This article was originally written by Simona Todorova for Medium.com. Some edits have been made by the USAC Marketing team for context. Click here to read the original article.
I’m not particularly good with dates but I recall Jan.14, 2020, as if it were yesterday. I remember stepping out of the cab and inhaling the dry cold air, feeling both excited and relieved to have finally reached my home for the next four months, the campus of the University of Maine, U.S. My first destination is the office of international programs, which I knew, was headed by a Bulgarian AUBG alumna named Orlina Boteva. Besides a few exchanged emails and the assurance of a previous exchange student that she was “cool,” I knew nothing else of her.
I’m in the office, sweating from the abrupt change in temperature, waiting for the advisors to fix my papers when she walks into the room. Eastern Europeans in the U.S. have this special power of recognizing each other just by a single look and the first thing I notice is her warm and genuine smile. The second are her out-of-fashion bootcut jeans, which immediately make me realize she is truly a Mainer; you definitely can’t find those in Bulgaria.
The first time Orlina stepped on U.S. soil was in 1999 and she came to spend a year on exchange at UMaine. She never imagined that 15 years later she’d be raising her two kids on the same street she passed by in awe back on her first tour of the university area. “I was flying over Maine and wondering where the houses were, it was all trees,” Orlina says.
Coming from a small Bulgarian town called Shumen, Orlina always wanted to get an American-style education and pursued her goal even when she got rejected. When she first applied to the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) in 1997, her TOEFL and SAT scores were not good enough for admission. Instead of applying to a Bulgarian state university like her mother suggested, she decided to persist.
“I locked myself in the house for almost the whole summer, I think it was four months, and I just did drills and vocabulary and SAT and TOEFL prep. I took the exams again in September and then got admitted with a full scholarship,” she says.
Orlina remembers her time at AUBG very fondly, even though it was difficult for her to study in English in the first year. While at AUBG, she worked for the Student Affairs’ office and was also a Resident Assistant. Those first work experiences later turned out to be instrumental since she found her vocation in helping students succeed and have a great experience at university.
She graduated from AUBG in 2001 with a double major in International Relations and History, while also being named the presidential medalist of her class.
“I just remember being on stage and we were two women along with seven or eight men. For me, getting that honor and having my parents and grandparents there was a big deal. I was the first grandchild to finish a bachelor’s degree. My grandparents were so much in awe. Just to sit on that stage and be the person who embodies the spirit of liberal arts education was a big deal,” she says.
After graduation, Orlina found herself torn between the two countries. She faced a serious choice. Orlina could either stay in Bulgaria to help the country’s developing democracy or accept UMaine’s offer of a full scholarship for the master’s program in History. Confused and frustrated, teary-eyed Orlina went to Jill Rasmussen’s apartment, the former Director of Residence Life, looking for advice on what to do with her life.
“She just calmed me down, gave me some hot chocolate and said, ‘You Bulgarians, you think life is a straight path, you go from point A to point B. Life is a zigzagging path. It’s okay to try different things until you find yourself’,” Orlina recalls.
The hot chocolate I got when my friend had problems with his housing and we were waiting in Orlina’s office.
With the help of her advisors and family, Orlina decided to go for the master’s program in History. The program turned out to be a poor fit for her interests. She was mainly interested in contemporary European history, while the program was focused on Maine/Canadian history. While growing up in Shumen, Orlina was reading about the Ottoman Empire, Bulgarian Renaissance, and 19th-century Bulgarian history. Her fascination with this period came from the large Turkish minority in her hometown. She also lived through the 1986-87 period when the Turkish population was forced to leave Bulgaria.
“I think I had read all the books on the World Wars in my local Shumen library because I was fascinated with finding out what happened and how it happened,” she says.
Homesick and disappointed, Orlina had all the reasons to go back to Bulgaria but she didn’t. She enrolled in a second master’s program in Higher Education, which turned out to be her niche. She says the best part about her job is watching her students figure things out and ask questions.
As for her work in international education, Orlina started as a study abroad advisor at the University of Maine in 2009 where she connected with USAC. She was originally attracted to the organization based on the glowing reviews USAC students had of the RDs, program elements, and overall experiences they had abroad. “Our USAC student participation steadily grew over the years. I stepped up to the board 5 years ago and am completing my second term. It has provided me with a great experience in leadership and a chance to give back to USAC and the field. The annual meetings are of course the highlight of serving on the board and in my years as a study abroad advisor. Seeing a site, meeting the staff and understanding what makes a specific USAC program unique is invaluable.”
Today, our Zoom call occasionally gets interrupted by a curious little girl who takes notice of my fake Zoom background, which is full of books. While we are discussing her career in Maine, her 6-year-old daughter Leksi, short for Aleksandra, becomes impatient, unable to find her favorite coloring book. Orlina calmly rationalizes with her, explaining where her book might be as if she’s talking to an adult. “I’ve done a whole new labeling system [of her storage bins] now that she can read,” Orlina says.
I, Simona Mitevska, am a Macedonian AUBG alumna and currently, a graduate student in Global Policy and Economics at UMaine, describe Orlina as a superwoman. She has a busy full-time job, kids to take care of, and yet somehow she always manages to find time for all the international students who need her.
A thousand miles away from home, I didn’t feel homesick on big holidays because Orlina invited her to her home on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The food she cooked and the atmosphere made me feel like I am home with my family.
I recall a time when I was studying for a difficult exam and didn’t have much time to cook and eat. Orlina stopped by with her daughter Leksi and brought a lot of homemade food – lutenica, kjofteta, beans and sarmi. It made my day and gave me a lot of energy to study.
Her caring nature made an impression on her now-husband, whose first memory of her is pulling out a tray full of roasted chicken. They’ve been together since 2004 and have two kids, Aleksandra who is six and Paul who is nine. Her husband, a Mainer who enjoys to hunt and fish, learned to speak Bulgarian. They got married in Maine but had a Bulgarian-style wedding with traditional Bulgarian food, music, and drinks. ”I feel like that stage of my life was like My Big Fat Greek Wedding [the movie]. We had so many cultural misunderstandings,” Orlina says.
Orlina shares that having an intercultural marriage is not easy. Everything has to be negotiated and there needs to be a lot of communication. It took them a long time to figure out they have different communication styles. Culturally speaking, Bulgarians tend to argue passionately, while Americans are rather reserved and try to avoid conflict, she believes.
Orlina’s mission to help and educate doesn’t stop when she steps out of her workplace. She is constantly trying to educate her kids and show them the world is not a fairy tale. She is teaching her young children about social inequality, slavery, European colonization, and the local history of Native Americans.
“I’m just trying to gently and kindly fill in the gaps in my kids’ education and prepare them to be globally aware, civic-minded people. It’s a lot of hard work. I’m using all of my knowledge to prepare them and set them up for success,” she says.