August 22, 2019 by American College of Sofia
Since my first day as a staff member at the American College of Sofia, I started following the school news even more closely, and eventually – putting many of them together myself. In many of the articles about various victories in math competitions, Model UNs, science fairs and whatnot, one name kept appearing again and again: Joana Nikolova. After digging up some background information on her, I found out she is a member of the graduating Class of 2019. It was then that I decided to further introduce her to the alumni community in our Alumni Magazine. During the traditional Senior Dinner she was awarded with three Departmental Awards: Bulgarian Language and Literature, Science, and Math and Computer Science. Moreover, she is the recipient of the Floyd Black Award. I was happy to find out more about her experience at ACS, her past achievements and future aspirations. So, here goes.
Interview by Alexander Tomov ’04
What is the life of a senior such as yourself like today?
I’ve been pretty busy the whole year. It has been an amazing experience to have a senior year in which we’ve been doing everything and until now I almost haven’t had a single moment to consider that I’m graduating. I’ve been organizing FISSION and it has taken a lot of my energy, both physical and psychological. I was President of the Model UN club, Chair of one of the committees at the ACS MUN conference, I’ve been going to math and physics competitions which also requires a lot of preparation. I’ve been going to other clubs, just to relax. Those were my main things this year.
Sounds like a busy year!
Yes, really, and this is on top of my applications, writing essays, and school life, which we all know is not easy at ACS.
So, you mentioned essays and applications, what is next for you?
Next year I’m going to be studying at MIT.
Thank you! I couldn’t believe it myself! I remember the morning when it happened. As the results are released at 1 AM, my mother was asking me the previous evening if I was going to stay up to receive the decisions as I had applied early. Then I looked at her: “No, why would I waste any sleep on that, I know what would happen. Nobody from ACS has been accepted in, like, forever, only one has in the past. Why would I even think about it, I could tell you now what they are going to tell me.” And then I woke up at 6 AM in the morning and my first thought was: “They are out. The results are out!” Then I scolded myself: “What are you doing? You know what will happen. You know that you are not accepted.” And I started thinking about reasons why I should look at them at all. Then I started reading and the first sentence goes like: “We are very proud to…” And in my mind I finished the sentence with: “have had such a bright pool of candidates.” Or something along those lines. I thought this was how it was going to end. And instead, it was something like: “We are very proud to accept you.” I was like “What?!” And I read the sentence maybe 5 times, until I understood that it was actually true. For the rest of that day I kept thinking: “They made a mistake. They didn’t really mean that. Something must be wrong with the system.”
Wow! I meant to ask you about your proudest moment at ACS, but is it safe to assume this is it, or was it something else?
Well, this is an amazing moment, but not so much as an ACS student, but more so as something about me. Something I did on my own, mostly. As an ACS student it must be FISSION because we created such a wonderful event and it was quite large. I don’t think many people have such an experience throughout their whole lives – to prepare such an event and to be responsible for so many things and people and for the final result. It was a very interesting and unique experience and just seeing it come to life with no major issues made me very happy. We held a wonderful opening ceremony, which featured performances from ACS singers, some speeches, remarks from Dr. Ewing, then we held a reception and all this was never done for FISSION before. And it went without mistakes, mostly. Everyone got what they were supposed to – certificates, gifts, everything. And I was so proud just to see this come to life. After the event people came over to me and thanked me for what we did. Even some little kids came and thanked us for organizing it and promised us to show up next year as well.
That is quite the thing. I attended on Saturday and I loved it. We’ve had a Science Fair tradition since 1996, but what you guys are doing with FISSION is going above and beyond to make ACS more open to others as well. It’s just incredible. It’s a wonderful way for Alumni to keep in touch as well! You might be judging next year!
We’ve had previous organizers come and judge, especially the junior category. None of the organizers until now have graduated from college, so they come only for the Junior participants (Junior High Schoolers). And I’d love to do that, because even in the Junior category we have such wonderful projects. There are students in the 4th and 5th grades who come in and know what they are doing. They have done the electrical circuits on their own, or like, this one girl this year – a whole guitar. So, they’ve had many interesting projects in all categories. I really hope that the future teams manage to draw in a wide variety of different projects as well.
It was very funny – around FISSION, I was receiving calls from all over Bulgaria, and I had started to pick up the phone with: “Hello, this is FISSION speaking?” (laughs)
Sounds like FISSION is where it’s at for you. You have been involved with a lot of things at ACS. Do you have one true passion though?
I love all of those things. All of those things that have made news at ACS are actually things I’ve spent a lot of time preparing. They are part of my life, of who I am and they have built me to be a very different person. Coming to ACS, I was quite introverted, I was very timid, I couldn’t speak in front of people. Then I joined the Model United Nations club and this year, especially with FISSION, being in a leadership role and in charge of so many people and things that need to happen, it just builds you as a leader and makes you just take everything in control and be the person who makes things happen.
One day I want to be an aerospace engineer. I plan on working with electrical engineering as well, because I want to be making satellites and outer space projects that expand human knowledge.
So, in other words, I understand that ACS did change you, hopefully for the better, with leadership and other pursuits. How did you come to study at ACS? How did you choose to go here?
My parents did it. It was very funny, because before that I was in the math school and I really didn’t want to leave. I love mathematics, especially competitive mathematics is very interesting to me and it was my life back then. And so, leaving that and coming here, I was so afraid, because – what was I going to do here? I still wasn’t into event organizing, debating… it was all about mathematics for me, and maybe physics. So it was very scary, because my parents really wanted me to come here, they knew that this was a wonderful school that would give me great opportunities. And it’s not that the math school is not competitive or anything, it’s just that it’s so focused on the mathematics that students there don’t really get to explore other things they may like. This is why I really like that I changed my school and came here.
Do you remember how you changed your mind?
I do. My parents and I came to the open house days and I was very impressed with the campus, the labs. I remember I was very impressed by the chemistry lab. We didn’t have such labs, nor the opportunity to work with experiments ourselves. I missed the stronger math program at my previous school, after the initial disappointment over not getting a scholarship for scoring the highest among girls on the admissions exam. And it wasn’t easy for me to do this because, as I said, I had branched into other things and I couldn’t become part of the big team. I only managed last year to join the Girls National Team. So, this was part of what allowed me to entertain the idea of coming here. And then the other things. I didn’t like the idea of coming to a private school and my parents having to pay a lot of money for education and I had heard that the scholarships are for the first people in the rank list. Believing that, I said: “If I become first, I have this scholarship – I will come.” I was very sad, because I became first and then – there was no scholarship! The test itself was very interesting and challenging, which was something unexpected. Because of that, when the results came out, I was very happy to have gotten in. Back in 7th grade I didn’t care for the state exams either, just like I don’t today. It’s a good tendency.
If you could, what one thing would you change about ACS?
Just one thing?
Oh well, top 3 things. 🙂
I would like a stronger focus on school spirit, for students to get to know one another beyond their grade levels. I’ve heard that the blocks used to carry heavier weight and there were points for participation, which I think is an interesting idea. I’d also like to see how more traditions continue, for example the Senior corner at the Cafeteria – there’s no such thing nowadays.
Really? Isn’t it the tables with the beautiful view, by the windows facing the Fountain?
No, we only just fought for them! (laughs) And we were very intimidating and were able to get some, but anyone just sits there, which is very annoying. We are the last class that actually remembers them, because 11th graders have never been in the old cafeteria, only in the temporary one. In the temporary one there was still something, but I don’t think they understand it in the same way. So when I come back in 10 years, I’d like to see this or something like this continued, so students come here and feel part of the community. Also, organization-wise, I’ve had moments when I felt rather lost, as if hardly anyone knew what was happening and some things, we as students feel, are not very well thought-out. There are things that I feel need to be improved, so that students can come here and actually want to study. We all are teenagers and we like to complain a lot, so we tend to share our complaints with each other. I know a lot of people feel discontent with some aspects of the school. But, as a whole, I think it’s a wonderful place and my experience has been amazing. It’s important to note, though that this is because I took everything from ACS that I could. Every single moment I was here, if there was a need, I’ve been volunteering for everything. For example, I’ve been a tour guide since 9th grade. It’s been amazing. First, I know a lot about my school, and then it has been great, being able to share it, to highlight the good parts about the school. For example, yesterday I was making the tour around campus for the visiting college counselors, and it was the first time I did it in English. It was so much fun and I’m so happy that this was my last tour. I’ve been thinking – this whole experience, and doing everything that I can to improve it, and taking everything that I can and improve myself. I think this is part of the ACS experience, with all the opportunities to explore, and I took some of them. If you don’t, there’s nothing that can give you this experience. If you don’t do it, there is nothing that can give you this experience.
The power within?
Yeah, of course, there are students at ACS that just don’t do anything with the school, don’t participate and they don’t have the same experience. ACS gives you as much as you give to the school.
This is very mature of you!
I’m very mature! J Regardless that I look like a 7th grader. (laughs)
I’m under the impression that you are very successful at ACS.
So, how does one succeed at ACS nowadays?
Well, I feel like it’s a lot of small things that one has to do. Just paying attention in class, doing your things on time, putting in effort. It’s a lot of effort. I always, always, always, whatever I do, I give everything, all my effort in it. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the beginning or end of the school year. It shows a lot, not only in my grades, but also in my relationships with people. I respect all of my teachers and they respect me, because they know they can count on me, they have seen I work very hard. And they know that what I do is maybe the best that can be done in this case. For example, if I don’t understand something, chances are no one else around does. This is because I’m always paying attention. I’m just organized as a whole. It’s a process, I didn’t come in 8th grade like this. Now I’m a senior and I know, I’ve had this experience for 5 years and I have to be better than in 8th grade. With time I’ve learned that trying to listen is natural for me, it’s not something I have to push myself to do. I just sit in class. I may not be taking notes, I may be doing something else, but I’m listening and I’m asking questions, I’m paying attention. For example, in mathematics, even if I seem to not be paying attention – writing something else, or preparing something or just like, doodling, I know where the class and the problems are going. I know when there is a mistake on the board. I know when there is something that needs to be changed. I’m always explaining to the people around me when they need help. And this is what I’ve been doing, but I don’t think it would work with everyone. The thing is that everyone has to find their way of learning and doing things. Because not everyone can learn in class. For example, I cannot learn at home. I cannot stay at home and learn from a textbook and just read and just know what’s happening.
Oh, you’ll learn! 🙂
I hope so! The thing is that I learn 90% of the material in class. And it’s just from paying attention and doing the things that are expected of me. It’s very important for students to understand that teachers are not there to torture them. The things we are doing, they are for us. Teachers don’t want to check more work or to give lower grades, it’s not good for them. These are just things we need to do in order to improve. If you think you don’t need it – OK. But, you don’t get to complain after that.
Fair enough. Which was your best day at ACS?
I have no idea.
Maybe it’s yet to come? Could be Graduation? Prom?
Well, for prom I’ll be in heels, so – no. ☺ Oh, I know! It was when I got into MIT and everyone was so supportive – teachers, students, everyone was hugging me, while I was in shock. It was a very wholesome experience, just to be supported so much by everyone. I remember this was so amazing and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. People congratulated me even before I had told them. I got an e-mail from Mr. Ward: “I’ve been hearing some stuff, do I need to congratulate you?” I have friends who also applied to MIT but didn’t get in. They knew how much work I’d put in and they showed no envy, no jealousy, they just supported me. It was a wonderful day.
That is a great story, how about your worst day?
Oh, I have so many worst days! (laughs) Those were days we’ve had, like, 2 tests, 2 projects, and you don’t sleep until 4 AM and then you get up at 6 and then you have to come here and go to school and concentrate in order to do your best on the exam, and then you have something else. There have been times when I go home and just drop on the bed and I can’t do anything. This is exhaustion, it’s not like I hate it. And I know that it happened because I didn’t manage my time well or something like this.
What’s one thing from ACS you are definitely going to take with you on your way forward?
I don’t know…maybe the person I’ve become, because I really feel I can do anything. I can manage every situation that comes in front of me and defeat any challenge. I’ve done so many things here, things I never even thought possible for myself. I used to be a little bit artistic and I had forgotten it for many years, and now this year I just decided to make the countdown until the last class.
Oh, that was you? It was really beautiful!
Yeah, it was so strange, because I had really forgotten that I’d loved to do different artistic projects. And then I had this idea and it was so wonderful. This was something that I did and I think it’s good for my class as a whole. Everyone was very excited and seeing that days go by, actually, like, physically. I was challenged here and I remembered and I managed to do this whole project on my own. All of this, I think, is invaluable. And it will help me no matter what I do. Even if I decide to completely change what I do in the future, it’s just any challenge that comes, I will not be in despair and I know that there is a way to go forward.
Cool, then what’s one thing you are definitely leaving behind, shedding?
Heavy textbooks, heavy backpacks. Oh, how I hate this! My backpack has been weighted the heaviest, for all of my time here. I have no idea how that happened. No matter how few things I take, it’s always the heaviest and it’s so annoying, because my back hurts and I don’t even know what I have in there. It’s like I’ve been carrying rocks, and it’s just two textbooks and the Chromebook. I hope that I manage to do this better from now on, bring just one thing.
I have a cliché question for you: where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years I hope to be working with the European Space Agency. I don’t know if it’s a viable plan, but let’s hope so. Until then I should have finished any bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and I think I should be able to be working there. I really want to be making a difference with that, because that’s the point of everything – to come up with technologies to make the future better (another cliché).
But it’s true!
Yes, and I really hope I’ll be working like that, because as a whole, space work is abstract, intuitively it doesn’t seem to be directly affecting our lives, but many technologies that have been developed for space, are then transferred to earth and are actually very helpful, for example, water purification. Things like this can be crucial for different societies.
What would you like to say to the incoming class of 8th graders?
I really hope for them to take this advice to take everything from the school. And it will change their lives. As long as they take their whole experience here as an opportunity and not as something they just have to do. And I really envy them for the opportunities that are opening, for example the SCIFI center. This year I’ve been spending so much time there, just trying to soak in what’s happening. And they will really have the opportunity to work there, as the current 8th graders already do. They will probably have a completely different experience from mine, everything will change in 5 years. But, this spirit of the school, of pushing you farther, opening your mind, making you a global citizen – I don’t think it’s going away. People need to take that and actually make it part of themselves, understand it and it will be a lot easier to be here, a lot more enjoying and pleasant, something they will remember fondly, to have all these experiences, and they will always have something to say and to talk about, to be doing. It’s just experiences have to be experienced and they will define what they do here and what their memories would be. Nobody can do it for them.
What about all the people you are leaving behind, the current students?
Well, for the 11th graders – my message is that it will soon be over. For the 10th and 11th graders, I feel like the future is not so far away, which is the most important. And, they are going to leave the school, most probably Bulgaria, and I would advise them to just be the people they want to be here and to act in such a way that when they remember their years here, they remember wonderful friends and amazing projects and things they can really be proud of, not just existing somewhere.
We will soon be welcoming you to the huge circle of ACS alumni. What’s your message to your then fellow alumni?
Don’t forget your school, because there are amazing things happening at ACS, amazing students from all grade levels doing wonderful work for the community here, for Bulgarian society. Everyone has such interesting ideas and they put them into practice, it’s not just theoretical. We have so many people willing to help. I remember during the blood drive when the blood donation people came, they just started complaining at the end because there were too many ACS people wanting to donate. You can come to all of the events, the musicals, the BG drama, the English drama. It’s just – ACS is full of life and it’s, as I said, it’s changing so rapidly, so no matter when you have graduated, you will find something new here. So, even for myself, I wish that I don’t forget that and that I manage to come here often and follow what’s happening at the school.