It's not overstating things to describe the American University in Bulgaria (or AUBG, as it is more commonly referred to) as the most successful foreign project to have taken root since the fall of Communist rule three decades ago. It is, by far, also the most important institution in Blagoevgrad, a town of about 70,000 in the southwest that has now housed the university for 28 years.
So far, the coexistence has been a symbiosis - the university brings to the town about 800 young people, many of them foreign, while the municipality has mostly been welcoming to the institution and, especially in the years of its inception, has helped it take root. Alongside the other higher education institution in town - the Southwestern University, Blagoevgrad is truly a university hub. Yet the local authorities seem incapable of tapping the huge potential that comes with having the top university in the country on their doorstep.
A liberal arts paradise
AUBG is the only higher educational institution in the country that follows the principles of the liberal arts of education - students live on campus, most of them complete dual degrees, combining various social sciences with the likes of computer science, accounting and economics, and there is much more interaction between them and their instructors. Walking around the shiny campus of the university feels like being in any similar college somewhere in the USA, with the added bonus of having the highest mountain in the Balkans, Rila, as a background. And it's not only nice buildings - AUBG is a melting pot for students from all over the Balkans and beyond, who study in a truly international environment.
They also show impressive results - the university tops the charts in the annual Bulgarian University Ranking in four out of five majors that are taught there, including Business administration, Economics, Political Science and Journalism, and is second only to
Sofia University in Computer science. Needless to say, there is practically no unemployment among its graduates and their average salaries are significantly higher than those of their peers from other Bulgarian universities.
In a place that can't use it
The rosy picture is disturbed only by Blagoevgrad's lack of employment opportunities for the well-educated and ambitious young people who graduate from AUBG.
"That is the sad part - in reality, there isn't much opportunity to make a career here, the companies are closed and people like me who want to stay in Bulgaria go to Sofia, while the rest go abroad," says Kristina Kukoleva, a student at the university and a native of Blagoevgrad. According to the President of AUBG David Evans, the only way for the town to retain some of the talent the university produces, is to attract at least one international investor in need of AUBG-trained managerial cadres.
Being in Blagoevgrad is a double-edged sword in other respects as well. On the one hand, many of the staff and students like staying in a smaller, cozy town where practically all they need is at walking distance. There are just enough cafes, shops and other amusements to keep students entertained when they are not studying, and Sofia and its international airport are close enough - at about 1.5-2 hour drive - for those who prefer more diversity.
At the same time, a liberal arts college aspiring to train the next generation of business and political leaders suffers, because it is not at the heart of national socio-economic events.. "It would be much easier to attract more foreign students if we were based in Sofia," says Mr Evans. Blagoevgrad mostly remains a temporary home for the majority of students who relocate after graduation.
Strong alumni bonds
This, however, does not mean that they lose connection to their alma mater. On the contrary, AUBG boasts the strongest alumni network of any Bulgarian university. Irena Macheva, who is responsible for connecting the alumni to the university and fundraising, believes that the intimate links created when studying and living together on campus for four years have positive and long-lasting effects. Not only alumni contributions make up for about 25% of the revenue of AUBG, but former students come to give lectures and kick off initiatives years after their own graduation.
At the end of 2019, for example, a partner from venture capital fund Eleven and AUBG alumni Daniel Tomov announced that he was launching a practical entrepreneurship accelerator program. The caveat is that the university will hold a 5% stake in any start-up to be launched during this program.
An institution with a most peculiar history
If there is one thing that is most unusual about the location of this liberal arts college, it is the story of its inception and early years. One can learn about it from the still unpublished manuscript of Robert "Bobby" Phillips, one of the first instructors at AUBG, in effect with the university from its first days of operations in September 1991. Even its author, however, finds it hard to pinpoint whose idea exactly it was to open a new institution sponsored by a U.S. government grant and private contributions, including from the famous financier and philanthropist George Soros.
One thing is certain - the creation of the university was an almost magical coincidence of interests, including those of the last Socialist-era U.S. Ambassador to Sofia Sol Polansky, his press aide John Menzies and the first director of the Bulgarian branch of Open Society Institute Georgi Prohasky. They managed to attract the interest - and, respectively, the sponsorship and patronage - of both Mr Soros and a number of famous Bulgarian emigres exiled by the Communist party, including journalists Dimi Panitsa and Stefan Gruev. At the same time, the reformist-minded leader of the Temporary Executive Committee of Blagoevgrad (and, later, the first democratically elected mayor of the town) Eliana Maseva managed to convince the local authorities to rent out the local House of the Communist Party, now defunct for obvious reasons, to the Americans.
"So far, so good, but in the beginning, we had to convince everyone that we were not American spies," Mr Phillips recalls of his first years in the small post-Communist town. It was a different world back then, which had little to do with the simple, yet modern look Blagoevgrad has today.
"The town was so poor, the infrastructure was crumbling, packs of rabid dogs roamed around and you took to the streets risking your life," says David Flanagan, an ex-president of the Board of Trustees of the university. Electricity shortages and a lack of toilets also hindered the early years of the university in the harsh post-Communist reality of 1990s Bulgaria, but what the country lacked materially, it substituted for intellectually.
"The first graduates were so smart! It was their first chance to go beyond the limitations of Communism and they grabbed and held onto it. They took the SAT exams in a language they had almost never practised and their results were better than those of Ivy League schools applicants. They were true pioneers," Mr Flanagan adds.
So is AUBG. Despite the many hardships and problems piling up throughout the years, the university, its staff and its students have managed to overcome all odds and even grow.
"Nobody expected the small university in Blagoevgrad to survive, but we made it. We are survivors," concludes Bobby Phillips.