President Emerita Julia Watkins on AUBG, 25 Commencements Later

Dr. Julia Watkins is AUBG’s longest-serving president, who guided the institution through its infancy in the 1990s and early 2000s. She returned to campus in May to address the 25th graduating class at the 2019 Commencement Ceremony. We sat down to talk about AUBG then and now, and how the university has grown in the past almost 30 years.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. 

You joined AUBG in 1993. How did that happen?

I was asked to come over here by the president of the University of Maine on a temporary assignment and came in August of 1993 for six months. Then the Board [of Trustees] asked me to stay and the rest is history. I stayed for 10 years and left in 2003. I was here a long time.

What was AUBG like back then?

It was dynamic, it was exciting and it was … I’m going to use the word underdeveloped. There were a lot of things that needed to be done, as you can imagine. Even to house students, we still had the Hilltop and the Zhivkov hunting lodge up the way and the Volga Hotel* – all temporary sorts of venues for the students. And then, of course, everything taking place in the Main Building at that time, a lot of renovations had to be done there. So in terms of the physical plant, there was a lot of work to be done to make it really habitable and really an educational center.

And then there were other challenges, particularly in terms of funding. When I arrived, we didn’t have any consistent commitment of funds from either the U.S. government or from the Open Society Institute. We had significant funding from both of them but they were not long-term sustainable commitments. Ongoing was the recruitment of faculty and students, although there never seemed to be an issue with too few students. We were new, it was a new day. So it was very dynamic and very exciting and very tiring, I would say.

You were also here for the very first commencement and this year we celebrate the 25th. What was it like having that ceremony and being the president then to set off the first class of AUBGers into the world?

It was very moving. It was a grand day. We knew that it was a major milestone, it was a major accomplishment that we had those 156 students who were graduating. We knew that really said to the community, and to Bulgaria in particular, that we were serious business, we were here to stay and we want to be a part of the community. We structured the commencement to give that message – it was open in the central plaza and there was a lot of curiosity about it. It was something new. The universities in Bulgaria, of course, graduated people, but it was not recognized like it is today and like we were doing it, so it was very different and new.

AUBG's first Commencement Ceremony in 1995

What is your fondest memory of those 10 years at AUBG?

There were a lot of those moments that I remember that are fond and they probably outweigh the moments that were troubling, because there were both. The commencement was one of them. When we were finally able to secure a long-term funding commitment from both USAID and the Open Society Foundations, those were very, very memorable events in my mind. In fact, signing the agreement in Washington, D.C., in the Department of State was a very important event. The other thing was, later on, when we received the NEASC accreditation. We’d had several visits over time and to have that finalized, that was a real stamp of approval. And shortly after that, we were successful in the Bulgarian accreditation agency. Those were really memorable events.

We tried to start some traditions. We began the Honors Convocation and the presidential award, which the students then picked up and did the More Honors and all of those kinds of things just snowballed and spoke to the liveliness of the campus and the vibrancy of it.

Did you learn any Bulgarian while you were here?

Survival. [Laughs] Very little.

Watkins with Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev

You touched upon that in answering the previous questions, but you came here for a temporary position and then you stayed 10 years – why?

Well, there was a lot to be done and I was enjoying it and feeling that we were making some solid progress. So why not stay? But then finally there comes a time when you need to leave and move on and I needed to go back to the States and be closer to my kids.

Now that you’re back here, what do you think are some of the biggest and most positive changes that have happened at AUBG?

Another really gratifying moment which points to something that’s very visually changed is the built-out campus. It’s just amazing. I remember the morning that we broke ground for the first residence hall and we had all the plans in place. When I was here a couple of years ago to see what has been built out, it looked like what we had expected – the walkway along the river, all of that is very, very pretty. And also the visible change in the traffic patterns and the bridge and the market.

The original master plan for the Skaptopara Campus

In terms of the non-visible things, I’m not really sure because I don’t know enough of what’s going on. But I think the creation of a space for a library is beautiful, the student center must be a very lively place for student life. Those are really remarkably visible kinds of things. The community looks a lot the same, to be honest. I can’t talk about the academics, I don’t know what’s going on. The one thing I know is the focus on innovation. That’s all good, that’s what’s happening globally in terms of higher education. I think the other thing is the larger number of international students and that speaks to something that’s really important in higher education.

Where do you hope to see AUBG in another 25 classes time?

I’ve got this number and it’s 4,500 graduates so far. I would hope that we’ve more than doubled that. I would hope that you would see among the next 4,500 graduates, and the existing 4,500, you’d see a good many more who are committed to civil society and public service, and committed to their countries of origin.

*Hilltop, Todor Zhivkov's former hunting lodge and the Volga hotel were among the venues used to house students in AUBG's first years, before the opening of the first Skaptopara Residence Hall in 1998. 

Interview by Martin Georgiev

Photos from the AUBG archives

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