised looks hurt even the toughest ones. The Italian girl admitted in the morning: “I’ve checked the flights home.”
The morning is wiser than the evening
As agreed, the university representative welcomed us, as most Erasmus students stay in the oldest part of the town in the same hotel – more than 40 of them from 15 countries. The university is about a 15-minute walk away along the river or through the town centre. The university president Dr Steven Sullivan welcomed us in the wonderful environment of the new university campus (the stay is provided for students). This was followed by the presentation of the institution, the participants getting to know each other and the food festival. All participants were asked to bring typical food and drink from their homeland. Especially the representatives of the Baltic states stood out and the atmosphere became even more relaxed. The first conversations started and the first bonds developed. A tour of the rest of the completely different and beautifully furnished university premises followed.
A cultural programme was organized in the evening – an international get-together of choirs was held at the same time. An interesting feature of the faculty is that everything takes place in English: all lectures, all administration, and also all events. The latter are translated into Bulgarian. The accounting too is all bilingual and in two currencies: the Bulgarian lev and the US dollars (due to donors). As many as 50% of students come from abroad, it is therefore indeed an international environment and has no comparison in Europe except Great Britain. This event was also translated into Russian for the Russian guests.
Strike while the iron is hot
The second day was followed by an in-depth acquaintance with the faculty curriculum, opportunities for Erasmus exchanges and a presentation of the participants' home universities and their wish to participate. We had a lot of laughs as the universities competed for the “heart of Europe” title. We have certainly listed at least ten of them. I was also pleasantly surprised by the green initiative – the participants planted a tree as a reminder of our exchange of experience.
This was followed by an intensive workshop of Bulgarian language and culture, which caused fewer problems for Slavic students than others. We have learned the basics and the daily useful phrases and sang (more or less successfully). In the evening, the introduction of Bulgarian cuisine followed.
During the following days, we met with students studying at AUBG on student exchange as well as with those who were on exchange abroad. They shared their experiences, compared education systems and presented their views on the different Erasmus exchange options.
Not a long day, but a good heart rids work
Especially interesting was my visit to the career centre led by Mr Ivaylo Aksharov. We exchanged examples of good practice in our environments, compared challenges, thought about possible solutions and transferred the acquired knowledge into our domestic environments. Mr. Aksharov presented the ways of cooperation with employers, the operation of the career centre on social networks, his impressions from the just finished university’s job fair and the activities planned in the future. Students at AUBG are involved in various clubs and the career centre is also involved in this context. They are also involved in the alumni clubs with the meetings organized also abroad due to the large number of students going into the world. The career centre has its own library and corners for creative writing, showing the university’s out-of-the-box mindset.
A man is not a flower to be sniffed and to know what he is like
The Erasmus exchange is also intended for getting to know the people and the country. We went for a visit to the village where we helped make lunch, made a red and white martenitsa bracelet for good luck and good health, and danced a kolo dance in traditional clothes. We explored in detail one of the symbols of Bulgaria – the Rila monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We of course also explored the town of Blagoevgrad and its walking paths in the surrounding area. Higher temperatures, green colour and the sun inspired even those who initially had some difficulty adapting to a different culture.
One day of exchange was devoted to sharing experience about connecting the school to the surrounding area and the associated challenges. Most foreign universities provide summer programmes for secondary school students. AUBG is intensively looking for young students (anyone tempted as I was?) who would be willing to take part in the implementation of the summer programmes. Their most popular is the 14-day sports summer camp. The goal is to offer programmes to the society that are useful and represent the university to a wider region.
Words without actions are zithers without strings
Since I like to travel, I was quite sad upon departure. But when I landed at the Brnik airport in Slovenia, I was already thinking about what this short experience abroad gave me. A wave of new ideas, new international connections and the direction of work in the future. I could hardly wait to share my impressions with everyone who would be willing to listen to me. Well… or read my lines.
My Erasmus+ in numbers
841km of air distance from Kranj to Blagoevgrad
44+ participants from 15 countries: Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, Slovenia and our hosts from Bulgaria
98,829 steps in 6 days