When asked about the things which she doesn't like in Bulgaria, Athena Lao points to a flaw in local mentality. "There are a lot of inefficiencies and frustrations that are completely avoidable and fixable, but some Bulgarians' first impulse is to shrug their shoulders and say nothing can be done, 'because it's Bulgaria'," says the young American from Athens, Georgia. She arrived in Blagoevgrad, in Bulgaria's southwest, in 2012 for a one-year tenure as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant after she graduated in Classical Languages and Literature from Harvard University. When that year ended, Athena decided to prolong her stay – and to make a difference in that mentality flaw.
Why? She just "fell in love" with her placement, with "the incredible landscape, the warm people, the difficult but 'cool' language and the amazing food and music," and with more abstract pros of the country like the fact, that "in Bulgaria there isn't the same sense of banal comfort that you find in the USA, which is overall a very good thing." There are shortcomings, of course. "Sometimes, certain attitudes and situations make you feel like you are making no progress in a project you want to do," Athena Lao says. "However, there are moments when you see that Bulgaria really is changing for the better. I refuse to accept that Bulgaria cannot be changed, but it depends on exposure to new ideas and a commitment to bettering education."
Lao teaches in a foreign language high-school in Blagoevgrad, and now has a sense for the problems in Bulgarian education. "Many students feel trapped in schools, because they are taught to memorise, take tests (there are so many Olympiads, it's ridiculous!), and dutifully copy down what the teacher says, rather than truly engaging with ideas," she says. In 2013, Athena and five more Fulbright English teaching assistants established the BEST Foundation for English language speech and debate programmes for Bulgarian high-school students, which wants to connect to businessmen who might be looking for long-term investment opportunities in education organisations and opportunities for students. BEST aims to help Bulgarian students to become fluent public speakers, express themselves creatively, and become leaders. It is not about competition, the organisation attracts all sorts of students: "The overachievers, the outspoken rebels, the misfits, the ones who just want to improve their English," as Lao says. "The thing that brings them together is the fact that BEST doesn't feel like a competition. It's an intellectual and artistic community that challenges them to think, to have confidence in their own ideas and presentation of those ideas, and to share their knowledge with others."
Together with their tutors, the students learn how to prepare to debate for a given topic, including research, formation of opinion and fitting into given performance time-span. They discuss on teenage and broader issues like insecurity and self-doubt, dependence on smartphones, unrealistic beauty standards, excessive consumerism. They learn how to recite English-language poetry, and how to turn a favourite book, like The Shawshank Redemption or the Hunger Games into 10-minute scripts.
The results are amazing. In 2014, 503 students from 35 schools in Bulgaria joined the organisation. For 2015, BEST aims to have more than 700 students from 40-50 schools.
While BEST is a national initiative, Lao also founded a Debate Team at the school she teaches. There are 35 students in this programme, one of the biggest such teams in Bulgaria.
Debating is about competition, eventually, and Lao's students are doing more than well. Her team has won five national championships in the past two years, and this June three of her students participated in the National Speech and Debate Tournament in Dallas, Texas, the largest academic competition of this kind in the world. Later in June, was another competition, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Athena's students are also preparing for the World Scholar's Cup, which will have 10,000 participants from 40 countries.
There is a problem, though: funding. Schools are notoriously underfunded, and the Bulgarian Educational Ministry is less than enthusiastic about providing money for participation in international competitions. But here, Athena Lao and her Fulbright colleagues teach another important skill to young people – the way to convince other people to believe in your dream, and to donate for it. "I work with my students on crowdfunding and fundraising efforts," Lao says. "They and their parents contact companies, write press releases for the media, contact Bulgarians around the world on social media, organise community events like bake sales, concerts and parties to raise money, and reach out to as many people as possible."
So far, she is more than satisfied with the results. "The response to crowdfunding is where I have seen the best of Bulgaria. There is a large percentage of Bulgarians who do want to help. Due to this amazing community, we have raised almost $40,000 to attend competitions in Prague, Dubai, Istanbul, Singapore, the USA, and Kuala Lumpur."
This is the positive outcome which will, eventually, one day change what Athena Lao dislikes about Bulgaria – the attitude that you don't need to make an effort, because nothing will change anyway. "We are teaching our youth that if you want to do something incredible, you cannot let pessimism, apathy, and cynicism stop you," says she. "You cannot let corruption and idiocy stop you. I always tell my students, 'Well, I am a foreigner and don't speak that much Bulgarian, yet I am able to and want to do this and that for Bulgaria. You are Bulgarian, you know the culture and the language, and you are smarter than I am. Therefore, you can do more."