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Nikoleta Popkostadinova ’06: “At AUBG I loved the super intensive student participation”

The founding fathers of the American University in Bulgaria envisioned an institution capable of preparing the leaders Southeast European countries badly needed back in 1991. Nikoleta Popkostadinova is one of these leaders. Her personal and professional development since she graduated from AUBG in 2006 has left no doubt that the founding fathers’ dreams have come to fruition.

Born in Sofia but raised in Stara Zagora and Blagoevgrad, Popkostadinova received her high school education at the English Language School in Blagoevgrad. Even though she liked her history and biology classes, she found everyday school life somewhat boring. What she liked more instead was reading, both during classes and at home. Terry Pratchett, J.R.R. Tolkien and Douglas Adams provided her with worlds far more enticing and thought-provoking, worlds that also encouraged her to write short stories and detailed philosophical diaries.

At AUBG, Popkostadinova completed a major in journalism and mass communication, and a minor in history. Her love for anything journalism-related led her to get actively involved in student-run media, such as the De Facto newspaper and the Verve magazine.

“I loved the super intensive student participation and all the group projects and in-class discussions,” she recalled. “This is how you actually process new information and learn to think and interact, which in my opinion is far more important than theory.”

Popkostadinova admits students need to acquire some basic knowledge pertaining to a specific field, yet she believes learning through communication with open-minded peers and participation in hands-on activities work better in the long-term, especially in journalism. The courses she took at AUBG involved “not too much theory and a lot of writing, designing and shooting, which was perfect” because “you graduate and start right away as a very good journalist.”

She said she further appreciates the contributions made by her “great instructors – knowledgeable, experienced, engaging, stimulating and entertaining,” who “would spend time with you and give you advice and guidelines.” Thus, Popkostadinova acquired diverse communication, presentation and social skills so valuable in the hectic 21st century.

As soon as she completed her degree, she dived into professional journalism, while keeping an eye on external educational, training and professional opportunities.

In the nine years since she left Blagoevgrad, Popkostadinova has built a remarkable professional portfolio. She has worked for Capital, a leading Bulgarian newspaper, written news and analytical articles as a correspondent for Transitions Online, a magazine that covers political, economic, social and cultural issues in the former communist states in Southeast Europe and Central Asia, and contributed pieces as a freelance journalist to Balkan Insight, the leading news site covering the Western Balkans. She has also had stories published in EU Observer, Der Standard, Le Monde Diplomatique, Allgemeine Zeitung, Eurozine, Businessweek, Future Challenges, Grazia, the European Journalism Centre's magazine, and many more. In addition, in 2007 she won first prize in the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence through a project related to the Roma population in the Balkans.   

In the past, Popkostadinova has worked as a manager of international projects at the Bulgarian cultural platform Edno (One) and has participated in the organization of major cultural events, such as One Design Week, One Dance Week, One Architecture Week, and Sofia Contemporary.

Since January, she has worked in Sofia as a marketing communications manager at Melon Inc., a software development company founded 15 years ago by several AUBG alumni.

As a responsible and globally oriented journalist, Popkostadinova strives to cover stories many of her colleagues avoid for one reason or another. For instance, she was one of five finalists in the contest “The Change,” organized by the Reach for Change foundation. The contest aims to foster social entrepreneurship by supporting initiatives aimed at improving the lives of children and young people. Her project involves creating a sexual education platform for various mobile devices.

Popkostadinova had pondered this idea for a long time before she finally decided to realize it. While she was doing her Master of Science degree in communication studies at the University of Amsterdam, she worked at Radio Netherlands Worldwide on a project to raise public awareness about sexual health issues in Southeast Asia.

Later she researched data on sexual health in Bulgaria and discovered that the situation was much worse than she expected, and definitely much worse than most of the other EU member states. She knew immediately what the roots of the problem were: no sexual education at school and only a limited talk about safe and enjoyable sex at home.

“This is a tough but hugely important topic because sexual education is not only about contraception and reproduction, it’s about human relations, tolerance, respect and dignity,” Popkostadinova said.

Because she considers educational and legislative reforms in the near future highly unlikely, she aspires to “go to the kids where they are in the way they interact using their language.”  That is why now, supported by a small team, she is putting together an interactive online platform to fill in the gaps in the Bulgarian teenagers’ sexual education.

Story by Daniel Penev

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