Vladimir Gospodinov ’18 and the Stars in the Night Sky

August 6, 2018 by American College of Sofia

Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97


During his five years at ACS, if he wasn’t on the musical – usually in one of the main roles – Vladimir (Vladi) would be on the English Drama or Classical Concert, or both. Little did I know when I asked him for an interview in March 2018 that we will end up talking about so many things beyond the performing arts – like artificial intelligence, but also taking that giant step to being open about who you are in front of community, friends, and family. Thank you for sharing, dear Vladi, and may the stars always guide you on your chosen path!

So, Vladi, tell me what the life of an ACS senior is like for you. What are you up to these days?  

Well, besides juggling tons of homework assignments, projects, and studying for tests, I’m also regularly going to piano practice. Did you know that I learned to play the piano in 9th grade here at ACS? It’s actually kind of a funny story. When we studied music notation in 8th grade with Ms. Karnolska, we had to play these very, very short and simple songs on the piano. However, I actually managed to epically fail that, as I couldn’t understand how to read sheet music (yeah, I got a 2 on the assignment). At the same time, though, I also fell in love with classical music, which kept bugging me about my failure, so in 9th grade I asked Ms. Genkova to teach me how to read music and play the piano. We sat down together in front of the piano and she explained the whole notation system to me and taught me the basics of piano performance—and from that moment on, I started teaching myself. I’m actually quite happy with where my self-tutoring has got me to: I’ve learned to play various pieces by Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Satie, Piazzolla, and Oskar Schuster. I played a prelude by Chopin at the Classical Concert this year and was also one of the MC’s—a dream of mine ever since being an MC at the Christmas Concert, Arts Fest, and in the Musical.


Vladi performing Astor Piazzolla’s Invierno porteño at the ACS Classical Concert, 2016

But apart from all this,

[B]eing a senior also has to do with being hopeful about the future and realizing you’re at the end of one important journey and the start of another.

You’re burnt out and tired, but also hopeful and looking forward to university, which is going to be new, mesmerizing, and more fun, because you’ll be studying subjects you yourself have chosen and have the freedom to do whatever you want with your life. We are looking forward to going to a new place, meeting new people, and setting forth on the most wonderful journey of our lives yet.

Do you know where you’re going next and what you will study?

Yes, I do. I’m going to University of Pennsylvania, where I’ll be studying simultaneously at the College of Arts of Sciences and Wharton, Penn’s famous business school.

As far as my major goes, I’m actually planning on getting into a dual degree program, the Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management, which prepares students for professional development in a variety of fields: everything from scientific research related to genetic engineering and medicine to working on the innovation, creation, marketing, and distribution of biotechnology, as well as a career in medicine and/or healthcare management, all of which interest me. I’ve yet to choose what exactly to specialize in, but I’m thinking of doing biology, neurobiology, or neuroscience for my life sciences track, and healthcare management and policy, business analytics, or statistics for my management portion. Maybe I’ll choose neuroscience, because I’d also cherish the opportunity to work on the development of artificial intelligence. AI could aid us in almost any field, but most importantly in healthcare, medicine, engineering, and research, which is why it’s so important to invest in it. I want to work on a lot of projects of major importance.

I want to help with the betterment of humanity and the planet and I want to help guarantee a better, brighter, safer future for both.

GE, biotech, and AI will undergo tremendous development in the near future, as they’re in fact still babies. I believe they could further the progress and evolution of our species, as well as aid us in conquering other planets, which is something we’ll need at one point or another.

My more specific interests are psychiatry and linguistics. Chomsky is one of my personal heroes for numerous reasons, but most importantly because he first directed our attention towards the concept of universal grammar. This theory postulates that our capability to learn language, regardless of whether it is our native language or a foreign one, is an innate human ability that is distinct from human cognition and has roots deep in our genes. Essentially, Chomsky proposed that language has a biological basis, in that part of our DNA codes for a set sequence of grammar rules. I believe this could explain why, for example, someone from South America could learn Chinese and why someone from Ireland could learn Arabic. Since we’re born with a basic knowledge of human grammar, our minds are able to recognize patterns of this grammar in every human language, allowing us to learn more than one language. If a gene or gene sequence codes for such a thing (i.e. if Chomsky’s theory holds true, which has been the case so far), locating and decoding this gene or gene sequence could potentially help us understand language, language acquisition, speech perception, and cognition far better. This, in turn, can yield a much greater understanding of speech disorders, which are just some of the symptoms of many mental illnesses. A greater grasp of their nature along with a founding code that could be used as a starting point when comparing the genetic codes of various speech disorders can help us not only diagnose mental illnesses much more precisely, thus allowing us to treat them more efficiently, but also pick up symptoms as early as possible so as to prevent the unthinkable.

What about performance arts? You took part in the ACS musical in 8th, 9th, and 11th grade and also in the English Drama in 10th. Do you plan on taking up acting again?

I really wanted to be in the musical this year, too, but I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to do justice to the role I’d be given. I’d also really, really wanted to major in acting and literature ever since 10th grade, but after a lot of thinking—and overthinking!—I finally realized you don’t necessarily have to study either at university if you wish to devote your life to them. I still feel kind of sad about all this, because both have been so near and dear to me over the course of the past few years that I’m utterly unable to imagine my life without either of them. But hey, there are going to be clubs and electives at university, too, so I’m definitely going to indulge my passion for both once I get there. I could also always pursue a professional career in acting and/or literature simultaneously with all the other things I want to do. Perhaps it might be hard to combine my scientific aspirations with my love of acting, but I can definitely combine them with my passion for literature and writing.

Is there a role you dream of playing? You’ve played many already, among others a woman once, is that right?

Yes, I played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray in 9th grade—an unforgettable experience.


Vladi as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray JR. , 2015

Frankly, there are a lot of roles I’d like to play: Pippin in Pippin, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Jekyll and Hyde; Jean Valjean and Javert in Les Misérables, and Death in Elisabeth. Oh, and Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton is, of course, a must for me.

What are your favorite books?

Lord of the Rings by Tolkien—I read it when I was 10 years old. Before reading it, I abhorred reading. I had loads of book lists for my Bulgarian literature classes, but I never read any of those—not that I read much from the matura list either. My mom and dad were desperately trying to motivate me to start reading—with short stories, novellas, books—but none of it ever worked…

… Until the right book came along!

Yes, until one summer day when I was 10, my mom tossed the book—the first volume—to me on my bed and said, Read this, you’re gonna like it, and I replied, No, I’m not, it’s a book. I read it in Bulgarian, it was Lyubomir Nikolov’s translation; he is to this day one of my favorite Bulgarian translators, he’s absolutely amazing. I fell in love not only with Tolkien’s language—even though many people find his passages to be too descriptive and boring—but also with the fact that such a complicated plot was created by one single person. Literature has held a special place in my heart ever since.

Once I started reading, I became a huge fan of fantasy and sci-fi books—I still am, though I rarely read any of those anymore. Nevertheless, I value and appreciate them, because they let me explore my own imagination. They showed me things could and can be otherwise, that things could and can appear and be in a different way than they do in our life and world, that I can come up with my own things, ideas, and plot lines.

Another favorite book of mine is Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni. The author’s actual name is Nikolay Grozdinski and he is a really interesting fellow. He graduated from the National School of Music in Sofia, after which he left Bulgaria in 1992 to study in the U.S. He then went on to become a Buddhist monk in India, where he shaved his head and lived for a few years. Next, he spent about 10 years in the States where he wrote and published most of his books, in English. He eventually came back to Bulgaria a couple of years ago. I read Wunderkind in 10th grade, I think, in Bulgarian, even though he’d originally written and published it in English. I chose to do so, because the translation was his own and was more of a complete re-writing and improvement (according to the author himself) of the English original than simply a translation.

The Incredible Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is the other book in my current Top 3.


Compulsory senior photo, 2018

Who is your hero/-ine?

Tolkien! He was amazing both as a person and scholar: he knew so many things on so many different topics; he could speak close to or even more than 20 languages; he had such a busy life, yet he still managed to teach English and Anglo-Saxon literature among other things. In my eyes, he is one of the pinnacles of scholarship and academia. His life and work are part of my inspiration to go into historical and comparative linguistics.

Also – my family. My parents have helped me so much and I doubt I’d ever have achieved all of this without them, their help, and their sacrifices.

Tell me how you and your family chose ACS.

My mom found out and told me about the College. I was really skeptical at first and frankly abhorred the very idea of applying to ACS, because I’ve always loved my hometown, Burgas. Besides, all my friends were there and I knew I’d be sad if I left. But then I went to the ACS website and read a lot about the school. I liked the fact that it’s a private school, an American institution, much different from what I’d been used to. I felt that attending ACS would change my life for the better and that it would set me forth on a very interesting journey, one with an unexpected end. Indeed, what a journey it’s been!

In spite of the many tests and assignments?

Oh, they’re part of the journey. You can’t have light without darkness, easiness without hardship.

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

I’d love to see a working digital test and homework board system implemented at ACS where every teacher inputs his/her tests and assignments for a particular day so that all teachers can see what their students have for that day at any point. I imagine such a system would allow for a much more efficient distribution of assignments and consequently give ACS students more time to do something they really love (hint: it starts with an s and ends with leep).

What about school in general?

I’d like to see the government put more stress on the pre-professional aspect of school. Students should have much more freedom in crafting their own curriculum than simply being able to choose from a handful of profiles. Liberal arts all the way! Despite that, I’m a bit skeptical about whether the new education reform is actually going to work specifically here, in Bulgaria, considering the tremendous amount of work the government still has to do to improve schools and universities in our country.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I think my greatest achievement so far is being accepted to one of the institutes I’ve only dreamt of attending, namely Penn. Some of my topmost choices in the US were Brown, Dartmouth, and Penn and I was also really excited about applying to Yale-NUS in Singapore. At the end of the day, I was accepted to Penn and Yale-NUS, but I chose the former after much deliberation and even being given the spectacular opportunity to visit Singapore and Yale-NUS’ campus.

I actually had interviews for all four, though, two of which were with ACS alumni Georgi Klissurski ’10 (Dartmouth) and Stefan Yordanov ’08 (Brown). My interview for Brown was really funny: our meeting was scheduled to take place at Confetti and as soon as I started telling Stefan more about myself (in English) and mentioned Burgas, he interrupted me (in Bulgarian) with You’re from Burgas, too? and it just so happened that we came from the same neighborhood, neighboring blocks, too. That was so hilarious and so unexpected!

How many languages do you know?

I speak Bulgarian, English, and German. I can kind of read in Greek, French, and Russian. Swedish, too, though I’ve forgotten most of that.

What inspires you?

The unlimited opportunities the future holds for us, the stars in the night sky, and the fact that we all are essentially nothing but stardust. Van Gogh is my favorite painter and Starry Night Over the Rhône is one of my most favorite paintings. Indeed, I sometimes go to the balcony at night just to look at the sky and contemplate.

The night sky, the stars, and the moon always make me feel alive.

A lot of the people I interact with on a daily basis also inspire me and I look up to many of them, as I’m constantly surrounded by intelligent, smart, and amazing individuals. Lots of people have had a tremendous impact on who I am—both as a person and in terms of my interests and abilities—where I want to be eventually, and what kind of person I aspire to be.

How do you like to spend your time?

I love being in the great outdoors, hiking, going out on walks in the parks of Sofia, and just generally roaming about the city. I also love spending time with friends and meeting new people, reading and writing, listening to music and playing the piano. Learning—but definitely not studying. (laughs)


Vladi with classmates of the Class of 2018 on prom night

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

Just like everyone else, I’ve had my fair share of trials and difficulties—some internal, others external. The greatest challenge I’ve ever faced in my life so far has to do with self-acceptance, so it’s been a very, very long and particularly difficult internal struggle. Fortunately, however, I’m glad to say I finally won the fight a few years ago, back in 10th grade.

Ever since I was 4 or 5 years old, I’ve known that I’m different from other boys. I’ve always been more emotional than what’s commonly perceived to be the extent to which boys can—I’d even say are allowed to—be emotional. I’ve never liked watching and playing football and basketball, you know, “typical” boy stuff, although I love ice hockey. I’ve never managed to quite comprehend the obsession with cars, motorcycles, and knives. Instead, I’ve always had a thing for the arts—literature, theater, acting, drawing, music, you name it—and I’ve always been greatly focused on the beauty of the surrounding world.

When I was 4 or 5, I didn’t know the meaning of the word gay, but I knew I felt one way towards girls and a completely different way towards boys. The environment I grew up in, however, made sure that I perfectly understood that it’s not okay, that it’s not proper, that it’s not good for two boys to have feelings for one another and to be together. I was also a believing Christian—although I’ve been an agnostic for the past maybe 10 or more years—so my childhood environment also made another clear statement: it’s sinful to have feelings towards another boy if you yourself are a boy.

As the years were passing by and I was learning more about myself, I realized I could never ever be more than just friends with a girl, because I could never ever have more than just friendly feelings towards her. I finally understood what the word gay means and I finally figured out I’m gay. That was a huge problem for me, because I’d been raised with the mentality that homosexuality is wrong and gross, that gay people are mentally ill and are sinners.

I felt disgusted with what I am. I hated myself. I felt like an animal. I thought I was crazy. I thought I was sick and in need of a cure. I even thought I should commit suicide and rid the Earth of something so sick, gross, and perverted, because people around me would keep saying that gays should be killed. Yes, I did contemplate suicide quite a few times because of the fact that I’m gay, but I never attempted it, because I was too scared of the pain, not for any other reason. I’d constantly hear straight people talking about themselves as being “normal” and this distinction—normal vs. others, where the word normal exclusively denotes a heterosexual orientation, making it impossible for gay people like me to ever be normal—along with words such as педал and педераст among others forced me to attempt to change myself. The most painful part about all this was knowing that I could never succeed in such a metamorphosis, no matter how hard I tried, simply because such a fundamental transformation is impossible. Knowing that made me hate myself even more, because I knew I’d have to spend the rest of my life being what I am and I simply could never imagine myself being okay with that.

I tried to convince myself that I’m straight on multiple occasions: in 4th, 5th, 7th, and 8th grade, as well as during the first semester of 10th grade when I even had a girlfriend, which was my last attempt to change myself and the moment I finally managed to accept and love myself for who and what I am (regardless of how clichéd it might sound). Somewhere towards the end of my first semester as a 10th grader I could finally say to myself Yes, I am gay, but there’s nothing wrong in that. I’m not sick, I’m not perverted, and I shouldn’t feel bad about that, because it’s perfectly normal. What ensued was the beginning of self-love, self-appreciation, and self-respect—feelings I’d never known. Talking to Ms. Zmolek-Smith, Ms. Hood, Mr. Conley, and Garth Greenwell, as well as other people like me, greatly helped me.

Fortunately or unfortunately for us, the only person we truly spend our whole life with is none other than our own self. If you don’t love, respect, and appreciate yourself for who and what you are, you’ll never lead a good and happy life. You’ll live in a nightmare. Finally accepting the fact that being gay is okay had a huge positive impact on me in countless ways.

What do you most value in your friends and what do you most dislike in people in general?

My friends are great people: they’re loyal, caring, and honest. I’ve been betrayed several times by friends before and sometimes it’s been really hard to cope with that. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I’ve come to appreciate a good person when I see one.

I dislike hypocrisy, dishonesty, lying, talking behind people’s backs, and not being kind. One of my favorite sayings is Treat people the way you want to be treated. I think a lot of people should work on that.

What is your most marked characteristic? And also, if you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’m funny, outspoken, and loyal—loyal if I have to choose just one. You can only really know this if we’re close enough, but I’ve always tried to give my best when it comes to my relationship with my friends and I don’t plan on changing that. I might have to work a bit on establishing a firm boundary for myself, though—there are moments when you just have to say no to others for your own sake, no matter the reason.

I tend to talk a lot, too much sometimes and yet, too little at other times, as confusing as it may sound. Performing every year at ACS bolstered my confidence and made me talkative and outspoken, but sometimes I still don’t voice my opinion—when I indeed should—just because I’m worried about other people’s possible negative reactions or what they might think about me.


Vladi as Amos Hart in Chicago, 2014

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Your happiest moment?

I see perfect happiness as being surrounded by the people you love, doing the things you love—and loving yourself, too, because I don’t think you can ever be truly happy if you don’t love yourself.

I can’t really pick only one moment and say that that’s when I’ve been happiest, but I’m glad to be able to say that there have been numerous spontaneous little moments of being content and happy with who I am and where I am in life.

Is there anything that you regret?  

There are a lot of things I could’ve done but haven’t or could’ve done differently, but I don’t regret doing the things I’ve done the way I’ve done them, because I see it as a chain of interconnected actions. All the things I’ve done are one whole that’s shaped me into who I am now. Regretting one thing would mean regretting everything that followed, too, regretting who and where I am now, which I don’t at all, so… (shrugs laughing)

What is your greatest fear?

May I answer with a quote? It’s from Impromptu, a movie about Chopin and George Sand’s affair. These words by Sand always pluck at my heartstrings when I hear them: “I’m not full of virtues and noble qualities. I love, that is all. But I love strongly, exclusively, steadfastly.” My greatest fear is falling so madly, strongly, crazily in love with someone and not being loved in return. I also fear not being with the people I want to be with and not doing the things I want to do.


Vladi getting his hair done for Hairspray, 2015

What is your favorite journey?

Despite the tremendous amount of sleep deprivation that is a marked characteristic of attending this school, I can unhesitatingly say my favorite journey is my ACS experience. It’s honestly the best thing that’s ever happened to me so far not only because of the teachers and educational system here—both of which really change a student’s perspective on academia by immersing him/her into the curriculum in a way that other schools are incapable of—but also because of the clubs and activities you can join while at ACS.

Indeed, I’ve always loved biology, but I’d never even considered genetic engineering as a potential professional path for me until 11th grade when we actually studied genetics in biology class and had a super interesting genetics-related assignment that I think we wouldn’t have had in a public Bulgarian school. We basically had to throw a bunch of sticks with letters in the air and then write down a code with the letters we’d see face-up. Then we’d have to use this code to determine whether our baby dragon (yes, DRAGON) had inherited a dominant-recessive, dominant-dominant, or recessive-recessive pair of genes and how that would consequently alter its physical appearance. Frankly, it was a very simple assignment, nothing special really, but it was great fun and succeeded in showing us that every part of us, right down to the smallest one, depends on our personal genetic makeup.


At the Experience Yale-NUS Weekend with other admitted students, 2018

The clubs I’ve participated in and the tutors and mentors I’ve had here over the years have shaped me the most, because even though the time spent in after-school activities is much less than the time spent on the academic side of ACS, all the people I’ve met because of my extracurricular activities—especially while playing the piano, being in the musical, and leading the hiking club—have had a tremendous impact on me and have prepared me for the real side of life beyond ACS.

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

I’d gladly leave all schoolwork behind. I’ll have more and harder assignments at university, but at least they’ll be only in subjects I myself have chosen to study.

I want to remember both the good and bad experiences, because both have contributed to who I am now, but apart from the memories, I also want to keep everything I’ve learned from all the people I’ve met here.


Prom with classmates and Mr. Youngs, 2018

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

Being open to new experiences, new ideas, and new people.

Where would you most like to live?

Somewhere in the US perhaps: Chicago, New York, or Boston—but also somewhere in Western Europe: France or Germany. I’ve never been to France, but I have this very romantic idea of the country that’s been stuck in my mind for as long as I can remember. Also: Australia and maybe Toronto! And Singapore now that I’ve been there and have seen how wondrous it is! But there’s really no place like home, so I hope to spend a couple of years back in Bulgaria after I graduate from university.

What’s your message to former and future ACSers?

To alumni: I’m so jealous you got to experience this before I did. All the doors that opened, all the journeys you could embark on, and all the possibilities to make a change where it matters…

To newly accepted students: Never stop believing in yourselves, remember that the future can always be bright if you work in that direction, and never forget you have the potential to change the world. Oh, and please do try to get some more sleep before 8th grade ends for you.

Our spring interview finished here but while working on this issue in November, especially for you, we contacted Vladi again to get a quick midyear college freshman update from him:

At the end of my first semester of college, I’m even more eager to go into the life sciences. In fact, I’m actually considering attending medical school after I graduate. I’ve come to realize that the intersection of healthcare management, patient care, and scientific research is becoming increasingly important due to problems stemming from technological and medical innovations and our rapidly changing environment. For example, as our life expectancy increases, so do the cases of age-related illnesses. Furthermore, global warming means the permafrost is melting, which could release deadly viruses and bacteria we’ve never seen before and are consequently unable to battle. I’m considering pursuing an MD-PhD program, which would allow me to become a physician scientist, and work both directly with patients and in the sphere of basic, translational, and clinical research.

I’ve also vowed to remain true to my artistic passions and love for the humanities and social sciences. I took a course in Proto-Indo-European Languages this semester, and in the spring, I’m going to take a course in Old English Language and Literature, an advanced course in German, and I’m also starting Hebrew. Hopefully, next fall I’ll start Korean, Japanese, or Chinese, too.

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