Eric Budd – who graduated from Aquinas College in 2021 with a Secondary Education, Social Studies degree –  recently recounted his journey as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Montana, Bulgaria. 

He expressed that he had always wanted to travel. So when the opportunity to apply for the Fulbright program surfaced, he seized it. He said, “The Fulbright program went hand in hand with this idea of getting a new adventure, furthering my career as a teacher and developing as an educator.” 

The Fulbright Program for English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) in Bulgaria, supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, aims to enhance English language education by placing American graduates in Bulgarian schools. The program started in 2006 and has since expanded, providing unique cultural and educational exchange opportunities while improving English proficiency in participating Bulgarian institutions.


Traveling in Bulgaria

Eric cherished the sense of community he experienced while working as one of the 30 teachers in Bulgaria. While they didn’t live together in the same cities or teach in the same schools, Eric explained that the Fulbright Program encourages its participants to move around to the other cohort members, see the other cities in Bulgaria and explore Bulgarian culture. The 18-hour work weeks made it easy to travel Bulgaria, meet up with friends, go on hikes, explore nature and even visit the neighboring countries.

“I've traveled pretty much all the Balkan countries, except for Slovenia, Albania and Kosovo, but I’m hoping to make it to them in the coming weeks. I've seen a decent amount in Central Europe. I've made my way up to Western Europe. Pretty much every weekend, you're traveling with your cohort members in a group of friends, whether it be in Bulgaria or abroad,” Eric stated. 

Eric was particularly impressed by the diverse and stunning landscapes of Bulgaria. “The rolling fields are filled with roses, as Bulgaria is one of the largest rose oil producers in the world,” he explained. “And then you have these elegant, huge mountains that are amazing to hike, and they're throughout the country. Additionally, you have these beautiful beaches along the Black Sea with these large cliffs. So, the beauty of the landscape is second to none.” 

Eric also shared that Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in the world and contains the oldest city in Europe. You can stroll through the city and find Roman ruins scattered everywhere. He even found them in the basement of an H&M building. 

Navigating Cultural Differences

The trip hasn’t been without its share of culture shocks. 

Eric shared one notable experience from his first days: “In the United States, kids can't smoke in school. And one of the eighth graders raised their hand and asked me if they could leave class to smoke a cigarette.” In Bulgaria, smoking is common among young people, so Eric frequently witnessed students as young as 14 years old sitting outside of the school and smoking. 

Work as an English Teaching Assistant Eric's students in coffee place

In the classroom, Eric's role extends beyond traditional teaching. While he focuses on English instruction, he sees his role more as a facilitator of learning and a mentor to his students. His main goal this year was to work on his students’ conversational English, to allow them to experience an American accent and to allow them to talk to an American in an informal setting. 

In Bulgaria, it’s common for students to meet with their teachers outside of the classroom. For Eric, this meant that he could meet with groups of students for coffee outside of school hours. He stated that “for better or for worse, unlike in America, the teacher-student relationships are a lot less moderated, which allows for more informal interactions. We can chat about life or whatever they want. I can also serve as a mentor and a role model for them and give them advice where advice is needed.”

The building housed both the Foreign Language High School, where Eric taught, and the Mathematics High School. Due to this arrangement, classes were divided into morning and afternoon shifts. When Eric worked the morning shift, the school day ran from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. His afternoon shifts lasted from 1:30 p.m. to 7:10 p.m. Unlike American schools, there was no cafeteria on-site, so students would go to nearby corner stores for snacks between classes. 

Additionally, extracurricular activities such as writing clubs and athletics were not available at the Bulgarian school. Eric shared that creating more clubs was a goal of his this year. He began a chess club and an intramural sports club, and he continued as the editor for a journalism club that a previous English teaching assistant had established. Both Fulbright and the America for Bulgaria Foundation provided grant money for these projects. 

The biggest challenge, according to Eric, was the lack of technology in the classrooms. He stated: “When I got here, I lived in the northwest region of Bulgaria, which is the poorest region in the EU. When I got into the classroom, it was old-fashioned, basically white walls, a whiteboard and desks. So obviously, that was shocking, and it took some creativity to figure out how to make lessons more engaging without that technological aspect. One of the things that I realized is every student has a smartphone. The way I look at it, if we use a smartphone correctly in an academic way, it can be a really helpful tool in the classroom. And so that's something I tried to leverage at the start of the year. I created a class website that the students used. That was a way that I could communicate lesson plans, upload links and have them watch videos.” 

Reflecting on his work over the last 10 months, he explained that his experience in Bulgaria helped him foster closer relationships with students. He then compared his relationships with the students in Bulgaria to the ones in the U.S., and he discovered that there’s a tendency in the U.S. education system to prioritize adherence to curriculum standards and administrative tasks over fostering meaningful connections with students. Eric realized that he will need to strike a balance between maintaining curriculum standards and nurturing relationships with students when he returns to teaching in the U.S.

Students in Bulgaria

How Eric Found His Passion for Education at Aquinas 

When asked about how his academic journey at AQ shaped his career path, he answered, “I was honestly not the best student in high school. I didn't have good grades. I wasn't really passionate about school or learning or anything of that aspect. But in my freshman year, I remember my mom said, I think you would be a good teacher. So that next year, my sophomore year, I enrolled in my first education class. I think it was just called Intro to Ed.” 

There, he found his passion for education. He expressed that he appreciated the small class sizes and the sense of community he found in the education department. 

“You got to become close with your peers within the education department. I enjoyed that we had professors who were centered on the students. They were centered on how they could form and mold the best teachers,” Eric stated. 

He also expressed appreciation for a few professors, who made a giant impact on his life: 

“Looking at Dr. Duncan's classes, he helped me immensely in terms of writing. I remember he would give us the essay prompt beforehand. We could write up an informal essay or an outline, send it to him and then he would go over it with us. I appreciated his availability to meet before the test, where he would provide feedback and guidance. This not only allowed me to be successful in his class but all future classes because he was teaching me how to become a better writer, which is necessary in pretty much any profession. So that's something I really appreciated.”

“I also look back at the World in Crisis class with Dr. Durham. His passion and enthusiasm for different cultures and different crises in the world and different international events and organizations, I would say, is what inspired me to travel and to see the world.”

“Those two professors specifically, in combination with the Education Department, really set a nice foundation for me to pursue education and become a clear communicator, whether it be through writing or through speaking, and then also to have this thirst and desire to see the world and explore a little bit.”

Gratitude, Reflections and Future Plans

As Eric’s time in Bulgaria draws to an end, he expresses his gratitude to Fulbright Bulgaria and also The America for Bulgaria Foundation for supporting him and allowing him to have this experience. 

Reflecting on his time there, Eric notes the similarities between U.S. and Bulgarian students. Despite the immense geographical distance, he states that they all “seek acceptance, they seek love, they seek their passions and to have a place in this life. And I think that's something cool. They're no different than American kids. They watch all the same movies, they watch all the same YouTube channels and they're up to date with all the TikTok trends. So it really made me realize how connected this world is.”

Eric is excited to apply his learnings as an educator in the U.S. going forward. He will fly back to the U.S. in June 2024, and he will start a new job at a Catholic high school in California, working with donors and fundraising, in July 2024.

 Students in Bulgaria