Discovering Bulgaria

Brenda Tooley, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Director of the Grants Program, Monmouth College, Monmouth, IL 61462

I spent the spring of 2010 at the University of Veliko Tarnovo as a Senior Fulbright Scholar. The first time I had visited Bulgaria was only the year before, in 2009, when I attended the two-week Fulbright International Summer Institute in Tryavna. I choose Bulgaria as my Fulbright destination on the advice of a friend and colleague at Cornell College, who is from Bulgaria. Her advice reminded me of much earlier conversations about Bulgarian history and music with an old friend (and renowned composer) at Colorado College, whose mother had emigrated from Bulgaria to Israel before he was born. So! I admire and respect both of these people, and when the first said, “You should think of Bulgaria for your Fulbright – it a beautiful and fascinating place,” I said to myself, “yes.”

I am immensely grateful to my Cornell friend for her recommendation. My visit to Bulgaria was an amazing experience and one I hope to repeat. I loved working with the students in the Department of English and American Studies and becoming acquainted with faculty colleagues, and I was delighted with the city of Veliko Tarnovo. The Fulbright Scholarship opened (and continues to open) doors to new friendships, professional collaborations, and institutional partnerships.


As Bulgarian readers will know well (but American readers may not), Veliko Tarnovo is a beautiful, historically significant city located on steep hills rising from the winding Yantra River in a region of mountains, waterfalls, small villages and towns. It is the major urban center in the region. The small villages – especially Arbanasi – that cluster near Veliko Tarnovo are lovely places to explore. Samovodska, the old artisans' quarter, Asenova, the medieval quarter, and Gurko Street, the Bulgarian Renaissance main street just above the river are not to be missed. First-time visitors should definitely try to catch the light and sound show at Tsarevets, the reconstructed fortress, home of the tsars of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Of course, as a result of living and working in Veliko Tarnovo from mid-February through early June (through heavy snow, pounding downpours of rain and hail, and much golden sunshine), I discovered a variety of shops, restaurants, quiet walks and beautiful neighborhoods (and an English-language used book store, the Book Cave) off the tourist track. Best of all was wandering along Gurko up to the main street and commercial district and back to the hostel in the late afternoon sunlight. And, of course, I ate quite a few excellent meals at Shastlivitse (please forgive my spelling!) – The Lucky One, named after Aleko Konstantinov, the author of To Chicago and Back.

My Fulbright research centered upon the perceptions of advanced graduate students and new faculty instructors in humanities departments regarding their introduction to academia as a profession. I was (and continue to be) particularly interested in new-faculty mentoring and orientation, the participation of younger faculty in university governance and strategic planning, and self-perceptions of the actual and ideal balance between teaching and research. This research project continues. So, for example, I spoke briefly about this research to the Monmouth, Illinois Rotary Club in December and will present my findings to colleagues at an International Luncheon at Monmouth College in March.

The single best thing I did (and it was absolute luck that led me to their door) was select Hostel Mostel as my residence: it was a delight to get to know the family who owns and runs the hostel as well as the young Bulgarian assistant managers. Living at the hostel was fun and informative (I doubt I would otherwise have encountered boza or spent three days in Vidin, staying almost upon the beautiful Danube, or scrambled around on the rocks of Belogradchik). It was pleasant to meet hostel guests as they came and went; it was amazingly rewarding to become an unofficial, honorary member of the staff - helping to welcome night-time arrivals, cooking evening meals on occasion, doing the introductory walk-through of the hostel, even leading a walking tour of the town once or twice! If I had chosen to live in an apartment, the consequent isolation would have resulted in a very different experience. And the hostel is in a fantastic location: just above the Yantra River, below Tsarevets (the fortress), at the foot of the university on the other side of the river. I walked up every teaching day through the old Turkish quarter (up and up and up - one must be prepared for stairs and steep climbs in Veliko Tarnovo). City center was only twenty minutes away; the main street that winds through the city above the Yantra was only five minutes (a steep walk up) from the hostel. Sitting with other hostel guests in chilly, early March, watching a full moon rise over the statue of the saint at the University – magical. My only regret is that because I was not based in Sofia I could not participate in many of the excursions and cultural events the excellent and endlessly supportive Fulbright Commission arranged for us.

I returned to Bulgaria in August to participate in the 9th International Fulbright Conference, “Education for the New Age: Tradition, Reform, Innovation” in Bansko, making two presentations, one on my Fulbright research and the other with Professor Kostova on our experience in co-teaching a lecture/seminar course.

In November I was in Bulgaria again, this time to carry forward the exchange agreement with the University of Veliko Tarnovo and to speak with foundation officers and university colleagues in Sofia and Blagoevgrad. This resulted – to my very great delight and gratitude – in a connection with the Friends of Chicago Foundation. And this in turn has resulted in a growing, mutually beneficial partnership. A group of students and faculty from Monmouth College are now planning to visit Bulgaria in June 2011, to participate in the first Chicago Festival in Sofia, an event sponsored and administered by the Foundation. In addition, the College looks forward to hosting Professor Yordan Kosturkov, of Plovdiv University, this coming academic year, for a stay of several weeks. He will be the first of an series of visiting scholars, writers and artists from Bulgaria; this, too, occurs with the support of the Friends of Chicago Foundation.

The results of my time in Bulgaria are still unfolding. Monmouth College and the University of Veliko Tarnovo now have an exchange agreement in place whereby annually a student from the Department of English and American Studies will be selected to study for an academic year at Monmouth. Even before the agreement was formally in place, Monmouth College decided to move forward – consequently, our first student, a delightful young woman who is thriving in her classes and impressing her professors, is here right now. She has had a pleasant and productive fall semester; her spring semester is now underway. She has also recently become Vice President of the International Club at Monmouth College. In addition, Monmouth College will now host, each year, an undergraduate Bulgarian student selected by the prestigious and highly competitive Young Bulgarian Leaders Program (through the Institute for International Education [IIE], the organization that administers the student Fulbright Program). To our great good fortune, the College may have at least two Bulgarian students on campus each academic year from now on.

On a final, personal note: My husband and I hosted over the winter break both the Monmouth College exchange student and a friend of hers who is presently on the Young Bulgarian Leaders Program at a university in Pennsylvania (both students are from the English and American Studies Department at the University of Veliko Tarnovo; I taught both of them in the spring). The winter break was an absolute delight! One of the things we most deeply enjoyed was taking the young women up to Chicago before Christmas to see the lights, walk along Michigan Avenue and State Street (and do a bit of shopping at Macy’s), ride the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier (in the dark, which meant that the lights of the city were absolutely stunning), and on the second day visit a Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church and then a Bulgarian market in Schiller Park, a western suburb of Chicago.

Living in Bulgaria has changed me, and changed the way I live out my ‘American experience’ – I now seek out music, books and places with Bulgarian connections, and I look actively for opportunities for interaction with Bulgarian culture in America. I subscribe to Novinite and Sofia Echo, and I am in regular email contact with friends in Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo whose friendship I cherish and whose perspectives on cultural, artistic, and political events in Bulgaria, the States and beyond deepens and informs my own. I am fortunate to live only a few hours from Chicago, with its rich diversity of cultural and artistic organizations and events and – more specifically its large Bulgarian immigrant population.

I look forward to a return to Bulgaria to see good friends and supportive, entrepreneurial colleagues. I look forward to future opportunities to welcome Bulgarian students, friends and colleagues to Monmouth, and to introduce our visitors to Chicago and Springfield, and to Illinois as a whole.

Brenda Tooley (in the center) with Ivan Sotirov, Natalia Evtimova, Nevena Mandadzhieva and Nikolay Milkov at the American Corner in Sofia, November 2010