On April 21, 2023, Fulbright Bulgaria celebrated its 30th anniversary with a gala concert at the Military Club in downtown Sofia, attended by 250 grantees, guests, partners and friends, most decked out in Fulbright Blue to honor the occasion. Fulbright Executive Director Angela Rodel was joined as gala host by fellow Fulbrighter and prominent actor Sevar Ivanov (BG Visiting Researcher, 2022-23) to lead a joyous evening filled with recollections of Fulbright’s past, well-wishes for the program’s future, awards and, of course, music.
The program opened with a greeting address from the freshly arrived US Ambassador, HE Kenneth Merton – we are proud that Fulbright’s birthday party was his first official public appearance in Bulgaria! Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Education Albena Chavdarova also congratulated Fulbright on behalf of the Bulgarian government.
The incredible musical program featuring Bulgarian and American music from Gershwin to Pancho Vladigerov was the brainchild of piano virtuoso John Thomas (US student researcher, 2019-2020), who was joined on stage throughout the evening by fellow musicians Martin Dafinov, Ali Kelov and Dr. Ana Borisova (BG Scholar, 2017-18) for a thrilling program of original as well as classic compositions.
Since the founding of the Bulgarian-American Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange in 1993, nearly 1,500 scholars, students, teachers, artists, civil society representatives, and professionals have taken part in Fulbright Bulgaria programs. During the gala, we were able to present just a small sample of the many inspiring Fulbrighters from our community. Two Fulbright legacy programs were presented with the newly created Fulbright Alumni Impact Award to recognize the multiplier effect these initiatives have had in Bulgarian society: the Fulbright Sofia Regional Court Internship Program, founded by Judge Evgeny Georgiev (BG Student, 2002-2003) in cooperation American colleagues from the Federal District Court in New Orleans, Louisiana, which has trained more than 600 Bulgarian law students since its founding in 2010; and the Bulgarian Speech and Debate Tournaments Foundation (BEST), created in 2012 by a group of six Fulbright ETAs and one Bulgarian Fulbrighter, which brings American-style forensics to more than 500 Bulgarian high schools students annually while emphasizing the values of community, initiative, volunteering and entrepreneurship. As a special treat for the gala audience, two “Besties,” Reni Petrova and Zori Dimitrova from Petar Bogdan Foreign Language School in Montana, performed a duo interpretation of “Beauty and The Beast” that roused a standing ovation.
Although the gala highlighted notable achievements in Fulbright Bulgaria’s 30-year history, the program also showcased the program’s future expansion, which comes largely thanks to the Bulgarian government’s decision in 2022 to more triple its annual Fulbright allocation to $1.1 million, in clear recognition of the critical role educational exchange plays in the nation’s development. With this new funding, in 2023 Fulbright Bulgaria launched the Bulgarian Leaders Award, which supports Bulgarian students admitted to MA and PhD programs at top US universities with scholarships of up to $100,000. Upon completion of their degrees, these Fulbrighters must return to Bulgaria for at least three years to put the skills they’ve learned in the US to work back for Bulgaria’s benefit. At the gala, Fulbright alumna and former head of cabinet Lena Borislavova (BG Student, 2016-17) and former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov announced the winners of the first Bulgarian Leaders grants: Ekaterina Fakirova (Law, University of Pennsylvania); Ivan Shopov (education, Harvard University); Rukiye-Ayshe Egeli (Materials Science, Cornell University); and Lexi Fleurs (Art, School of Visual Arts).
Of course, no celebration of Fulbright Bulgaria’s history would be complete without the participation of Dr. Julia Stefanova, the founding executive director who led the Commission in its first 23 years. Her warm and erudite speech reflected on the impact of Fulbright not only in Bulgaria, but around the world in truly building mutual understanding between nations, advancing knowledge across communities, and improving lives around the world.
Dr. Stefanova’s recollections were supported by two prominent alumni, who offered their own personal testimonials as to the impact of Fulbright on their careers and lives. Professor Ani Proykova, who was featured in Forbes Europe’s 2022 50 Over 50 list of business and political leaders alongside with fellow Fulbrighter Kristalina Georgieva, shared how her Fulbright scholar grant in 1994 at the University of Chicago impacted the entire trajectory of her long and illustrious career as a computational physicist at the University of Sofia and head of the High Performance Computing Lab at the Sofia Tech Park.
Demonstrating the intellectual breadth of the Fulbright Bulgaria community, the program pivoted from computational physics to the arts, welcoming Fulbright alumnus and internationally renowned theater and film director Javor Gardev to the stage to talk about his Fulbright visiting researcher experience at Northwestern University in 2022.
Throughout the evening, Fulbright Bulgaria also celebrated its many partners, without whose support we would not have been able to achieve all the successes noted throughout the gala evening – including the Bulgarian schools, universities, NGOs and other institutions that host our US Fulbrighters every year, as well as the US universities and institutions that welcome our Bulgarian grantees. The gala hosts also highlighted the Fulbright program’s sponsors, which have allowed us to expand the number of Fulbright grants. One unique sponsor, however, was singled out for special recognition: the America for Bulgarian Foundation, which over the past fifteen years, has been instrumental in expanding the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship program from a mere two teachers to a network of 30 ETAs per year, who serve in more than 25 cities across the country. ABF President and CEO Nancy Schiller came on stage to accept the inaugural Friends of Fulbright Award.
After offering a lengthy round of applause to the tireless and talented Fulbright staff who organized the gala and who strive on a daily basis to make sure the Fulbright program in Bulgaria flourishes, the audience enjoyed a rousing final musical salute from John and Ali that embodied the creative and collaborative spirit of Fulbright: a Bulgarian-American musical mash-up that takes inspiration from Philip Koutev to Beethoven to Gershwin. After this grand finale, guests stayed on for the cocktail reception to share their fondest Fulbright stories and create new memories.
The whole team at Fulbright Bulgaria would like to thank all of our partners, sponsors, grantees, alumni and friends who made our 30th anniversary celebration such a success. The event demonstrated that despite the novel challenges our world has faced in recent years, the philosophy behind the Fulbright program expressed nearly eighty years ago by Senator J. William Fulbright is still as important and relevant as ever: “Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.” Here’s to many more decades of Fulbright exchange between Bulgaria and the US!