By Matthew Cossel '17
Nellie Gospodinova is a Fulbright student in the College of Education from Varna, Bulgaria, the third largest city in Bulgaria. Nellie’s path to the United States began back in 2011, when she was teaching at a high school in Silistra, a small town in the north of the country.
That year, a colleague from Macedonia contacted her about a new cross-national volunteering organization that he wanted to create, Volunteering Club 365. This organization would include students from Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria as a partnership between three schools.
Looking for a new international program for her home school, Nellie agreed to join. This was a huge step for Nellie and the students she was about to recruit, as volunteering was not a part of the Bulgarian culture. There were no other school volunteer organizations in Silistra.
“When we started, I didn’t know what volunteering was,” she said.
Nellie said that this stems from the current social climate in Bulgaria.
“People have a different mentality in Bulgaria,” she said. “It is very different from the United States in many aspects.”
The main difference is a lingering pessimism about life, and in particular education, politics, and social issues. Bulgarian people feel that these things are out of their control and don’t make advances to fix them, she said.
Despite this, after its humble beginnings, Volunteering Club 365 has gone on to win accolades from Central European organizations and has become Nellie’s passion.
“This was my biggest personal discovery,” she said.
Nellie says that Volunteering Club 365 was a great learning experience for her as a teacher as well, even though she was not technically a teacher.
“I was not a teacher in this club, I was an informal youth leader,” she said.
This did not stop her from learning how to motivate the students in the program. When a problem is discovered, she wants to teach the students to take action and address the issue.
“I allowed my volunteers to take the leading part,” she said, “I tried to encourage them along the way to take the initiative.”
Nellie was responsible for planning, organization, and coordination for all of the club’s projects and activities.
Nellie says that “it required a lot of dedication and sacrifices,” but it has become one of the best parts of her life.
“I have learned that one of the best ways to inspire my youngsters is my personal example,” she said.
Moving forward to 2013, Nellie attended a teacher training program especially developed and tailor-made to the needs of Bulgarian teachers called Bulgarian Young Leaders Program sponsored by the America for Bulgaria foundation at Columbia University. She came with other young education leaders from Bulgaria and this made her want to learn more.
“When you see that you can make changes at a local level, you then want to make changes on a national level,” she said.
After returning to Bulgaria, Nellie decided to apply to become a Fulbright student. Between her volunteering experience and the trip to Columbia, Nellie wanted to become educated about the education systems around the world and this was one of the best ways to do just that.
“I was sick and tired of what was going on in the education system as a teacher,” Nellie said, “I wanted to know, for example, how the American education system worked, what works here and what doesn’t.”
This way, Nellie could bring the perspectives learned here at Lehigh University back to Bulgaria and fix both the pessimistic perspective and aspects of the education system.
“I definitely want to go back,” she said, “I want to take educational initiatives with me when I go back.”
Nellie says she has been a little bit overwhelmed with how fast life moves here in the United States and says that Bulgarian moves at somewhat of a slower pace, but she has enjoyed her time here.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to get your Master’s degree in the United States,” she said.