Kathryn van Steyn: Live Simply and Passionately!

February 9, 2016 by American College of Sofia

Kathryn Davis, now van Steyn, taught Biology and Chemistry at ACS from 1993 to 1995. For many of us she was the first person to alert us to environmental issues at a time when the subject was practically non-existent in Bulgaria. We contacted her to find out what she has been up to since 1995, what she remembers from her ACS times, and what makes her happy nowadays. We were relieved to find out she hadn’t changed at all.

The van Steyn family in Sun Valley, Idaho in June, 2009

The van Steyns in Sun Valley, Idaho in June, 2009

It is such a pleasure to hear from you again after so many years. What have you been up to since you left ACS? What are you doing currently?

First, I can hardly believe that it has been nearly fifteen years since I was teaching at ACS. Time speeds up with age! I have such fond memories of Bulgaria, and particularly of ACS that it seems like yesterday that I was teaching there. After Bulgaria, I went home to California. My passport was full – 48 countries in ten years – and I was done with traveling. I had had the idyllic lifestyle: teach, travel, and adventure, with very little responsibility. I covered the world, climbed some of the world’s tallest peaks, and ventured to many less traveled roads. I was a free spirit and very independent; the very thought of “digging roots” and settling down was quite scary. After two years of science teaching in San Francisco at an all-boys school, I met my husband, climbed a few more peaks; atop one, 23,000 ft Aconcagua, he proposed. A year later we married, and after our first child, I took a break from teaching to raise our kids. We now have three children, two girls, Kenna and Hayden (ages 10 and 6) and a boy, Jacob (age 9).

Is there something that you regret? What makes you happy lately?

I really try not to live with regrets. I have been incredibly fortunate with the life that I have had… incredibly fortunate. Most of the goals that I have set out to do, I have achieved. And I try not to look back as much as I do to look forward. On happiness, first and foremost are my family and friends. Life should be all about fun. And some of the happiest people I’ve ever encountered were in a poor, small village in Nepal, so it is more of a state of being than anything else. I derive my happiness from the outdoors.


ACS winter hike on Vitosha, 1994

In Sofia, I remember running to the top of Vitosha on fall weekends, always on the lookout for new routes, or with Lee Cunningham, during the winter, building snow caves. We loved skiing in Bansko and Borovets, rock climbing in Lakatnik, or biking to Plovdiv. For awhile, I was climbing mountains; now with kids I’ve morphed that into running ultramarathons (50+ miles). My husband is equally passionate about exercise and health, but mostly we are about fun. We work hard to play hard. And, most importantly, we try not to act our age. Widespread Panic concerts, camping every solstice, skiing the “bumps,” playing board games with our kids, windsurfing at sunset, collecting fresh eggs from our chickens, reading a good book by a roaring fire, being around kids… all make me happy.

I am curious what ACS means to you fifteen years after you taught here though. I know for some of your ACS students the most vivid memory from their time at ACS would be breathing into the lungs of a dead cow in your Biology class. But what is the most vivid memory you have from your time here?

ACS is a very special place. I learned perhaps more from you all, than you may have from me. To this day I still boast about you being the brightest kids that I have ever taught. Moreover, I found that you had a curiosity about science and learning that many American kids never have – reinforcing my belief that the privileged life is not always the best one. 1993 was a very special year. Roger Whitaker was at the helm – we couldn’t have had a better leader. And our small group of teachers – half American, half Bulgarian -were dedicated and inspirational. I really feel lucky to be part of that groundbreaking year. We had all kinds of hurdles to jump over from the Bulgarian police suspicious of our activities to water rationing and very limited phone and computer service. In the science lab we had few supplies, yet managed to construct a working lab within the first year. What fueled our energy as teachers, however, were our first year students. They were so enthusiastic and proud to be a part of the history of ACS, and being a select group of students, the “crème de la crème” of Bulgaria, that we knew we couldn’t let them down. And we delivered. By the second year, the school size had doubled, and I have been watching it proudly ever since.

I have many memories of ACS, many of them cultural. I remember the chocolates that students would bring to class on their “name day.” I also love the tradition of Baba Marta, but being in California I start celebrating spring earlier than March, hanging a martenitsa from our Christmas tree every year! Another fond memory was when several teachers, including myself, spent time after school learning the traditional Bulgarian dance, which we then dressed up and performed at the closing ceremony in June. I’m sure we made total fools of ourselves, but we had fun doing it!  One last memory, thanks to Physics teacher, Vanya Angelova, was a weekend in April where she invited several teachers back to her village to celebrate Easter. Under a grapevine trellis we all feasted on roasted lamb and village wine – wine that was literally made up of small amounts from each neighbor’s home-brew. Talk about community spirit! We all need more of that in our lives.


Ms. Davis and Ms. Webb in Kovachevtsi for the first ACS green school, 1993

And, I would be remiss not to mention my memories directly related to my students. I remember every one of you. I remember the strong friendship some had and the cliques that developed. I remember those who had difficulty with English, yet by years’ end had conquered it. I remember those who often found themselves in detention and those who excelled. Without naming names we had our share of class clowns, hormonally-driven kids, seriously motivated students, those less motivated… all of which, I am sure, still exists today. The good news is that you all make it, and for the most part do exceptionally well with life.

What made you come to ACS in the first place?

For me, the decision was threefold. First, I didn’t know very much about Bulgaria, so that was very alluring. Second, the history of the school – having it close during WWII and the Communist era, only to reopen again – was intriguing. And finally, a friend of mine recommended it to me after meeting Roger Whitaker and being so taken by both him and the school’s story. I had thought about teaching in Greece or Switzerland, but little by little the thought of going to a place that I knew very little about became so much more fascinating. It was, by far, one of the best decisions I have ever made.

How about your future plans? Any visits to Bulgaria coming up?

By all means, I will come back with my family to visit ACS and Bulgaria. Ironically, my two oldest children sang with their school choir in Budapest two years ago. I thought about joining them afterwards and taking them to Bulgaria, but my littlest one was too little.  I really want my kids to be at an age where they will appreciate and embrace the culture and people of Eastern Europe. Spring 2014, perhaps?!

As for the future, I may return to teaching, but for the moment, I’m fairly committed to supporting our kids and raising them to be the best individuals they can be. In a few years when they want nothing to do with me, perhaps I’ll make my way back into the classroom. I do enjoy the energy, curiosity, and idiosyncrasies of kids.

Your message to ACS alumni – those that have met you and those that haven’t – would be…

Surround yourself with positive people. Find things that make you laugh. Have goals and work hard to achieve them. Help others. Live simply and passionately. Laugh some more.

(The above material was first published in December 2009 as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine.)

Upon publishing the material now, 7 years after it was written, we contacted Ms. van Steyn asking her to add anything she feels like to the original text. And what she had to say came out inspirational as always.

Rereading “my story,” I really wouldn’t change a thing. The big difference I see between then (2009) and now (2016) is the exponential influence of computers and social media on students’ lives. Technology is an incredibly important part of this generation, yet with all of its advances, it certainly has its drawbacks. It takes a really self-disciplined individual to pull away from the computer screen. So, it is even more imperative that kids get outside – go backpacking, garden, ski, paddle on a lake, run, whatever it is – and learn to appreciate (and save) what is around them. Getting off “the grid,” away from news, social media, emails, the constant fast paced energy of life, a week out of the year, can be very therapeutic. Ultimately, it is about finding the right balance between work, family, community, health. No matter where you are in life, simple acts of kindness, gratitude, and a smile always go a long, long way. I am so thankful that ACS/Bulgaria was in my life!
My kids are all teenagers now – whew! -and all very different. My oldest is an athlete (swimmer) and at 185cm a very tall girl. She has just started looking at colleges and is under the stress that is typical for students in their junior year. My son is a freshman and has been very involved in robotics, producing his own code and winning competitions in the tech world. My youngest is a social, artistic soul, creative, fun and a fantastic skier. It has been wild ride watching them grow up, but if there is one thing that I stress over and over to them it is gratitude. I have taken each of them on a trip, one on one, to some part of the world. When Kenna was 11, I took her to Tanzania to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and venture through the Serengeti. We visited orphanages and delved deep into the Maasai culture. On Jacob’s trip we went to Kathmandu and trekked 12 days to Everest Base Camp, just prior to the tragedies the following two years. This summer is Hayden’s trip: Lake Titicaca, the Inca Trail trek, and 3 days on the Amazon. For me, it is their rite of passage. I don’t want them to live life in a “bubble.” I want them to do things that are beyond what they think they can do, out of their comfort zone, and with people that are not quite like who they are. In any event, I am still a teacher at heart and want our kids to grow up being humble, helpful, adventurous, and fun.
As for me, our family now lives on a vineyard property, so most of my time is now invested in training vines and making wine. We have an edible garden full of fruit trees, berries, and an organic vegetable garden. We also have a dog, two cats and six chickens which keep things lively. In my free time, I volunteer rehabilitating raptors and native birds and mammals at a local wildlife hospital, as well as the usual of trail running, backpacking and skiing. As long as my health holds up, I’ll be outdoors!
I would love to see any of my students or colleagues, if they happen to be in the area (California).



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