Speechless in Blagoevgrad

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Quite possibly for the first time in my life I was speechless.   I was standing on a stage in a basement bar in front of hundreds of college students. My name had been called and I was urged to the front of the room where students in the journalism department (known here as JMC) honored me at their annual “JMC Rocks” party for being an inspiration to many journalism students this year at AUBG.  There I was, the teacher who pretty much talks non-stop with my students, but at this moment I couldn’t think of one thing to say.  I was stunned.  I think I said something like, “It’s been a wonderful year” and “keep making documentaries” and then I held the large basket of flowers over my head and posed for pictures as if I had won an Oscar.  It has been a wonderful year.

I tell you this story not to brag, but to share with you the generous spirit of the students here at the American University in Bulgaria.  They are so appreciative and they aren’t afraid to show it. Many come from countries where professors are distant and scary and discouraging.  One student from Russia told me that the authoritative professors are constantly berating students by telling them that they will amount to nothing.  So they skimp and save and do what they can  (including working summer jobs in the U.S. as housekeepers and pizza makers) to be able come to AUBG and pay for an American-style liberal arts education. It’s the sort of education that includes talking with professors over a cup of coffee, or in my case, tagging along to film festivals.  This means so much to these students who often come from so far (Albania, Turkmenistan, Moldova, Armenia, etc.) from so little  (parents who are honey bee farmers, small shopkeepers and sometimes unemployed) and have big dreams (journalist, economist, CEO).


A few days after the “JMC Rocks”event, we attended the “More Honors” show.   This is a spectacular event that resembles that Academy Awards in format and is put on by a group of about 20 students known as the “More Honors Academy.” Their “Oscar” is a statue with a very large and extended body part (see video from opening ceremony here)  so you get the idea of the tone of the event.  Students can nominate and vote in various categories such as Hipster, Public Enemy, Casanova and Lick-a-fessor (you can guess what that one is) and Coolest Non-Student (I was nominated in this category along with the “kitchen ladies” and a few others).  Throughout the year, the More Honors students spend most of their time producing, shooting and editing short films to introduce each category.  They are often quite elaborate productions made by a group of students who just like making films and having fun.  Winners are announced that night and come up to the stage for a snarky Q & A with the show host.  I didn’t win that night, but I still feel like I won just for being nominated.


–       A screening of a documentary made about the Miss AUBG beauty pageant (see previous post about it) that was made as part of my documentary class.  These students did the impossible—they shot and edited a feature-length documentary in less than three weeks.  We had a “sneak preview” screening of the rough cut and got great feedback  (link to blog here).  A couple of exceptionally dedicated students plan to finish the editing this summer so we can send it out to film festivals and/or post on YouTube for all to see.   The same class made short docs during the first half of the semester – check out the YT page HERE (right now only one doc is there called “Boxing Father”  but the rest will be there soon).  The top docs  (audience and jury award) were screened on Bulgarian National Television (see pics).

–       I taught a one-week “Documentary Boot Camp” in Sofia that was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy as part of the Swan Art Academy.   Some of the participants were film students and others were first time filmmakers.  They worked really hard to make a short documentary in one week and we had a public screening that blew people away. You can see all the shorts that were made as part of the master class here.  Topics included a lady tram driver, old projectionists, a BMX bike rider, an artist who lives with his installations and more.

–       The last days of classes were packed with so much!  Final presentations in my multimedia journalism classes were fun (and  this is when I show my students my embarrassing old TV news resume reel from Wausau, Wisconsin, which always gets a good laugh-see pic in slide show).  Check out some of the blogs and videos the students made and how appreciative the students are. Here are links to a few of the blogs:  Melody’s Bloggers,  CouchsurfingAlternative Fashion in Bulgaria,  What to be when you grow up. Young, Smart and Hot .

– I was host of the first TedX event at AUBG (pics).

–   The Senior Prom (professors were invited and we went and it was lovely).   At midnight, when that party ended, Mark and I went to a Chalga club to check it out.  If you don’t know what Chalga is, you can check out one of the blogs of my students that explains this phenomenon– http://ivaivaiva.wordpress.com (love the post about Chalga hair!).

-Graduation (the former King and Prime Minister of Bulgaria and his sister, Princess Maria Luisa, were there) — see the picture of me casually chatting with the King (in slide show). Meeting the parents of graduating students. Going to lunch with students whose parents couldn’t make it.


Last year at this time, we were in Madison, Wisconsin, attending our daughter’s college graduation.  It was a weekend full of fun and parties and relatives and memories. Since that time, we packed up and moved out of our house of 20 years, said goodbye to friends and family and moved across the ocean to this unknown place called Bulgaria. My husband, Mark Wollemann, who had never taught before, went on a leave of absence from the newspaper and started teaching writing and reporting classes (students say he is “awesome”).  We would make much less money than we are used to. We had no idea what we were in for.

Before we left, when people asked us why we were chucking it all and moving to Bulgaria, we told them about our motto, which was posted on our refrigerator back in Minnesota: Try to project years ahead and then look back and ask yourself what you wished you had done and then go do it.

Now that this first year in Bulgaria is over, Mark and I have a new motto that is posted on our refrigerator in Blagoevgrad, where we will be returning in August for the next two years: We may not be rich, but we feel like we won the lottery.