May 9 was a poignant day for AUBG as Classes of ‘20 and ‘21 returned to campus to receive their diplomas following unprecedented 15 months of online and hybrid education. During the two consecutive Commencement Ceremonies, the university handed out diplomas to 188 BA students and 28 EMBA students from Class of 2021 and 185 BA students and 27 EMBA and EMFBRE students from Class of 2020. The students who could not attend the event joined from Zoom, while the parents and friends of the graduates could watch the ceremony live on YouTube or in front of the big screen on “Largo” mall in Blagoevgrad’s downtown.
“You have had an unusual career at AUBG, and you have responded with grace, endurance, and patience,” said AUBG President Dr. David Evans in an address to the graduates. “Certainly, in December 2019 no one anticipated the events of the past months, the disruptions and loss that our world has experienced. Yet you have persisted in your academic pursuits and have succeeded. (…) We are very proud of you, and we look forward to your many successes and accomplishments we expect you will attain in the years ahead.”
It was only fitting that the keynote speaker at the ceremony was Stefan Ivanov (‘95), an AUBG graduate whose accomplishments testify for the strength of the human spirit amid challenging times. Together with his son Max, Stefan sailed the Atlantic on their self-made rowing boat Neverest, a boat that had now “docked” on campus for the Commencement.
“I know you can cross an ocean – it doesn’t have to be the Atlantic,” Stefan said. “It could be writing a best-selling book or starting up a business that would be the next Facebook or Tesla. It could be something that only you and your generation can think of which I with my fifty years of age would not even be able to comprehend. There is no reason to postpone chasing your dreams.”
Beyond his passion for extreme endurance challenges, Stefan is a business leader with 25 years of experience from around the globe. He is the Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Challenger Capital Management – an investment banking boutique focused on Eastern Europe based in Sofia. Prior to that, he worked in senior roles at Citibank in London, Brazil, South Korea, Tunisia and most recently as CEO of Citibank in Bulgaria. Following his graduation from AUBG’s first class of 1995, he completed an MBA degree from Cornell University and Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development.
Acting Chair of the AUBG Board Victoria Entwistle joined virtually from London to greet the graduating classes. “[Resilience] is ingrained in the liberal arts approach to education and has been fostered throughout your AUBG journey,” she said. “Be assured that in order to be where you are today, you have resilience in abundance, even if you are not aware of it. If there is anyone ready for this challenge ahead, that is you, classes of 2020 and 2021! Fear not the future, jump in and relish the ride.”
The 2021 student speaker was Oraz Kereibayev (’21) from Kazakhstan. “The pandemic has changed a lot our AUBG experience, but it didn’t define it,” he said. “When everything was closed, we kept finding ways (…) to express our creativity, to embrace who we are, and to continue our AUBG experience – whether you were on campus or not. Last March, we couldn’t imagine a lot of these things happening to us. But more interestingly, a year ago, we couldn’t imagine that students, staff members, professors, and all of us would still continue bringing so much life to this place. Even after going completely online, even after closing the buildings, and even after limiting every single activity on campus, we still wanted to come here. And we stayed here because it wasn’t our time to leave this place.”
Natalia Chicu (’20) from Moldova greeted Class of 2020 in a video address. “AUBG is such an extraordinary place where tradition meets innovation and progress,” she said. “Through many conversations and observations, I have come to understand that it [wasn’t just about] career development or progression. This experience has been both about exploration and self-discovery.”
Justin Friedman, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sofia offered greetings on behalf of the United States government. “AUBG has given you so much, now it is time to use those gifts to benefit Bulgaria and the world,” he said. “Use what you have learned here to make the world a better place.”