BLAGOEVGRAD, BULGARIA — THE American flag flies over a new, almost luxurious building in the town of Blagoevgrad, among the mountains of southern Bulgaria.
The building was meant to be the local Communist Party headquarters, but as the wave of democracy swept through Bulgaria in the winter of 1989-90, the Communists never moved into the building.
Instead, the flag marks the site of the American University in Bulgaria, the first American institution of higher learning in Eastern Europe.
After almost 50 years of total domination by Soviet culture and communist ideology, young Bulgarians can learn for the first time about democracy and capitalism in an atmosphere of freely flowing ideas.
"We think that the American University here is the best thing that has ever happened in Bulgaria," says Kossara Marchinkova, a member of the first freshman class.
"Before, you didn't have freedom," adds Deyan Vassilev, another freshman. "So you cried freedom. But now you have freedom here, and it turns out not to be so easy. It is the most difficult thing to have freedom."
The university was founded last September with the help of the United States and Bulgarian governments and the University of Maine. Half of those who applied were accepted - 225 students in all. University administrators were astounded by the high quality of the applicants, who scored on average 1,103 out of a possible 1,600 on the combined Scholastic Aptitude Tests. The average score among American high school students is 900.
The choice to attend the American University of Bulgaria was not accepted by all members of the students' families. Christo Grozev says that although his parents practically forced him to come here, his grandparents were hesitant.
"My grandparents are both communists," he says, "and for some time my grandfather was enthusiastic about the idea. Then he met with one of their party officials who said it was an ideological institution and it was going to indoctrinate us with American ideas. And he said, well, I shouldn't go there. So the older generation is still afraid and suspicious."
The students speak English remarkably well, and members of the American faculty say they underestimated their new students.
Robert Phillips is a young political science professor from Gaffnee, South Carolina. He says that his Bulgarian students are a lot like American freshman, but that some of them are more sophisticated in their analysis.
"They are able to challenge you because they have this educational background. They are able to challenge you in different ways which American students just are unable to do."
His colleague, economics professor Baldwin Ranson from Western State College in Colorado, is teaching the Bulgarians traditional economics and capitalism.
"We were afraid at first that we couldn't communicate easily, and secondly that they might not understand complex ideas. That's no problem at all," he says.
"We're finding in economics that we must speed up what we do to get to their level of understanding."
Says Mr. Vassilev: "What I see in this education for the first time is the diversity, the pluralism of ideas. I never studied a science before which would give me contradicting views of the matter which would make me think and doubt."
The students say they are no longer interested in ideologies and try to move away from them and set up their lives in the most broad-minded fashion possible.
"I'm firmly convinced there are many resources in Bulgaria, especially human," Professor Ranson says. "And if they can be put on the right path, I think they can make this country bloom."