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Reflect, Assess, Rebuild
By Margaret G., YES Abroad 2017-18, Bulgaria, from Eugene, OR
On February 3rd, I will be exactly halfway through my year in Bulgaria. Which is absolutely crazy and I don’t want to think about it. So instead, let’s talk about school! In Bulgaria, students get a new schedule and switch school shifts at the start of a new term. For example during the fall, I had school from 7:30 AM to 1:20 PM each day, but beginning in February I will be in class from 1:30 PM to 7:20 PM instead. The school shift basically means I have to reorganize my entire life, but I get to sleep in, so it’s fine.
Since so much is about to change—I might not be able to continue the volunteer project I’ve been working on, I will likely be going from two Bulgarian lessons per week to one, etc.—I want to share how my perspective on Bulgarian school has and hasn’t changed since the start of my program year.
Much of what I thought back in September still holds true: waking up at 6 AM was a difficult adjustment and not one I ever fully made. Also, since I got to school in a language I’ve only been learning for several months, I am still basically incapable of meaningfully participating in any class besides French (though I can now occasionally understand bits and pieces of my history and literature classes). My assessment that taking 12 classes at once—a standard for the Bulgarian national education program—is mildly insane was correct, and being with the same class all day every day—also normal for a Bulgarian school—is both a blessing and a curse. Thankfully, my classmates and I still get along well.
So, what has changed since I started school? Well, at the beginning of the year I spent most school days either sitting in deep confusion, copying down notes that I could barely read (let alone understand), or questioning why on earth I had decided to spend my one and only gap year back in high school. To be quite honest, it was incredibly frustrating. There were moments when I felt entirely hopeless and thought I had made a terrible mistake in coming here. But, over time, I’ve figured out how to make the most of it by using my school hours to study Bulgarian, read, write in my journal, work on various projects, and, of course, try to pick up new Bulgarian vocabulary during the classes where I have a good enough grasp on the subject matter to somewhat follow along. Since the beginning of January, I’ve been giving myself specific tasks for each class period, like studying Bulgarian, working on my capstone project, or reading, and checking them off as I go, which has been great for keeping me motivated and productive. Hopefully, as the year goes on, I’ll be able to do more of the actual classwork, but for now I’m pretty happy with the system I’ve got going!
As for next term, while I am definitely excited for lazy mornings, I am a bit nervous, too. I’ve worked really hard to build a busy and rewarding life here over the past five months, and it does feel a bit like I have to start from scratch. I’m going to miss afternoons spent wandering around Sofia and shaking off my foggy school brain by heading straight to the gym after last period. Though I will be more rested, my days are also going to be a lot shorter, and I likely won’t be able to fit school, the gym, a voice lesson, and a cultural event in Sofia into one day anymore. But, I will be able to go for runs out in the countryside where I live and appreciate the gorgeous morning light. I’ll have time to read on the bus into the city each day, and I still get to take voice and Bulgarian lessons. Maybe teaching English to my 2nd graders won’t be an option anymore, but I’m hoping to soon begin work as a teacher at a refugee and migrant integration center, an opportunity that I truly cannot believe I have. So, I’m going to be okay.
Being in school, but also not really in school, is a very strange experience. It has certainly presented some of my toughest moments on exchange as far as staying focused on why I’m here and engaging with my host community, rather than retreating into myself, my phone, and my books. Some days I succeed, and others I fail, but ultimately I am so glad I decided a 5th year of high school was worth the risk because it’s given me insight into Bulgarian culture in a way nothing else could have. How a country does education is, I believe, reflective of its priorities. Experiencing the Bulgarian education system, both as a student and as a volunteer at an elementary school, has allowed me a far greater understanding of how Bulgarians become Bulgarian and what is valued in this country than I would have gotten as a mere tourist, or even if I lived and worked here. I couldn’t possibly capture all on paper.
Reaching the halfway point of my exchange feels simultaneously surreal and natural. For now, I’ll just say that I am incredibly happy, loving every second of my life here, and cannot wait to see what comes next. 152 days down, 159 to go!