Alumni Profile: Emily Paxson

Alumni Profile: Emily Paxson

I had two professors of German who were both Bulgarians and I was always intrigued when they spoke about their native country. 

In the Fall of 2015, I returned to Miami University for my senior year. I was eager to apply for a Fulbright following a summer internship in Thailand where I was introduced to the program. I spoke with my advisor and learned that I had very little time before the application deadline. One month to write the required essays and even less time to decide on which country for my Fulbright. I have been fortunate to have spent a significant amount of time in various countries during my undergraduate years and I knew that I wanted to go somewhere new, somewhere that I had no been before and thus would push me out of my comfort zone. I narrowed down my search to countries located within Eastern Europe based on my desire to learn more about the region given my Eastern European heritage. Part of what drove me toward choosing Bulgaria specifically was my curiosity. I had two professors who were both Bulgarians and I was always intrigued when they spoke about their native country.

Fast forward to May of 2016 when I found out I was going to be placed in Lovech. I immediately sought out all the information I could find on the internet—and what I found was not much. I recall seeing many pictures of the covered bridge, not knowing then, that I would wake up every morning to that bridge in my window for the next two years. Reflecting back, I can now see that no amount of internet searches could have prepared me for the impactful experience ahead of me.

I vividly remember driving into Lovech with the Deputy Headmaster of my School and being amazed by the fortress walls and the prominent statue of Vasil Levski that indicated the rich history of Lovech. My two years in Bulgaria taught me a lot, but I will share with you just two key lessons I took away:

The first lesson I learned is that despite the miles that separate us, we’re not much different.  Lovech and my hometown in Pennsylvania, Greenville, are almost one in the same. They are both very small, both have faced the economic struggles associated with being small towns: both towns have struggling hospitals, both used to be hubs for businesses that have since left and both are seeing their residents move to larger cities in search of job opportunities. However, despite economic hardships, both towns are incredibly close-knit. I believe that my experience in Lovech was so rich because of the intimate relationships I was able to form in a small town.

Every day I would visit the shop beneath my apartment where Desi, the shop owner, would make me coffee and listen patiently as I worked through Bulgarian phrases. I would walk past the EKONT delivery store on my way to school where Valentin would be sitting in the window and we would always exchange a smile and a wave. I would meet with Rumen, a man who became my surrogate father and introduced me to the excitement of the CSKA and Levski football rivalry. These interactions, and many others, made Lovech feel like home. 

The second lesson I learned is to celebrate small victories. My first three months of adjusting to life in Bulgaria were difficult. The hardest part for me was overcoming the language barrier and I grew frustrated that I could not speak the language better. I recall walking into the post office near the beginning of my first year to buy international stamps for my Christmas cards. I had practiced the phrase “Аз искам пет Марки, моля” (“I would like five stamps, pleas”), over and over. And when I walked out with those 5 stamps I felt on top of the world. Granted not every attempt at speaking Bulgarian was a success, but it was those small victories that helped me through the times when I was feeling down and frustrated.

Senator Fulbright once said, “Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.” Senator Fulbright’s initiation of the legislation that would eventually become the Fulbright Program as we know it has become a pillar of international exchange for so many.  My Bulgarian experience has become the foundation and forum for my inquisitiveness of places far from my home in Pennsylvania. It turned my narrow perspective of Bulgaria as a nation located in Europe, into Bulgaria, a country that has become my second home.  The place where I spent weekends in the mountains with friends enjoying the natural beauty; the place where I cooked my first ever Thanksgiving meal; and the place where 450 high school students hold a piece of my heart.

I am grateful to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department who give individuals like myself, and so many others, the opportunity to see the world as others see it and to develop a sense of mutual understanding and appreciation. I am grateful for the steadfast support and dedication of those at the Fulbright Commission in Bulgaria, notably Angela Rodel, Rada Kaneva and Iliana Dimitrova. I am grateful for the financial support that the American for Bulgaria Foundation provides which has helped grown the program and ensure lasting success. And I am grateful to the governments of the United States and of Bulgaria for working together to make bilateral exchanges between our two nations possible.

–Emily Paxson

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