Lisa Kostova ’97: Giving Back

January 21, 2016 by American College of Sofia

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Lisa Kostova ’97 delivering the key note address to the Class of 2013

Lisa (Elisaveta) Kostova ’97 is an ACS alumna from the first graduating class after ACS’ reopening and a member of the ACS Board of Trustees since 2012. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, a BA in International Studies & German Studies and a BS in Management & Finance from the University of PennsylvaniaLisa lives in San Francisco and is currently wrapping up a sabbatical that took her to India, Australia, and New Zealand. At the time of the speech she worked as Vice President of Product at Bright.com, which was acquired by LinkedIn in 2014. This is her keynote address to the Graduating ACS Class of 2013.

Hello faculty, Mr. President, Board of Trustees, family and friends and honored guests. Above all, hello dear ACS graduates, Class of 2013!

I am deeply honored and very happy to be here with you today. Yet I find myself on this podium almost by chance. When I received the call from Dr. Whitaker about the opportunity to speak to you today, I asked him “Are you sure?” to which Dr. Whitaker replied “Lisa, it has been 16 years since you graduated”.  No woman likes to be reminded how very long ago she graduated high school. And yet it feels like it was yesterday…

The truth is I almost never graduated from this College. To begin with, I barely made it on the admissions list. On the day the results were released, my father was standing in the courtyard of Sofia University with thousands of other parents when the admission sheets were posted on the wall. As he was making his way through the crowd to the lists one of his colleagues at the hospital, whose child was also applying, came out in the opposite direction. She saw my dad and said: “Ah, Dr. Kostov, your daughter is last on the list”. Of course, what was important to my dad and what he heard was that I was on the list. But, you see, I barely made it.

But that was just the beginning. I almost didn’t make it on several occasions. The reason I managed to graduate was the support of so many people in the community – the president, staff, teachers, friends and even parents of classmates.

In my junior year, October of 1995, my father, the provider of the family, died in a car accident with two other doctors. The first person to show up on our doorstep the morning after the accident and comfort us was the mother of an ACS classmate of mine.

For various reasons, the case dragged in the courts for several years while my mother and I were left with no support. These were very difficult years for us. In the year following my dad’s death, Bulgaria experienced a hyperinflation and the dollar went from 16 leva for 1 US dollar in April 1996 to 3,500 leva for 1 US dollar in January 1997. That month, the monthly pension I was receiving for my dad’s death was the equivalent of $2, enough to buy a cheap bottle of shampoo, nothing else.

Unbeknownst to me, my mother went to see Dr. Charles, the ACS President at the time, and told him she could no longer afford to keep me enrolled in the College. Dr. Charles wouldn’t hear of it and promised that even if he had to pay for my tuition himself, I would continue my studies at ACS. Teachers like my math teacher Ani Ivanova, offered to postpone exams and meet with me privately so I could keep up with the material. One of my classmates’ fathers, Mr. Blagoev, found a wealthy boy I could give English lessons to for a couple of hundred dollars, which was a tremendous amount of money at the time and a huge help to my family. And my classmates decided without my knowledge to pitch in and pay for me to attend my prom night.

Americans have a saying: “It takes a village”. And it really does. I wouldn’t be sitting here today if that was not the case. None of us would be sitting here if it wasn’t for Professor Black who walked miles in the snow during the years of WWII just so he could withdraw money to keep the College open. Or without the trustees who for 50 dark years held out hope and kept the American College funds intact. Or without the courageous and idealistic teachers who came to Bulgaria in 1992 led by Dr. Whitaker and with their own hands rebuilt this building behind you. Andy Robarts, one of those teachers, is here today and I can tell you that he and those he was with really put their hearts into this place. In the face of personal threats and tremendous political uncertainty, they found a way to re-open the school and give us this gift.

Today is a special day for you, dear ACS graduates! But it is also a special day for your parents, your family, your friends, and your teachers – the whole community who have sacrificed so much and helped you in countless little and big ways. Let’s all stand up turn around and give a round of applause to the silent heroes, to our village, to your family, friends, and neighbors. We wouldn’t be here without you!

The second thing I wanted to share with you today is the importance of nurturing a feeling of gratitude and the importance of giving back. Achieving great things in life takes hard work, a vision of where you want to go, and persistence. And I have no doubt that you know how to work hard, you know how to persist and persevere. So I’m very confident that wherever you go you’ll achieve great things and you’ll be successful. But if you take just one thing from my message, it is to not let ambition and focus overshadow the present moment as it is only in the present moment that you can see and feel grateful for that what you have, for the support of your community and that of your village. Nurture and cultivate that feeling of gratitude and you will be inspired to give back.

Giving back takes many forms – big ones and small ones. I see the example of giving back every day with my ACS classmates. Evgeniya Peeva, who started Teach for Bulgaria to provide high quality education for all Bulgarian children and who this year will send 50 teachers to remote parts of Bulgaria where they don’t even have a single teacher. Theodora Konetsovska, who together with her husband founded a scholarship for one Bulgarian child to attend Camp Rising Sun in the US every year. Borislav Stefanov, who came back to Bulgaria to lead the Foreign Investment Agency and who instead of sitting in his office all day like his predecessors speaks, writes, travels, and works tirelessly towards promoting investments in our country. Maria Mircheva, who now lives in Lake Tahoe in California and who has dedicated her life to replanting Sugar Pine trees that have been lost to disease and deforestation. It is also Petia Ivanova, who, together with other parents in Bulgaria, is pioneering new and sustainable ways of parenting. Petia also heads the alumni fundraising initiative and reminds us every day of the importance of giving back to our community.

My ACS classmates are journalists, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and authors. They are entrepreneurs, movie-makers, and policy makers. But what unites them, what unites all of us as graduates of the American College of Sofia, is finding our own way of giving back to our village. Giving time, money but most importantly, giving love and care back to our communities. And back to our village.

So take time every day to exercise this very, very important muscle in your body, the most important muscle in your body – your heart. The feeling of gratitude will light up your whole life, it will fill your dreams, it will help you expel the daily worries, anxieties, and fears. It will let you experience happiness every day instead of chasing it into the future.

I will close today’s message with a quote by Jonas Salk who said: “I have had dreams and I have had nightmares. I overcame my nightmares with the help of my dreams.” May you have the feeling of gratitude and appreciation in your hearts, may you always remember your village and give back to it, and may gratitude always make your dreams stronger than your nightmares.

Congratulations, Class of 2013!

The material was first published in June 2013 as part of the ACS Alumni magazine.

Lisa’s speech (video):

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