Interview by Iliana Dimitrova

Veda Balaji, a 22-year-old graduate of Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, holds a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and a minor in history. She is the first Fulbright|America for Bulgaria Foundation English Teaching Assistant at the Vocational School of Tourism in Samokov. For four years in a row, she was the recipient of her undergraduate institution’s Presidential Scholarship and has a number of other prestigious scholarships and awards under her belt, such as the Beckman Scholarship, the Outstanding Student Award, the Presidential Service Award, and the Georgia Youth Leadership Award (20 under 20). And her belt, by the way, is a black belt in taekwondo. 😊 

Veda, as a neuroscience student at Georgia State, did you ever imagine that you will one day find yourself living in the snowy Rila Mountain? What inspired you to pursue a teaching Fulbright grant in Bulgaria? 

Studying neuroscience as an aspiring criminal lawyer, I knew my vocational path would not exactly be a traditional one. However, teaching English in the mountains of Bulgaria was definitely not something I could have possibly imagined! My inspiration to teach in Bulgaria through Fulbright stemmed from my interest in working with the Roma community here. I wanted to understand first-hand how the history of the Roma people living in Bulgaria has directly impacted their access to opportunity and their motivations to participate in the mainstream society. My research background in cross-cultural interaction and social anxiety also drew me to this group of individuals, and I wished to see the unique social and cultural traditions they have maintained for so long. I was particularly interested in finding out whether there are some similarities between their traditions and my own family traditions in India! 

Please tell us more about yourself and about your hobbies and interests outside of school. Have you always been interested in martial arts?  

Outside of school, I love volunteering my time for community service activities. In the past, I’ve volunteered at hospitals and local community organizations in Georgia. The most rewarding community project I’ve done is starting my non-profit, Kids Help Kids. My community and I have gathered to host fundraisers (usually a 3K race event in the local park with bake sales and raffles) for a variety of causes from international natural disaster relief to education for girls to countering domestic violence and human trafficking. It’s extremely fulfilling to organize and host fundraising events; we bring so many different people together in the community and serve so many different people around the world.  

I’ve been doing martial arts for most of my life, although I’m not sure how the interest began. As I’ve gotten older, however, I have been able to truly understand the importance of being able to defend yourself as a woman. This has motivated me to teach others (especially women my age) how to not only defend themselves, but to also feel empowered and comfortable.  

Outside of community service and taekwondo, I love to read and travel. My fellow ETAs have been amazing companions while I fulfill these interests in Bulgaria. We have a small book club among us, and we have been able to explore so many cool places inside and outside of Bulgaria! Some of the most memorable trips I’ve been able to take with them are to Plovdiv, the Seven Rila Lakes, Rome, Munich, Vienna, and Bratislava.  

What do you find most fascinating about life and teaching in Samokov? What are your goals for your work with your students? 

Thus far, I’ve been able to connect with my students in unexpected ways! Although I was aware of my personal link with the Roma community, since they migrated from India many centuries ago, I am consistently surprised by the extent of my students’ knowledge regarding India and Indian culture. So far, I’ve had wonderful conversations with my students about how the Romani language and some common Indian languages (like Hindi) have similar words. They’ve also been teaching me some phrases, which is such an exciting addition to my Bulgarian language learning. Recently, they surprised me by knowing all the words to one of my favorite Bollywood songs! Being able to connect with my students, with vastly different upbringings and surroundings than myself, has been surreal. 

With my students, I hope to hear more about their dreams and career aspirations. Many of my students are extremely smart and eager to learn, however they don’t seem to have thought much about what they would like to do after high school. I would love to better understand where their interests lie and, if they’re interested, what post-secondary school programs or careers might work well for them.   

Life in Samokov is so beautiful. I haven’t experienced living in a small town before, and I truly didn’t know what to expect. Being here is extremely calming. Every day on my way to school, I get to see the astounding mountain peaks of Rila, and as the winter months approach, the ski slopes have started to appear, tying the whole aesthetic together. It’s wonderful! The people here are so kind. My fellow teachers never fail to greet me and make me feel welcome. The community here seems so close knit and supportive.  

Do any friends or family members plan on visiting you in the next months? What would you like to share with them? 

My mom and my brother are coming to visit in December. I am planning on showing them a day (or a few days) in my life in Samokov: the local park, the pedestrian bridge with the most amazing view, the school, and so much more. I also want them to meet the people in my life here, from my mentor teacher (Rubi) to my wonderful co-teachers to my local banitsa lady! I’m hoping to show them the ski slopes of Borovets, and perhaps, take a bus to Sofia or Plovdiv.  

One of my friends lives in London and may be able to visit more than once. I hope to show her as many of Bulgaria’s beautiful landscapes as possible. I’d love to take her skiing in Borovets, hiking in Rila, and trekking through Vitosha.  

In January, some of my friends from high school are coming to visit during Surva! I cannot wait to see the kukeri festival for myself, and I am excited to see what they think. I am also extremely eager to have them try some traditional Bulgarian dishes and drinks. My personal favorites are mekitsi, bean soup, and ayran, and, of course, any and all banitsa.  

Last but not least, a question has divided multiple ETA cohorts in Bulgaria – zelnik or tikvenik?! 

This is a very difficult question for me because I love both! If I had to pick, I’d say zelnik (I changed my answer three times while typing this).  

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