Kalina Manova ’98: The Wonders and Wanders of Life after ACS

March 23, 2016 by American College of Sofia

On her ACS graduation back in 1998 Kalina Manova was the one to address her classmates as valedictorian of the class. Additionally, she received the Irwin T. Sanders Award for Service. During her time at ACS Kalina took part in numerous extracurricular activities including Balkan dancing, editing the school newspaper College Life, and staging Alice in Wonderland where she played Alice to only name a few. At the time this text was written, in May 2013, Kalina and her husband resided in the United States where she was an Assistant Professor at Stanford University, Department of Economics. Now, 2 years later, Kalina lives in London and is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford.


It is a winter wonderland in alpine Villars, and I am enjoying fondue with a view before riding the cozy train back to Geneva through a fairytale of mountain passes and village streets so narrow I can touch the chocolate display in the shop windows. Only months earlier, I am cheering the Olympic marathon runners along the Thames and watching The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Rewind, and I am savoring every scone crumb, macaroon bite, and drop of Darjeeling at the Paris Ritz, where high tea emerged as a social phenomenon and bohemian revelry in the roaring 20’s inspired “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. Tapas bars in Barcelona, palace concerts in Munich, adventurous dim-sum in Hong Kong, glass galleries in Venice, fantastical circus in Beijing, cardamom pastries, smoked-fish galore and eccentric design stores in Stockholm … How did I get so fortunate? How is it that I am allowed to jump from one postcard picture into another?

It all started with ACS. I don’t fear the cliché when it rings so true. That is where I was inspired to be curious, to explore different interests in order to find myself, and to trust that working hard will prove rewarding, that it is the only way forward. I remember obsessing about English essays well into the night, solving extra math problems – for fun, and memorizing chemistry formulae. I don’t think I often wondered why I did this. The exacting standards and stimulating environment at ACS instilled in me this drive and discipline. While I am now much more aware of what passions I pursue, I apply that same energy and work ethic.

I believe that discovering one’s true passion is the first step to being happy – the second its pursuit. ACS gave me the opportunity to try on a different hat every day. I remember the long afternoons and occasional nights of editorial work on College Life, the endless folk-dance rehearsals, the impossibility of learning “The Jabberwocky” for Alice in Wonderland, the math competitions, and the volunteering in local schools. Sure, there were organizational flops, money hick-ups and make-up messes. But I remember only the fun and excitement (and proper dose of embarrassment!) of finally seeing the newspaper in print or performing on stage. I credit this rollercoaster of afterschool activities with teaching me how to take initiative and manage multiple responsibilities. But much more important to me is the intangible: These extra-curriculars helped me figure out who I am, what I enjoy, and who I want to be. They were also my sanctum of normalcy at a time in Bulgaria when we all had to queue for an hour to get a loaf of bread.

Addressing my classmates at graduation, I was overcome with emotions and impressions of ACS I wanted to share before we all threw our caps in the air. I concluded with a line that has stayed with me since: “You can only fail if you are courageous enough to take a risk. But just as well, you can only succeed if you are courageous enough to take that risk.” Yet another ACS lesson I hold dear. I don’t know that I always am successful, but I try.

p22_pic2_ In London for the 2012 Olympics

Kalina in London for the 2012 Olympics

It was both incredibly exciting and terribly scary to leave ACS for the wild wide world. But I knew what to do at Harvard College to find my path: explore different classes and activities, work hard and play hard. I chose economics, with a focus on international trade and development because I was, and remain, fascinated by the range of exciting topics one can study that have first-order policy implications. Just as I am passionate about economics, however, I am mesmerized by the diversity of world cultures. So I took courses in Renaissance architecture, Hinduism, Islamic cultures, French arts, and media. I dabbled and babbled in French, Spanish, and German. I took up Mexican folk dance and ballroom, and was front row at every a cappella concert on campus. I studied genetics and philosophy, and spent nights eating fried bananas and watching European indie movies with as international a group of friends as one can imagine. I saved up from research-assistant jobs and spent spring breaks in Paris, Madrid, and Rome-Florence-Venice. Yes, those trips were spartan bordering on ascetic, but they opened my eyes to the wonders of traveling and experiencing cultures first-hand.

After college, I stayed at Harvard for my PhD in economics. The first year of core classes was absolutely grueling, but I started finding my footing in the second year when I could choose my fields of specialization. I remember how incredibly exciting the next three years were: working on my very first research projects, attending cutting-edge talks by leading economists, getting inspired by the bubbling intellectual environment. I realize how numbingly nerdy and boring this will sound to many, and even worse – insufferably naive. But to me it meant that I had found a passion that could become my profession. I could be uncovering new facts about the world and understanding current events in ways that could benefit developing and advanced countries by informing economic policy.

I have now been an assistant professor of economics at Stanford for 6 years. I enjoy teaching and thrive on being surrounded by young bright students on the verge of their own self-discovery. I love the research that I do and the interactions with colleagues when I present my work at academic conferences or other universities. I get to share my ideas with researchers and policy makers at the World Bank, the IMF, and the ECB. I often have to pinch myself (very professionally of course, when no one is looking) to check that this is really happening to me.

Now for the low-down. Research gives you boundless freedom, so you are welcome to make your own mistakes and be lynched at the next conference. Convincing discussants, referees, and editors of the merits of your work is difficult both intellectually and psychologically. Given the publish-or-perish reality of academia, and the fearsome credo that you are only as good as your last paper, stress is constant and expectations can seem ever rising. As an assistant professor, you have 7-8 years to dazzle the profession before your university decides whether to offer you a permanent (known as tenured) position as a grown-up professor. Should the 15 letters from top scholars in your field raise any doubts that you are the next best thing since sliced bread, you are “on the market”, hoping for offers from other universities. Since you are your own boss, your work is never done and your mind doesn’t switch off at 5pm. I work most evenings and Sundays, trying to not worry about what university, city, and lifestyle I might have to adopt next. “Stressed” and “overwhelmed” are the most common responses to “How are you?”. Tangible outcomes to celebrate (article publication, conference invite) are dwarfed by months of “What exactly did I accomplish today?” As exciting as amassing vast quantities of air miles can be (and using them to pay for your Hawaii vacation), jet lag, flight delays, and crummy food take their toll.

p22_ pic1_Guidebook in hand and Kalina's smile blossoms

Guidebook in hand and Kalina’s smile blossoms

Having said all that, I couldn’t be happier with where I am now. Professionally, I have been very fortunate and given career opportunities that are up to me to make the most of. Privately, I have found an amazing life partner in my husband (of 11 years no less!). Experiencing all that life has to offer and discovering the world together is better, bigger, more perfect than I ever thought possible. An assistant professor at Stanford’s business school himself, he and I share the same joys and challenges at work. We also share the belief that variety is the spice of life, and make sure ours is flavorful. At Christmas, we sip Glühwein with his parents’ home-made cookies in Germany, and feast on my parents’ капама and баница с късмети in Bulgaria. In California, we enjoy farmers’ markets and ethnic cuisine, long redwoods hikes, scenic coastal rides, and the occasional wine-tasting trip to Napa. I go to zumba, pilates, and Argentine tango when he goes running. We follow jazz concerts with flamenco shows, Japanese drummers with Irish tap dancers. In the summer, we spend 1.5 months in Europe, bringing our work along to family and university visits.

ACS still holds a special place in my mind and heart. When I travel, I like reminiscing about different stages of my life that have led to this trip, and ACS has its spotlight in my mental film of memory flashes. Something about these fond memories keeps me grounded, motivated and happy. I keep in touch with my closest ACS friends and treasure news of other alumni. I celebrated my wedding with ACS teachers and devour every Alumni Magazine. I tell my colleagues and friends about ACS. When applying for jobs after grad school, I was once interviewed by Mr. Floyd Black’ grandson, who cared more about ACS than my dissertation.

As for all those moments lived in postcard pictures and fantasy worlds? The happy accidents of biz-cations: stolen weekends of embracing the local culture on work trips. Variety is the spice of life.

Palo Alto, May 2013

This material was first published in June 2013 as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine.


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