‘Yes, we had bananas but no Christmas:’ One of AUBG’s first graduates goes back down Memory Lane

May 29, 2024
‘Yes, we had bananas but no Christmas:’ One of AUBG’s first graduates goes back down Memory Lane

It was delicious irony that she still savors. Boriana Milanova Treadwell was part of the VERY first class of students admitted to the American University in Bulgaria. The year was 1991 and the Berlin Wall had fallen less than two years earlier, signaling the symbolic end of the Cold War and the lifting of the Iron Curtain. But the symbols were still all around. The faculty and students of AUBG got to teach and learn in the former headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party in Blagoevgrad – an imposing building with marble floors and a grand marble staircase that seemed to be more in place in the Buckingham Palace than in the center of the city of Blagoevgrad.

Many students in that first class were older than usual. Boriana was 20 and had been a student at the state-run Sofia University. When she learned that an American-style University was about to open not far from the capital, she immediately applied, knowing that she’d have to start from scratch. There was no option to transfer classes at the time – in fact, there wasn’t much else.

Big Gallery Image

AUBG First Class having fun in the park close to Hilltop

Big Gallery Image

AUBG First Class having fun in the park close to Hilltop

“In those days, we had no computers at first and wrote our class papers and projects in longhand,” she recalls. There were old typewriters, but the keys were Cyrillic. The library didn’t exist yet – its various wings were revealed one by one over the course of the first few years. But what they lacked in basic equipment was more than made up for in a classroom and campus environment that valued discussion, debate, and critical thinking – and used the real world to practice solving big problems. In her telling, it was a mindboggling contrast with boring lectures and stultifying campus life at the state university.

A lost generation, found

“You must understand that we had known only the Communist system for our entire life up to that point. We could imagine another life – we saw it in movies and books and songs and shiny catalogues, and we dreamed of moving elsewhere including to the U.S., but the future looked much like the present and the past. This is what it would be for the rest of our lives, we were certain. Then, suddenly, everything changed.”

Her parents, born at the end of the 1940s, were part of the “lost generation,” people stunted and impoverished by a brutal system of propaganda and thought control. Both her mother and father were mechanical engineers, specializing in designing various machines that were then sold in other Communist-ruled countries that in turn sold their products. With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the end of those economies focused on unrealistic production quotas and no place to sell to anymore, so many businesses and organizations closed and people were left jobless – something that had not existed until that moment.

“My parents supported me going to school in the U.S., but they couldn’t afford the astronomical cost. They believed that an education in America was a ticket to a better life. But nobody at the time in Bulgaria had nowhere close to the kind of money needed to university tuition and living in the United States. And studying in Europe was not yet an option either as Bulgaria was not part of the European Union back then.”

She went to the U.S. embassy for information on U.S. universities. She copied down their addresses from the big catalogues, and then she wrote them letters, in long hand. “I took the English language competency exam and got a good score. I sent more than 200 letters, and most universities sent me big envelopes with shiny catalogues and excited letters – but no offers of financial aid. It seemed it wasn’t meant to be. Then came news of AUBG. That was the answer.”

Big Gallery Image

With AUBG friends Plamena Nustorova (left) and Teodora (Tarandjieva) Navid

Big Gallery Image

Three of her four AUBG IDs + a dining hall card

She was accepted and got enough financial aid to make it work. In that first class there were 200 Bulgarians and one Norwegian student of Persian descent. Today, there are students from more than 40 countries.

“What set our class apart was that we were driven and determined. We wanted to make it in the bigger world. To be successful. To change things including our country for the better.”

Go make a difference

Memories of a deprived childhood and the unrewarded hard work of her parents were huge motivators for her and her classmates, many of whom, 30 years later, have made significant contributions to life in Bulgaria, the region, Europe, the U.S., and the rest of the world. Enveloped in a campus ethos focused on nurturing personal agency and the power of possibility, graduates became force multipliers in their professions, which included journalism, computer science, and business administration. “Always, the united message from the faculty was, ‘You can be something more, you can make a difference’ – and that’s exactly what we needed to hear.”

At first, she chose business administration as her major – but realized it is too dry and not creative enough for her. In her first semester of sophomore year, she took Journalism 101 and was immediately hooked. She learned immediately, “If you don’t have a campus newspaper, you create one, which we eventually did.” In fact, they created three newspapers and a radio station, which began broadcasting a new kind of news—based on facts and objectivity. Listeners were shocked, then grateful. Pre-AUBG it was impossible for “ordinary people,” without connections to the Party apparatus to become journalists. Like in many other things, the graduates of that first AUBG class had to be pioneers.

Treadwell recalls the passion of her AUBG professors, some of whom like Bobby Phillips still teaching at AUBG. She says she owes the decision to become a journalist to her first journalism instructor, Byron Scott, who instilled in her the vital role journalists and editors play by insisting on telling the truth and exposing injustices. “He taught us, ‘If what you see is unjust, you can do something about it.’”

Big Gallery Image

AUBG Class of 1995

Big Gallery Image

May 7, 1995

Scott, who died in 2018 at age 78, did his graduate and undergraduate work at the University of Miami. In a beautiful coincidence, that’s where Boriana teaches now after a long and distinguished career as a journalist for CNN. In 2001, she got married to her American husband Ty, and they have a 20-year-old daughter Sophia, a rising junior at Boston University majoring in psychology and deaf studies. And why not AUBG? “I’d love her to go there but we’re a very close family and it’s a bit far away.”

Seeing humor in the absurd

It may be far away, but memories created there are still close at hand.  She’s optimistic about Bulgaria’s future and still thinks about the past, ruminating about writing a humorous book on growing up under Communist rule. “I wanted to title it Absurdistan, then discovered there is another book by that title but not about Bulgaria.”

What was absurd? “So many things. One was that as a child I spent summers not playing but sitting on our balcony on the 8th floor in one of those huge, gray Soviet era apartment blocs preparing mountains of red peppers for conserving in jars. There was a unique made in Bulgaria device—called chushkopek (‘pepper-roaster’) – a round ceramic contraption with a hole in the middle to drop the pepper where it was then cooked. And I would sit there for ages, roasting the peppers, then peeling them for my mother to put them in jars. And that lasted all summer when vegetables and fruit were in season. We had to conserve them all to have produce during the rest of the year.”

Another example involved bananas from then Bulgarian ally Cuba. The Communists had banned Christmas along with other religious holidays, so to appease the masses they imported this fruit around New Year’s, which was the official holiday, and allowed citizens to buy one bunch for their families. Having no experience with bananas, people put them in refrigerators because they were fresh only to see them quickly turn to an unappetizing brown, then black. Though she now lives in sub-tropical Florida and has access to bananas every day of the year, Boriana still associates bananas with cold weather and Christmas.

A third example involves Bulgaria’s famous rose oil that has always been an important export item to be used for perfumes, soaps, and body lotions. When she was in high school, she and her fellow 15-year-old students were sent as part of a national service program to pick up roses used to extract the oil – a process that must occur in the predawn hours. Another absurdity was the mandatory military training in high school for everyone that involved AK-47 automatic rifles and live ammunition. “We were preparing to fight the West if the time ever came,” noting with amazement that none of the kids was accidentally shot.

The absurdist narrative is gone. Bulgaria is now part of the EU and a close ally of the U.S. The class of 1995 is past middle age. Many of them are parents, and a few have welcomed grandchildren. Retirement beckons for some of them. Behind them are more than 6,000 graduates who have fanned out across the world with many serving Bulgaria as entrepreneurs, lawyers, journalists, academics, government leaders and more.

Does this mean the fire in the belly that distinguished the first class has flickered with the most recent? “Not at all. Bulgaria is on a good path now but not out of the woods,” she says, referring to significant corruption, Russian disinformation and military aggression, economic inequalities, and a not so merry-go-round political scene that features parties involving a former king, die hard communist revanchists, and others who specialize in frequent elections more than innovative policy prescriptions.

Plenty of challenges for fired up AUBG graduates, just in time for the expansion of the student body by a third over the next five years – and maybe material for a different book to be written by Treadwell. Luckily for future students, they won’t have to deal with bananas for a non-existent Christmas.