Bulgarians get a taste of US-style college

Young school supports student exploration, initiative

Seated behind the same desk in the same modest office where a senior apparatchik once sat, Julia Watkins marvels that this former Communist Party headquarters ever became home to her fledgling American University in Bulgaria.

Moments for reflection on such odd historic juxtapositions are few. Instead, the president of the first American-style liberal-arts institution in post-communist eastern Europe is usually swamped with curriculum, classes - and the crisis du jour.

A Maine native and former dean at the University of Maine, Dr. Watkins daily girds for battle with the small and large crises that accompany deployment of a new concept in higher education in an emerging democracy - one next door to a war zone.

"You're going into the office each day, and thinking: 'What's going to happen today?' " she says on recent visit to Boston. "We want to keep focused on building this educational institution and delivering high-quality programs."

What draws students from across Europe to AUBG is not amenities - but a top-notch American-style education, with an emphasis on business.

All teaching at the school is in English, by a mostly American faculty of more than 60 professors. Teaching is stressed instead of research. And, instead of being locked early into an academic-career track, exploration by students among several majors is expected. It is a stark contrast to the standard large-lecture-hall approach to higher ed in Europe.

Watkins keeps things running by dealing with one crisis at a time. She recalls, for instance, the hyperinflation of 1997, when the AUBG was just five years old and inflation was 300 to 500 percent. At that time university staff was paid weekly. Many would go onto the balcony with their cash bundle - a week's pay - and throw it to family members who ran to purchase food before the currency inflated again, she recalls.

"It makes it difficult to run a university and not know how you're going to purchase food," she says. "We were managing to feed the students but wondering what further creative responses we were going to need to fill those larders."

Fortunately, inflation was soon brought under control with a new national currency board. But it wasn't too long before another crisis arrived: This spring, NATO began bombing in Kosovo - about 90 miles from the university.

Classes kept right on going. But the school responded with phone cards for Kosovar students to stay in touch with their families. A "Kosovo Forum" was organized in dorms so Serb, Kosovar Albanians, and other students could discuss the situation. And when it looked as if parents might not be able to attend their children's graduation, university staff used diplomatic channels to get them across the border from war-torn areas.

Such efforts are not lost on students here, many of whom have sampled and rejected state-funded universities and their much cheaper tuition - compared with about $11,000 for tuition, room, and board at AUBG.

Blendi Kajsiu, a senior from Albania, heard about the school from friends. After one year at a university in Tirana, he won a scholarship, transferred, and hasn't looked back. "You definitely get to explore yourself more," Mr. Kajsiu says of the school's liberal arts approach. It's actually more than a university, AUBG is more like a community."

Within a year after communism crumbled, a handful of dreamers began to share their vision of a Western-style university as an intellectual "window to the West" for Bulgaria. Zhelyu Zhelev, the first post-Communist president of Bulgaria was a believer. So was John Menzies, then head of the United State Agency for International Development in Bulgaria. International financier George Soros sponsored a feasibility study. The University of Maine loaned its accreditation.

With a $15 million grant from USAID and student scholarships by Mr. Soros, the school got under way in September 1991 with 208 Bulgarian students and 16 faculty members. Today it has 657 students from 22 countries, three-quarters from Bulgaria, a half dozen from the US. It is also selective, admitting 43 percent of 680 students who applied. The average SAT score is 1300.

Today the university has 90,000 books in the region's largest English-language library. It has satellite and Internet links. And it has a graduation day - an alien notion in former East bloc countries. Typically, graduates pick their certificates up at an administrative office.

Despite its assets, the biggest challenges the university faces are money - and the unstable Balkans. Only about 40 percent of revenue comes from tuition - since most students are on scholarships - compared with about 60 percent average in US institutions, Watkins says. "It's been a challenge raising funds due to the political situation," she says.

Still, she says, it's easily the most interesting job she's ever had. "The challenge is interpreting and selling an institution that you believe in and you can see is making a difference."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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