January 26, 2016 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97
Dr. Roger Whitaker was the first President of the re-opened American College of Sofia. Together with his wife Susan, who taught ESL at the College, he stayed at ACS between 1992 and 1994. He kept his close connection to the school after he left as a member of the ACS Board of Trustees where he is now Chair. We have always wanted to publish a detailed version of the re-opening story from someone as involved in the process as they were and are extremely happy to be able to do so here.
Dr. Whitaker, you were the first President of ACS after its re-opening, in the ground-breaking years of 1992-1994. We know you and those first dedicated teachers and administration members had to go through a lot to actually manage to re-open the school after 50 years of forced non-existence. What made you believe in this adventure in the first place?
Well, I suppose one never really knows why you start an adventure until you look back on it. I also suppose that all of the courageous people who made up the initial group in the first two years (Americans and Bulgarians) probably took to the challenge for somewhat different reasons. That is why it was an adventure. For Susan and me, our commitment to be a part of the team to re-start the College drew on two special factors:
First, we and our two young children lived in Bulgaria (Gorna Banya) for nearly a year in the mid-1970s while I conducted research for my PhD dissertation. I returned to Bulgaria many times between 1976 and 1992 for various academic conferences and we maintained relationships with many good friends in Sofia. Taking a leave of absence from my job at Boston University and returning to Sofia in 1992, while complicated, was informed by our prior experience. We had a pretty clear idea what we were getting into, at least in terms of everyday life in Bulgaria.
Second, we were drawn to the adventure because we were thrilled to see the winds of change sweep through Eastern Europe. It was an exhilarating time for the region, filled with exciting assumptions that change would be clear, purposeful, quick, and fun. The start of major societal change is often celebrated with premature enthusiasm and excessive rhetoric and to some extent that was the case in Bulgaria in the early 90s. But, all of us – parents, students, teachers, staff, administrators, trustees – brought unbridled enthusiasm to our sense that we were part of something special. We believed that the challenges of an emerging democracy required an educational system to support Bulgaria’s new social, economic, and political aspirations. We believed the restoration of the American College – with its grand tradition and supported by its loyal alumni – could serve as a model secondary school integrating the best practices of American-style education with the well-established traditions of Bulgaria’s commitment to educational excellence. We believed we could help prepare the next generation for Bulgaria’s pending transformation. We still believe that.
When were you most doubtful that you would ever succeed?
Successful new ventures require optimism; whether it is justified is another matter. Our team assumed the College would be successfully re-opened. We had to assume this because discouraging and frustrating developments hit us every day. During our darkest moments, I thought the barriers to success were intentional. In fact, I think it is fair to say that there were Bulgarian officials who did not want us to open. I encountered many of them and on many occasions. When a government’s leadership changes, it does not mean that the attitudes or preferences of government workers necessarily change. We all know that. So, there were ornery meetings, personal challenges, passive-aggressive minor officials, and political naysayers who did their best to frustrate our efforts to establish the school. At times, I felt like an ACS piñata, waiting for the next hits from blindfolded bureaucrats.
I remember in the summer of 1992 the Minister of Education sending me a personal note delivered on the Friday afternoon before our admissions test was scheduled for Sunday. He warned me not to go ahead hosting the admissions examination, arguing it would be illegal because we had not yet been approved by the Council of Ministers. Close to 3000 students were waiting for the exam we had prepared in the States and that I had carted to Sofia in six boxes brought through the airport as excess baggage. Thank goodness the customs officer was disinterested! Close to 3000 students had paid their admissions test fee, lining up on the stairs of the building where we had our temporary office in the city center. An architect stopped by one day to share that he knew the building pretty well and he feared that the building might be at risk with so much weight standing on the staircases. We moved the line outside.
There were so many wacky incidents at that time. Only approved institutions could open bank accounts. We were not yet approved by the Council of Ministers so we didn’t have a bank account. What to do with all of the money collected for the admissions test fee? We had no choice. I bundled up the high stack of leva collected from parents each day and carried the bundle wrapped in newspaper to the apartment where I was staying. I stashed the packets of leva in the freezer every night. I may not have had much food in the fridge, but I could have bought a restaurant.
With respect to the Minister’s warning, I had a long and lonely weekend considering our options. In the end, playing a hunch that if we didn’t go ahead with the admissions exam we might be delayed for a long time getting the college opened, we defied the Minister, held the exam on Sunday as planned, and announced the admission of our first class of 50 boys and 50 girls. Two days after the test, we were delighted to have the Council of Ministers approve us. This time they had no choice. That meant we could have a bank account and I could unload the stored leva. What a relief! Actually, even after we had an account and the college was opened, the ACS budget manager and I still had to go to the bank in the city center to withdraw large sums of cash to lug back to the campus and pay faculty and staff their salaries. We were advised that wasn’t very safe but there was no alternative at the time. It felt like the Wild West, or should I say the Wild East.
Back to the question about doubts: There were surely those that wanted to stop us from getting started. But, I think it is also right to say that many of our frustrations and annoyances were a consequence of the simple “newness” of our effort. We were the first institution to take advantage of the new law on private education. They were exploring new policies and procedures; so too were we. We were all new to it, including the Board of Trustees in New York since few of the Board members had had the chance to visit the historic campus before we actually re-opened. As such, there were countless questions that had never been considered, policy and procedural issues that had never arisen, uncertainties that officials had never had to resolve. Many of our frustrations were likely the result of the fact that we were the first to try to implement the new regulations on establishing schools independent of the State. The list of unknowns felt endless. We were answering challenges on a daily basis. Where is your contract for parents? Oh, well, let’s see… we’ll develop one and get it to you soon. We did. You need a student code of conduct manual. Okay, let me work on that. I did that sitting in a friend’s apartment on Stamboliski Blvd. one Sunday morning, copying much of the high school handbook my daughter used in her school in Massachusetts. Most of it is still in use. You need to consider some variance to your policy that admission of students is determined strictly by the results of your admissions test and essay. Sorry, sir, we won’t do that, no matter who asks, what is promised or what is threatened, although we had plenty of examples of each. The point is that the inevitable complexities of our “newness” combined with the ill-will of some officials made for some very difficult times.
So, did I have doubts? Of course. But, to some extent, uncertainties and difficulties energized our team, created a sense of shared purpose and helped us support one another through some tough times. That is probably why so many of the faculty, staff, administrators, students, and parents who became part of the College in the earliest years still feel a sense of deep and lasting appreciation, indeed affection, for one another. We always will.
When did you feel that the mission had been accomplished?
I think it was on September 15, 1992 when 100 great kids and our small team of adults (we were pretty young too, you know) stood on the steps of Sanders Hall. The sweep of water on the steps to open our first school day and the goofy picture we decided to take of us standing together will always serve as the tipping point when we realized that students, parents, teachers, and staff were in it – and in it together – for the long haul. It was no longer a question of whether we could open; we were open and we were open to stay! I lit a candle in a little church in the city center that afternoon, standing amongst some very old women who were there for other reasons. We simply shared a sense of thankfulness.
The second mission “marker” in terms of our sustainability came with respect to the property. I won’t detail all of the back-and-forth complexities of our efforts to re-secure the land that the College had owned. There were very complicated legal and political issues involved and there were many false starts and failed attempts to resolve the issues in the first couple of years as the College returned to the campus. I spent a good bit of my time (and much of my patience) the first two years hassling with these issues. The most promising strategy in the beginning was to establish a foundation with the Prime Minister and the ACS Director as co-presidents of the foundation. The land (much, but not all of the original campus) would be conveyed to the foundation for the use of the College. That failed when the government we were working with “fell” suffering a vote of no confidence from the Parliament. I was in New York, on my way to a Board of Trustee meeting, when I called back to my campus office from a Times Square telephone booth to check on things, only to learn that the agreement I was going to outline to the Board was no longer an option. Another period of hopefulness was dashed when the Minister of Justice who was assigned by the Prime Minister to work with us on the property issue, died. I stood at his funeral wondering about the concept of Justice. There were other attempts and some very confusing developments. I spent a good bit of time with a Minister of Interior charged with representing the government’s interests who turned out to be quite sympathetic to our claim. On the other hand, we had a lawyer for the College who we decided didn’t fully represent the best interests of the College in his discussions with the government. But, in the summer of 1994 we reached an agreement for the long-term use of the campus by the College. I signed the agreement on behalf of the College and Trustees on the day I left Bulgaria to return to the U.S. After signing, I left immediately for the airport to catch my plane. I didn’t even get a chance to return to campus to offer final good-byes so it was with very mixed feelings that I left that July afternoon – satisfied to have the use and occupancy agreement in hand, saddened by the hasty departure.
Mrs. Whitaker, what is the most vivid memory you have from the years at ACS? Do you recall any culture shocks, awkward or funny situations?
There are so many memories from those years. As Rog has said, we lived in Sofia in 1975-76, so I had some idea of Sofia and Vitosha and life in Bulgaria from that time. We began our time at ACS with great enthusiasm and a sense of adventure. I remember my first impression of the campus and particularly of “the Big House” was that it was like going into the woods surrounding Sleeping Beauty’s castle – heavy vines and overgrowth covering the beautiful buildings underneath. Sometimes some of the teachers would go off on explorations of the campus and return with treasures found in the unrestored buildings. As but one example, we found a dusty statue of Lenin sitting on the fireplace mantel in the President’s house.
One of my most vivid memories from the first days of the teaching year was how amazed our students were at the conditions of the classrooms – the new furniture and especially the white boards. In each class students would ask to touch them, try erasing them, and really enjoyed writing on them! That is hard to imagine now, isn’t it? It is also hard to imagine just how difficult it was to communicate with family back in the States. There was no internet or email and international phone calls had to be made from a central location in downtown Sofia – from little booths where you could hear the person in the next booth yelling into the phone to his far distant relatives. That was probably the hardest adjustment.
Shopping in Sofia was a bit of a culture shock and a challenge, but part of the adventure. I remember the piles of cabbages and pumpkins along the street in the late fall and the dried onions in the winter when I would have paid plenty for a green salad or some broccoli. But oh those fresh strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes when they were available in the spring! Shopping became more of an adventure for everyone as more goods became available and the spirit of free enterprise took hold. New shops sprang up throughout the city, some with more shelves than goods, some selling unexpected combinations of goods like satellite dishes and panty hose. There was a spirit of openness and a welcoming of change throughout the city.
But my most vivid memory of that first year is the fellowship of working closely everyday with a few like-minded and committed colleagues – Bulgarian and American. I recall riding down each day from Simeonovo (where we had to stay until the houses on campus were renovated) in the blue van with the entire American teaching staff, planning our joint efforts – spelling bees, lessons using rock music lyrics, deciding to teach the rules of baseball. In the afternoons we struggled together learning Bulgarian. Together we planned and successfully carried out the first Earth Day Celebration, interscholastic trivia contest, Green School, and Christmas Concert. We coordinated which classes would write which research projects. Together we were engaged in an exciting effort that was truly bringing change and a new kind of education to the country as it opened up to the world. We were making it up as we went along, and it was energizing, challenging, and just plain fun for all of us.
Mrs. Whitaker, what was the biggest difference between your Bulgarian students and the students you had before?
My first job after college had been as an ESL teacher, but my graduate school training was in communication disorders, so my most recent jobs had been in special education, helping students who had significant communication and learning difficulties. My students in Bulgaria were very different: I needed to find challenging, creative, and engaging ways to teach them and keep them interested. But I never had to wonder if they could learn what I asked or whether it was too hard or whether they would do their homework. The students I taught those first two years in Sofia are some of the brightest, most committed, and eager students I have ever taught. They were being challenged by the curriculum but also challenged to accept a new way of learning, very different from the learning and expectations they had had for their first 7 years at school.
Dr. Whitaker, you have been on the ACS Board of Trustees since 1990, so that makes your connection to this school more than 20 years old, and you are now Chair of the Board. What would you say about your experiences on the Board?
The Board is made up of a wonderful collection of very distinguished professionals – women and men, Americans and Bulgarians – who volunteer their time and energy and expertise on behalf of the American College. Their dedication to the purposes of ACS and their tireless efforts to do what they can to support it amazes me. As you probably know, no one is paid to be on the Board. In fact, Board members are not reimbursed for their expenses getting to and from various meetings, including those held in New York or Sofia. But beyond their financial commitment, Board members care deeply about the success of the College and they are especially committed to the best interests of the ACS students. I have served on several different Boards over the last few years but none has been as engaging or as satisfying as the ACS Board of Trustees.
What have you been up to since you left Bulgaria in 1994? What are you doing currently?
We settled in Washington D.C. after returning to the States in 1994. Susan works in the public schools of Northern Virginia (just outside Washington) as a Speech/ Language Pathologist. I have been at George Washington University (in the center of Washington) since our return, serving in various positions in the central university administration, as a founding dean of a new college at the university and, most recently, returned to teaching full-time as a professor.
Mrs. Whitaker, your husband has been coming back to ACS regularly throughout the years in his capacity as a Board member, but I believe you had a longer period away from ACS and Bulgaria. You attended the graduation ceremony of the class of 2009. What changes could you register in ACS and Bulgaria as a whole?
I was happy to see that the campus looked very much the same. I know there have been many changes in the buildings and classrooms, but I am glad that the overall feeling of the campus has remained. Sofia itself is much different – so many new malls, shops, and restaurants. The traffic jams feel very familiar. But whatever happened to the bear that used to prowl around with his trainer near the Sheraton. And can you still ride the bus for 6 stotinki?
What makes the two of you happy these days?
We still love to travel. Nothing is more depressing than a dusty passport, so we do our best to always have travel plans looking ahead. We continue to visit new places and last year, while I was on an approved sabbatical leave from my university, we spent three months in Asia (the picture on the Fox Glacier in New Zealand comes from that trip) and two other months in Europe.
What makes us the most happy, however, is our three grandsons. Our daughter is now an Assistant Professor of Micro-biology at the University of Illinois. She and her husband have two children, ages 3 and 1. We love to see them as often as we can. Our son and his Norwegian wife live in the Boston area and have a one-year old son. They will be moving to Norway this summer and so we will have plenty of opportunities (actually needs) to get to Scandinavia as often as we can. So, side-trips to Bulgaria may be in the offing.
What message or advice would you offer to ACS alumni?
The easiest and most common answer would be to ask graduates to be thankful for their experiences at the College. That is a message not only for alumni, but for all of us who have benefitted from our involvement with ACS. It is probably true that ACS students would be stellar academic achievers no matter where they attended secondary school. Their success is grounded in their innate abilities and their motivation to reach their potential and pursue their individual goals. What ACS adds to this mix is a supportive learning environment – one where individual students are encouraged to explore new ideas, experience new activities inside and outside the classroom, encounter complex and sometimes contradictory evidence on important issues, and develop confidence in themselves and respect for others, even those with whom they disagree. The College nurtures academic prowess, to be sure. But, the special value of the ACS experience is not fully captured by GPA scores, university admissions successes or academic contests won. It is in the ways that ACS graduates think about themselves, care about the complexities of the global condition, and embrace their responsibility to do their part to make the world a little better place.
The interview was first published in June 2010 as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine. At the time, Dr. Roger Whitaker was in fact Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees. We’ve edited this to his current (in 2016) position of Chair of the Board.