May 31, 2017 by American College of Sofia
Your Excellency, Mr. Rubin,
Honorable Dr. Ewing,
Dear Mrs. Angelova,
Dear Mr. Williams,
Dear Teachers, Administrators, Parents, and Friends,
Dear Class of 2017,
Congratulations on your big day! Great job everyone!
You’ve made it!
It feels awesome to be here on my old campus today. First time I stood on the Sanders Hall stairs was for a class photo in the distant 1996. I was a skinny kid with a bit of an accent, fresh from the town of Silistra. Over the years I reinvented myself a few times: a skater, a punk-rocker, a metal head, then back to skater. I tried out a few different things here. I did the Debate Club and Student Council, had acting parts in Dracula and West Side Story, and eventually started the Philosophy Club. I mostly managed to stay out of trouble, except for one tardy probation and that one time in prep year when Ms. Corcoran caught me cheating on a quiz. I was so ashamed! It never, ever occurred to me to do it again. In the 2001 Yearbook, my classmates voted me the person who changed the most.
ACS encourages this kind of self-discovery and exploration, but it also changes you at a deeper level – the way you view yourself, your place in the world, and your relationship to others around you. It’s not possible to just drift through this school. Rather, there is a slow-motion alchemical reaction that unfolds as you pass from grade to grade. You change fundamentally during your time here. ACS in turn permits itself to be changed by each one of its classes.
This alchemical reaction does not occur naturally or by accident. It is not merely a function of your being teenagers. Few schools manage to create a community around them or have a distinct and unique culture. Few schools have such deep impact on their students. Few schools remain open to change. It’s a transformational reaction by design, and it’s catalyzed by the hard work of ACS’s stellar educators.
One thing you can expect going forward is that in many social situations you will find yourself categorized or labeled as колежанка or колежанин. One of those so-called ACS People. A special category of person. This label is, in my opinion, a tacit recognition of the transformational impact of this school.
So indulge me and reflect with me for a few minutes on what it means to be колежанин or колежанка, one of those ACS People. What do оthers mean when they say it? How has ACS really changed us? And how do we live up to the reputation?
First, ACS People are known to be critical and independent thinkers. They argue and debate. They question. For the last seven years I’ve been working for a non-profit organization called Teach For Bulgaria. As part of my job, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and compare many ACS and non-ACS classrooms. I have come to conclude that this institution changes how you think. ACS expects its students to articulate and back up their own opinions. They are asked to deconstruct the opinions of others. This becomes a habit that sticks. This is why teachers at Teach For Bulgaria begin their training by observing ACS faculty in action – so that they, too, can challenge and provoke their own students and similarly prepare them to think for themselves.
Second, ACS People don’t just question a lot. They tend to do a lot. I’ve had the privilege to observe this first-hand recently. In 2014 a few of us, alumni and parents, started the Student Activities Fund. It awards small grants to student clubs, athletic teams, and seniors pursuing independent honors projects. This exposed me to some of ACS’s finest doers, and some of them are sitting among us today. So I will give a few examples and a few shout outs.
Nikol Kralimarkova, leader of the Medical Club, has been helping ACS students learn hands-on about the medical profession and educating the student body about nutrition. Mazen Meziad organized the first ever TEDxACS event and involved alumni as speakers. Sofy Kamenova designed a common space for students in a public school where they can read, bond, and develop their creativity. David Davidov and Nikolay Budurov organized the Forest Alley Restoration initiative. They showed me a part of the ACS campus that I think few alumni have ever seen – thank you for this, guys!
I could go on and on, and I would only be scratching the surface. Because the tradition of doing at ACS is much bigger and much older than the Student Activity Fund itself. Charity auctions, bake sales, science and career fairs, concerts and performances, sports and debate tournaments – you name it, some ACS student has probably done it. More importantly, it is through these experiences that ACS People become the entrepreneurs, leaders, innovators they are known to be.
Third, ACS People tend to possess a strong moral compass. They do what they think is right, they act on principles they have thought through, and they try to remain consistent in doing so. I believe this school provides fertile ground for students to find this moral compass. There are plenty of examples to pick from. There are those among you who are making this school open and accepting to all students regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. There are those of you who silenced the trolls out there with a witty satirical video of students reading hateful comments. There are those of you who educate the community about prejudice. I want to give a shout out to Nelly Afzali here – be sure to check out her awesome video project on Islamophobia on Youtube. You have fans in the alumni community, Nelly, keep it on!
Fourth, ACS People are known to have enormous trust for one another. They seek and cherish each other’s company, have many shared experiences to talk about regardless of their graduation year, seek to work together and collaborate. On the Teach For Bulgaria team, I work alongside alumni from the classes of 1998, 1999, and 2004. ACS alumni work as teachers in our program. ACS students have interned with our organization and volunteered in schools we serve. Others always marvel at this closeness and trust ACS People feel for one another. These enduring bonds among alumni are forged in the crucible that this school is.
There is a fifth and final element. ACS People are willing to serve. They serve their classmates and the wider community. ACS cultivates this urge to be of service to others by making volunteering an essential part of the learning experience. This is another habit that sticks. ACS alumni now run social initiatives and political organizations. They serve as trustees of this school. They donate funds, contribute their time and their professional expertise, and mentor ACS students.
These are the five essential traits or tendencies that distinguish that special category, ACS People. They are ethical thinkers and doers who trust each other, stick together, and selflessly serve the community.
My dream and ambition has been to see other Bulgarian schools organize for such enduring and positive impact. This is still in the making. ACS remains an outlier, and, frankly, we have been privileged to study here. But it was my experience at ACS that motivated me to think what it would take to ensure that each and every child in this country has access to the same quality education.
So two parting messages, Class of 2017. First, you have earned your place in this community through your hard work. But you are also inheriting a reputation. Twenty previous classes that graduated since the College reopened have worked to strengthen this reputation, as have the pre-war alumni before that. You also have to uphold the reputation, preferably not tarnish it.
Second, remember that you are the ACS community. Many graduating classes down the road will be following your example. ACS will remain as good or get better only if you stay involved. Don’t forget this.
Welcome to the ACS alumni community! And congratulations again!