After graduating from the American University in Bulgaria, Spencer Collins (‘23) has returned to the U.S. to pursue an MA degree in International Relations and Affairs: US Foreign Policy and National Security at the American University in Washington, DC.
The alumnus, who studied Political Science and International Relations and Journalism and Mass Communication at AUBG, was offered the highest financial award from American University to continue his studies there.
In this interview, Spencer reflects on his transition from Blagoevgrad to Washington, the formative AUBG years, and the broader impact of his global education, particularly in expanding his understanding of democracy.
Master’s program at AU
My experience moving back to the U.S. has been great and American University’s network has been invaluable as I contextualize my experience from AUBG and direct it in a U.S.-focused career. I applied mid Spring 2023 and was offered the highest financial award from American University which ultimately led to my decision to attend.
The U.S. Foreign Policy program has a unique cohort with a mixture of students fresh out of undergrad and career professionals. I was able to take a summer course in Intelligence Analysis taught by a former Defense Intelligence Agency tradecraft instructor and many of my courses are taught by former Ambassadors or adjunct faculty currently working in the foreign policy space which keeps the program up-to-date and fresh. The academic transition was easy from AUBG; while the intensity increased due to the expectations of a Master’s program, it is very similar structure-wise to AUBG.
As a part of my financial award, I was offered a Graduate Assistantship. I work part-time with a professor and conduct and support his research and events on campus. Overall, it has been a nice transition mixture of academia and practical career development. The career opportunities as a U.S. citizen in the government and private space are limitless, it has been overwhelming to decide which track to focus on and the Assistantship has been a great way to get a broad understanding of opportunities in DC.
I miss the cozy feel of Blagoevgrad and the small campus feel, but I have been enjoying the variety of cuisine here. While my American peers have limited international experience, I cherish my time in Bulgaria and hold it as one of my greatest assets as I participate in course discussions.
The AUBG Impact
I originally wanted to study information systems at AUBG and international relations, but I decided to switch to a dual major in international relations and journalism due to the challenging media environment.
Due to the liberal arts style of education, I was able to change my academic path a few times while at AUBG.
While it wasn’t my aim to seek a public service-focused career path, it blends my interests quite well. I am still learning all of the different career paths to go down in DC so I am not firm on exactly which direction I want to head but it’s the best location for me to find out.
One of the biggest ways AUBG shaped my interests was the diverse classroom environment.
When studying international relations in a group of people that have different nationalities and upbringings, it offers a perspective that cannot be taught from a textbook.
At times even in my classes at American University, it can feel like an echo chamber as my classes are majority U.S. citizens. AUBG expanded my view of international relations, too. When I decided to attend AUBG, my main goal was to combine the academic side of international relations and the cultural/extracurricular side of international relations which is nearly impossible at most universities.
The AUBG Highlights
Academically, one of the best highlights was a study trip to Brussels with Professor Crombois as a part of the EU-Russia/China Relations course [in October 2022]. It meshed together how member states conduct foreign policy inside a complicated bureaucracy and uncovered the challenges and hopes of EU enlargement. Under the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, this trip felt even more important to understand the institutions that are vital for European security and peace.
Extracurricularly, More Honors was the highlight of my time at AUBG. The student club brought together the most unique group of students that challenged every part of the system and satirically brought forward many issues students faced while studying.
During your studies, you were also part of AUBG’s Admissions Office and the English Language Institute. What motivated you to support these departments?
When I started AUBG, there were very few full-time Americans, especially those without some familial connection to Bulgaria. I wanted to join the Admissions Office because AUBG is a hidden gem and many of its selling points do not align with the average American. Being the best university in Bulgaria does not resonate with the typical American high school senior who is under societal pressure to shoot for the U.S. top 50 or top 25 schools.
AUBG has the ability to compete with this caliber of school because of its academic rigor and four years of immersion experience.
Similarly, the cost of living is rarely taken into account for deciding a university but it is one of AUBG’s strongest points.
I chose to support ELI because it allowed me to be involved in the community even more. It was an incredible opportunity to connect and understand Blagoevgrad. I assisted ELI through the swings of Bulgaria’s COVID policies and transitioned between online and in-person classes. It was pure fun to teach the students and I wish I had spent more time at ELI.
The Blagoevgrad Experience
I had the wonderful opportunity to live in each of the three Skaptopara dorms from a single room, shared room, and two-room one-bath. I also moved off campus for two years. The dorms are dorms, compared to a lot of the freshmen ones I have visited in the U.S., they are extremely nice. Each of the dorms and room styles has its pros and cons. I loved off-campus living the most because it allowed for more flexibility and I didn’t have to move things as much. It also provided a deeper immersion element and allowed for greater interaction outside of the AUBG sphere.
I had a love-hate relationship with Blagoevgrad’s food options – my personal favorites were Roots, Kyusheto, and Flavor. However, there are limited options in Blago, and eating out is a large part of the social culture. In Sofia and Plovdiv, the food options are much more plentiful and quite good. Blagoevgrad, however, had everything, it just wasn’t in the Walmart-Supercenter style.
Studying in Bulgaria wasn’t a big culture shock – AUBG follows the same style of teaching as U.S. schools even down to the Library of Congress Classification System in the library for finding books.
It was likely more of a culture shock for non-Americans. The mixture of nationalities of the professors was refreshing and added layers to the discussions.
The Alumni Network
I have been able to connect with a few AUBG alumni in DC and I look forward to the upcoming event at the Bulgarian Embassy later this month to connect with more. The most influential alumni for me are from More Honors, AUBG’s satirical film club. They helped guide my decision to pursue a journalism major, they offered insights into career options, and they continue to be my go-to resource to reconnect with the university.
Piece of Advice
For an American, I would suggest getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. The experience at AUBG extends beyond the couple of class hours per day and the campus. It is one of the largest benefits of learning both inside and outside of the classroom but the cultural education that happens presents ideas and concepts that are extremely foreign to the “star-spangled-awesome” view held by many Americans.
Keeping an open mind and asking questions is important, but equally important is listening and digesting the answers.
I would be lying if I said it was easy, but the soft skills Americans, specifically, learn by studying in a majority-non-American environment are tremendous.
I would also keep up on local news, there is great English-language Bulgarian news – read it, it provides a more informed view of the contemporary issues that impact Blagoevgrad, the university, and your peers.
The Democratic Values
As an American, democracy can be an idea that is taken for granted and AUBG exposed me to multiple variations of democracy and, more importantly, the value of democratic institutions. Being in Bulgaria during the past two years of its political crisis was an eye-opening experience and the fortitude that was required by the Bulgarian people to wrangle with an imperfect democracy was admirable. It was equally eye-opening to view the U.S. from the outside as we faced (and continue to face) democratic backsliding.
Bulgaria’s location provides a unique opportunity to view democratic challenges in the West as a part of the EU – and be a part of its own internal challenges – but also engage with challenges from the East: Turkey, Black Sea security issues, EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, just to name a few.
There is no other university that will offer the opportunity to engage in emerging democratic issues while gaining a U.S.-accredited degree.
My view of the democratic issues we face as a larger Euro-atlantic community could have not been viewed without the personal and in-depth perspective that is only possible by living outside of your home country.
I learned about AUBG in 2017 while researching universities abroad that offer a U.S.-accredited degree as I wanted to utilize the Post-9/11 GI Bill and finding a university that was already within the U.S. accreditation system was preferred. The total cost of attendance was unbeatable once all factors were included like rent and price of food. The ultimate reason I decided to attend AUBG was after meeting alumni at the Bulgarian Embassy in DC during a recruiting event. It was а creative and inspirational group that sealed the deal.