My Fulbright to Bulgaria: Teaching English and Cultural Exchange

Ariel Bloomer is a first year master’s student of Higher Education and Student Affairs at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She graduated with a B.A. in creative writing from Scripps College in California, and spent the following year teaching English in Bulgaria. More insights on her Fulbright year can be found on her blog, the Unintentional Explorer (http://unintentionalexplorer.wordpress.com/).

I may be a Steinhardt master’s student now, but I still clearly remember the existential stress of my senior year of undergrad where I had to decide what to do after graduation. Over the course of my undergraduate studies, I had discovered and indulged interests in student affairs, writing, travel, and religious studies. Knowing what I was interested in was a first step, but knowing what do with those interests… it was like unfamiliar choreography.

I applied for programs to teach abroad because my curiosity about the world was the most insistent. I was fortunate to be awarded a Fulbright fellowship to teach English in Bulgaria. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program offers research/study and English teaching grants to U.S. citizens that have earned Bachelor’s degrees. Although it is a teaching program, Fulbright seeks applicants who have various levels of teaching experience and do not require applicants to have completed a degree in education. For instance, I had little experience with teaching. However, some countries do look for applicants with previous teaching experience.

I decided Fulbright was the right program for me because its mission so closely matched my own. The Fulbright program, under the U.S. Department of State, has a goal to increase mutual understanding between citizens of the U.S. and those of countries around the world. As a writer, this goal of cross-cultural communication spoke to me. I knew that Bulgaria, often-neglected in the realm of travel writing, would offer fertile ground for me to practice creative non-fiction in my spare time.

 In addition, I saw the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Program as an opportunity to try on a new role in the field of education and immerse myself in a new culture and language. It was also an opportunity to use the skills I had learned in Balkan Dance, a class I thought would not be useful beyond satisfying my fine art requirement. This course influenced my desire to apply to teach English in Bulgaria. Somewhere in Bulgaria was a choreography I at least sort of knew.

 In the year I spent abroad in Smolyan, in the Rhodope Mountains where Bulgaria meets Greece, I did not learn to teach. My hit-and-miss lessons were more misses than hits. I did build lasting relationships with teachers and students, facilitated a creative writing club at a high school, spent the fall attending weekly folkdance classes with a Geography teacher from my school, and I learned to cook some of Bulgaria’s unique dishes, a blend of Slavic, Turkish, and Mediterranean fare. I read extensively, took an online travel writing course, and kept a detailed journal. I traveled the Balkan Peninsula by bus and train. I learned that my passion for education is geared towards student development outside of the classroom. This led me to pursue a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs. More so, Fulbright helped to fine tune my research interests in student outcomes in, and access to, international education.

Now that I contemplate a doctoral program in my not-so-distant future, I wonder if Fulbright will again be a part of my journey forward. I taught English through my grant, but the program also offers research opportunities for those with a Bachelor’s degree to conduct independent projects abroad. It is a unique opportunity to follow a passion, carry out grant-funded research, serve as a U.S. cultural ambassador, and learn a dance you never knew before.

 To learn more about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, attend an upcoming Fulbright Information Session for Graduate Students at The Wasserman Center (133 East 13th Street, 2nd Floor, Presentation Room B) on Thursday March 12th from 1pm to 2pm. RSVP Today!

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