Maria Grozdanova ’18: Happiness Is Perfect in Its Own Way

December 20, 2017 by American College of Sofia


Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97

In the period between 2014 and 2016, I enjoyed seeing Maria perform in three different Bulgarian Drama shows. When I learned (I have my sources) that off-stage she is the intelligent, sort of quiet young woman, who gives a great deal of consideration to everything she says, I thought we should put her in the spotlight once more before she graduates. And so we met one day in late November right after classes. While Maria likely had plenty of university applications or school assignments to work on, it didn’t show. She was calm and cool, in no hurry, and full of laughter.

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Maria, what is the life of an ACS senior like? What are you up to these days?  

It’s much easier than I expected. Most of the teachers are pretty understanding of our situation. Universities and colleges are confusing though. I know what to expect from teachers, the Dean, and administration here after five years, but I have no idea how people all around the world are dealing with students like me and everything else, and this is stressful, as I am applying to universities right now. Actually, I already applied to five universities in the UK, I’m working on my US applications at the moment. January through May of next year it will be the Netherlands’ turn.

It’s also kind of sad because you realize how fast the time passed, those 5 years. You remember how at first you didn’t know anyone or have any friends, how hard it was to talk to all these new people in your grade level, but now you know everyone.

What is your current state of mind?

I am sort of stressed right now because I’m waiting for an email from a university in order to know whether I got an interview or not, so I’m constantly thinking about this. It can happen any minute. I’m checking my spam box, regular inbox, every day, twice a day, perhaps more.

How did you and your family choose ACS?

It’s a funny story actually. Before actually enrolling here, I had never thought about studying at the American College, so I never prepared for the exam or anything. It was one of my closest childhood friends that was very into the American College. He had been preparing for two years and was very, very excited before (and after) the admissions exam, so I decided to try it out, as well. It could be great to study together, after all, plus I liked the challenge this exam would present for me. The funny thing is I got accepted, after initially being on the waiting list with him, and he didn’t. I was very confused because I was sure I would stay at my previous school, the Italian Lyceum, and I had just three days to make up my mind. My mom thought staying in my previous school was the way to go, it was going to be less stressful and I was going to do less homework and tests and such. (laughing) But I said to myself I need something new, after studying with the same people for 8 years, it was time for a change.

This year marks your fourth as part of the Bulgarian Drama cast here at ACS. When did you first appear on stage?

We had many opportunities to perform at my previous school as we celebrated the school’s birthday every year at the National Palace of Culture, so I was kind of used to performing, though we mostly danced and sang traditional Bulgarian songs. In 5th grade, I was part of a theater group in Salza I Smyah Theater. We were doing short stories, acting things out among ourselves but no performance in front of an audience or anything. At the beginning of 8th grade, I thought Not a single chance for me, a fresh new student here, to go and perform in front of everyone. None of my friends were going to join the group, so I thought Next year, maybe. But once I saw the BG Drama performance, I was so amazed by the work of the students, I clearly remember Matthew Loukanoff in the main part, I knew I was definitely going to join the year after that. In 9th grade, we were working with Hristo Cheshmedzhiev, who was great to work with, so understanding, he was our friend, we used to share everything with him. It was so much fun, a very big group where I had the opportunity to work with people from all grade levels in addition to the 10 or so people from my own grade, friends my age and older. How could I not stay for the next three years as well!

p.21_pic.2_ Rehearsing Black Comedy with director Hristo Cheshmedzhiev, 2016

Rehearsing Black Comedy with director Hristo Cheshmedzhiev, 2016

Is there a role you dream of playing?

Not really. I’m not quite sure. I used to be sure I was going to be an actress. That was my dream. But then I started realizing that there are too many people studying and wanting to be actors and actresses, so I should get a safe choice as my No. 1 choice. And since I really enjoy Biology I had Medicine on my mind for some time before I dropped it for my current choice, Psychology.

So what do you want to be when you grow up?

I would gladly be known for my acting. That would be really fun. To experience new characters every day and find the similarities between them and yourself, to play and act like them. Next on the list is my safe choice: Clinical Psychologist.

What inspires you?

The feelings of self-satisfaction and happiness motivate me the most.

What is your most marked characteristic?

I’m a pretty big optimist. I’m not going to look at the negative sides too much, I’m going to pray for the best and really expect the best to happen, and when it doesn’t, it’s kind of sad but you’re still looking at the bright side.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your life so far?

It must be that time when I was in 10th grade and had that big, big presentation in Ethics class. It was quite a big challenge because within 24 hours – I’m a big procrastinator, you see – I had to prepare a presentation about four Chinese dynasties with their psychological effects on the society. It was very hard and I hated myself for choosing that topic but I knew that I had to do it. At the end of the day, when I had to present I was tired – I hadn’t had any sleep that night – but I was pretty proud of myself when my teacher shared her amazement at the fortitude of the presentation.

Who helped you the most to get where you are?

Definitely my mom. She was there when I was shaking, sure I was not going to be able to deal with everything. Right now, she’s right beside me saying as often as needed that it doesn’t matter where I end up going to study, the fact that I’m happy with my choice is the most important thing, not the name of the university or anything of the sort.

What is your favorite journey?

Maybe this summer’s journey when I went to China because I was born there. It was very interesting to get to know the place where you lived the first six months of your life, for my sister – the first six years of her life. She spoke Chinese fluently as a kid but forgot most of it, so right now it’s just ‘nĭ hăo’ and ‘zàijiàn’ which is ‘hi’ and ‘good bye,’ that’s all.

It was a pretty big cultural shock for us kids. My parents were going back to somewhere they lived for 14 years so it was very familiar for them – their vision of how people would act and how things are, the cultural norms, the ethics and everything – but for us it was just so different from our perspective, not a familiar, if forgotten, past thing, just a cultural shock. I was amazed to see how people from the same time period can be so different!

Also, I expected it to be a lot busier, in Beijing for example, bit it’s a very big city, the buildings are not as high as I had expected – I was thinking of Shanghai, I guess, or even Hong Kong. We did visit all of those cities. In Beijing it’s very calm in a way, with plenty of people but not over-crowded as I expected, it wasn’t that polluted either. We were staying in a hotel near the main street which is the longest street in the world, I think, and all the time there were cars and bikes and motor-bicycles, but interestingly, the government funds motorbikes to switch from fuel to electricity, so the noise levels have dropped significantly. Strangely, if you accidentally bump into a person, s/he is not going to turn around or even notice. There are so many people on the subway for example, that it’s normal for them to stay close to each other, kind of pushing and shoving everyone else. That was a very big shock.

And finally, as my siblings and I are all blond, bright-eyed, and pale-skinned, everyone turned around to stare at us. At the zoo, everyone took pictures with us, not the animals, and same thing happened at the Winter Palace, most of the people, old and young, taking our pictures.


Despair Not!, 2017

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

That’s a hard one. If you had asked me some years ago I would’ve immediately replied that I want to be taller. I’m shorter than anyone else that I know. Okay, maybe I know two or three people shorter than me but most people look at me like this (looking down, laughing), but this has its positive sides, definitely. What I would change about myself today would be to stop procrastinating and stressing that much about regular things, you know, to be able to just leave it and be happy with things as they are.

Seems to me, if you get rid of one of these, both will stop being an issue.

You’re right. If I lose procrastinating the stress levels will drop down immediately.

If you could change one thing about your school, what would it be? About school in general?

Something I would change that is typical to most other Bulgarian schools, that we luckily do differently here, is students from different grade levels not having the opportunity to communicate with each other very much. Here we have the block system, it could, of course, be improved further, but it lets you contact and speak with people in higher grade levels, which is fun, the whole school being one community, as opposed to several, strictly divided by grade level. Team building is very important.

At ACS, I would change the food to include more options for vegetarians. As it is, there’s only tomatoes and cheese basically.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Finding friends in such a new environment for me was quite a big achievement. I was so stressed that I wasn’t going to find a single friend, even if I did know a couple of students – from my neighborhood or my old school – but it wasn’t the same, coming here to hundreds of new people. It happened really quickly though. I’m so grateful that my grade level had so many wonderful human beings in it. Even before the first day of school, it was still summer vacation, 50 or so of us gathered to meet in advance – we had a Facebook group already – and introduced ourselves to one another. Of course, I didn’t remember half of the people because I was mostly looking at my shoes at first but then we went out, walked around Sofia, went to a park, and learned a lot about one another, and from that point we already liked each other.

What do you most value in your friends?

Honesty and that they’re always there, always supportive, like even if I have a crazy idea they would walk with me.

What is it that you most dislike?

I dislike it when people play big, when they pretend to be busier, more important than they actually are. So busy you can’t go out or talk to them, you know.

p.21_pic.3_Black Comedy on stage, 2016

Black Comedy on stage, 2016 – Photo by Liliya Stefanova ’18

How do you like to spend your time?

Hanging out. And traveling, because you have the opportunity to see other cultures, other people, and the history of different places – and that’s pretty big. I look forward to starting to travel with friends so I get to go to different parts of the cities I visit.

What are your favorite books?

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It’s about a person with a mental retardation they do an experimental surgery on. As he gathers intelligence, he starts to observe different things in the society and his own life that he didn’t have to observe and understand before. I love Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, too. And even if it’s a cliché The Great Gatsby. We had an amazing teacher, Mr. Conley, who shared different insights of the book that weren’t common or obvious to everyone. Now he is a famous author.

Who is your hero?

It may be cheesy but I really admire my family, each and every one of them. My brother is a mathematics genius. He’s at the College, too, in 9th grade. I look up to my sister, she’s 24, for example, for her way of making decisions. She just goes, This is a good opportunity, I’m just going to take it, no overthinking. Of all the people I know, my father procrastinates the least, doing everything on time, no stressing. And my mom has all of our good characteristics combined. It’s interesting, my life with all of them, me being perhaps the crazy, creative one.

What is your greatest fear?

To be left out and not to be able to find a way out of a situation where I feel stuck, sad or powerless.

When and where were you happiest?

I don’t know, I’ve felt like I was the happiest person plenty of times. Maybe when my friends surprised me one year when I was sick and that day there was no school, so they came to my house with cake, all singing. I was like Oh, my God! and became so emotional, maybe also because I was sick.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I don’t think that there’s such a thing as ‘perfect happiness.’ Maybe happiness is perfect in its own way.

Is there anything that you regret?

There are some life choices that I regret but now I have stories to tell, so, you know… (laughing)

Your worst and best day at ACS?

My worst day was one of those days when I didn’t have any sleep at night. I was walking just like a zombie not understanding or remembering anything, I was clumsy and even bumped my head several times – not a very nice day!

The best day? Many of the days when I don’t have major assignments or tests are pretty fun. Up to this point, I’ve always had an amazing section, there is always someone who is going to say something stupid or funny which we are all going to laugh at.

What is ACS to you?

ACS is the place I spent most of my life – sometimes to my regret and when I feel optimistic – not that bad. You know most of the days I’m here from 8 am to 6.30 pm. I’m a person that wants to put as many things as possible in my schedule, so in 9th grade I was in nine clubs I think – kind of impossible to deal with but I had to try it. I was in the Business Club, Friends of UNICEF, We Care Club, BG Drama, which takes a lot of time, you know, we meet twice a week usually. This year, I’m in BG Drama, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, and UNICEF again.

p.21_pic.4_Maria in Despair Not!, 2017

Despair Not! on stage, 2017

What would you like to take with you from your ACS experience? What would you gladly leave behind?

I would gladly leave behind the stress, the last minute stress, when something is due 11:59 and I turn it in 11:58. I realize it’s likely I actually take that with me, but yes, I wish I wouldn’t. I definitely want to keep my friends. Then things my teachers told me that are useful for my everyday life not only in class. For example, our Physics teacher, Mr. Youngs, who includes a life lesson in his classes every now and then, just to make sure we are going to lead a happy life. Recently, he said that sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

What is the most important skill you learned at the College?

I think I learned to read people and their expectations of me. Each teacher has specific things they are looking for, so I think it’s a useful skill to take just a class or two to know what a certain teacher wants, and then incorporate it in your work. It’s like getting to know people and adapting to them faster.

Where would you most like to live?

At this point I want to travel all around, spend time in Italy, Spain for a little while and then I want to come back to Sofia and Bulgaria, see how things are, help in some way, if help, improvement, and development are needed. But who knows where I’ll end up. I’m very open.

Do you know where you’re going next?

Like I said, I’m applying to UK, US, and the Netherlands, so it’s going to be one of these three.

What’s your message to ACS alumni?

Thank you for raising your voice when needed and improving things for us. Thank you for paving the way, for showing us that it is possible to graduate ACS and become successful. If others did it before us, we will also manage to do it, even if there have been times we were doubtful about it.

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Despair Not! at the ACS Christmas Concert in December 2016


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