IT'S the last place you'd expect to find a prestigious American liberal-arts college. The drab provincial town is nestled on the Macedonian border 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Sofia. The only outsiders previously seen in Blagoevgrad were party officials visiting on business and truck-drivers passing through on their way to Greece.
Now hundreds of Bulgaria's brightest students descend on the city each fall to resume their studies at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG), a two-year-old institution that is already one of the most prestigious and competitive in the country. The university continues to receive more than twice as many applications as it has places available. This year's entering class had impressive credentials: top-notch grades, English fluency, and an average combined Scholastic Aptitude Test score of 1231 - far above American averages.
``These students will be the future leaders of Bulgaria,'' says Brad Fujimoto, project manager for the United States Agency for International Development. ``They're an incredible, intelligent, top-notch group - probably the best in this country.''
The students come from across Eastern Europe, attracted by the prospect of earning a US degree and a liberal-arts education unavailable at the region's state universities. One in 10 comes from outside Bulgaria.
``If I'd entered an economics university in Albania, I would have studied only economics, says Oltiana Mara, a second-year student from Tirana. ``Here I'm really pleased because I can study something from arts, something from history, while earning my degree.''
``This liberal-arts education gives you a broad educational background and an international perspective I couldn't have gotten at a Bulgarian university,'' says Svetoslav Gatchev, a third-year business major.
``The enthusiasm of the first class was more than great,'' says Deyan Vassilev, the student president. ``We had the highest of high expectations and hoped to find a university like Harvard or Oxford here in Blagoevgrad.''
By most accounts, Bulgaria's rigid Soviet-style university system has been slow to respond to the dramatic social and economic changes since 1990. As elsewhere in the region, it continues to produce large numbers of technicians, agronomists, and engineers to work in now-bankrupt state industries and cooperative farms, according to a report by UNESCO's Bucharest-based European Center for Higher Education. Meanwhile there's a regionwide shortage of skilled labor in business management and sales, computer science, law, and journalism.
Administrators hope AUBG can help fill these gaps. ``We have no interest in competing in areas where Bulgarian universities do well,'' says Lyndell Grey, AUBG vice president. ``We're filling a hole. It's no accident that we're a liberal-arts institution concentrating in humanities, social sciences, and journalism.''
Being taught to think about issues rather than learning by rote memorization is new to most students.
``Nobody ever asked them the most important question: Why?'' says James Derleth, a political-science professor on Fulbright exchange from the University of the Pacific. ``They'll pick up a dictionary and learn 2,000 to 3,000 words for an exam, but they have analytical difficulties.... I'm here because I've no doubt these guys are going to be the future of this country.''
Those involved with the project hope that Bulgaria's state universities will incorporate elements of AUBG's teaching philosophy into their reform plans. ``It's seen as a bridge between the US and Bulgaria and a model of alternative education,'' says Ognian Pishev, Bulgaria's ambassador to Washington.
Although it previously received substantial funding from the Soros Foundation and the Bulgarian government, AUBG currently relies almost exclusively on the US Agency for International Development to meet its $4- million annual operating budget. Faced with a national budget shortfall, the Bulgarian National Assembly canceled this year's university funding. Sources say this move was made on financial, not political grounds, but acknowledge that the university is unpopular with the former Communist Party, which shares power in a precarious caretaker government.
Long-term operating funds are urgently needed to allow university administrators to concentrate on other needs. The library has only 4,000 volumes, Ms. Grey says, and an estimated $1.5 million will be required to obtain additional resources needed to support student research projects. ``It was a problem when we were on lower division, but now that our first class is entering its third year, it's a completely untenable situation,'' Grey acknowledges.
Administrators have been engaged with day-to-day problems since the university began. In a hurry to take advantage of a brief window of political opportunity, the university was founded in 1991 in only six short months. The University of Maine hires faculty and provides academic oversight, but no funding. And the City of Blagoevgrad donated the university's massive marble building in the city center, which formerly served as Communist Party headquarters. ``Starting a university from scratch is hard enough. Doing so in another country is something else,'' Fujimoto says. ``If you showed any American administrator what's been accomplished here in only two years, he'd be flabbergasted.''
But the university has shortages of everything from copying machines to clerical staff. And when it admits its fourth entering class next fall, there will have to be teachers, classrooms, and dormitory space for another 250 students. High faculty turnover is another problem: Rural Eastern Europe is a difficult place for Westerners to settle in, especially if they have families and don't speak the language. Not a few are scared of the possibility of the war in the former Yugoslavia spreading to Macedonia, only 12 miles away. Of 21 permanent faculty, only six have been here since AUBG was founded. And in two years, there have been four presidents, each with different priorities and leadership styles.
``The most willing and dedicated faculty stay,'' Mr. Vassilev says. ``I think a university without problems isn't a good university. In a way we're guinea pigs in an endeavor to bring a new kind of education here. It's a new road for us and I'm very excited to be a part of it.''