2010 Exchange Student Kayla Whittaker Establishes “Rays of Hope for Bulgaria ELI Scholarship”

Having spent just a semester at AUBG in 2010, U.S. exchange student Kayla Whittaker left a lasting mark on the community. Six years ago, Whittaker arrived at AUBG to explore Eastern European culture and meet new friends but she also wanted to make a difference in the lives of people.

Whittaker soon joined the Better Community Club at AUBG, met like-minded individuals and got involved with charitable initiatives in Blagoevgrad. The time spent at AUBG inspired Whittaker to establish the Rays of Hope for Bulgaria, a nonprofit project that actively supports “From Toys to Notebooks”, a Blagoevgrad educational initiative for Roma pre-schoolers, a project of AUBG Professor William Clark. In addition, Whittaker has now created a scholarship for socially underprivileged students aged 8-20 at the English Language Institute (ELI) at AUBG.

“We knew that education is going to be key: if you start young with the children and educate them, hopefully they will have a future and a chance to get into college and if they get a college degree they can get a job,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker discussed her idea with AUBG Modern Languages Professor Sabina A. Wien, who is the Faculty Advisor to the PTPI Better Community Club, and the two of them concluded that the ELI scholarship would be an effective way to provide the much-needed educational support for smart youngsters who lack parental care or come from financially challenged Roma families.

“We have an already established tradition of trying to help young people who are in one way or another socially underprivileged,” Wien said. “And we already have some students at AUBG with that kind of background. We have done two bake sales to pay a community course here at ELI and the person who benefited from these bake sales is now a student at AUBG.”

Development Coordinator at AUBG Borislav Tyulekov helped Whittaker and Wien establish the scholarship that paid for the English courses of two ELI students.

This May, Whittaker traveled from the States to Bulgaria to meet with the scholarship recipients and reunite with old friends at AUBG.

“When you are passionate about something you invest in it. But when you can put a face to that, it is even more special and it seems that all your effort is a reality,” Whittaker said. “The hope is that this is not just my story and that other people get involved, and that something small creates a ripple effect.” 

Whittaker’s inspiring actions have already created a ripple effect, Wien said. A mentor under the ABLE program has reached out to Wien and told her they want to establish an ELI scholarship as well.

Wien also had a chance to observe the immediate positive effect the scholarship support had on students. “One of the two girls used to be a good student at school but her grades got worse as she experienced dramatic changes in her private life,” Wien said.

Now the girl is in a foster family. She receives guidance from the Blagoevgrad Christian-Orthodox Priest Andon Shavulev and she was granted the ELI scholarship which would enable her to fulfill her greatest dream – to learn English. “I talked to her teacher at the ELI recently, and he said the girl is so serious and involved,” Wien continued. “This is really the proof that if you can give to people the right environment and the right incentive, everything is possible and change is happening.”

Story by Dimana Doneva

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