BLAGOEVGRAD, BULGARIA — From his office in the former communist headquarters of this Eastern bloc country, Dave Evans has a unique perspective on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Since the start of the invasion, nearly 94,000 Ukrainians have arrived in neighboring Bulgaria, of whom about 50,000 still remain. So far, about 3.1 million people have fled Ukraine, including 2 million to Poland. Every day around 100,000 refugees arrive in the European Union.
Currently, 23 Ukrainians, 13 Russians and two Belarusians are enrolled at the American University in Bulgaria, where Evans – the former head of Southern Vermont College – is its president.
Opened in 1991, this privately funded, non-profit university is the first English-language, American-style liberal arts institution in Eastern Europe. It all started with 208 students and 16 full-time teachers. Today, the student body numbers approximately 1,100 people from more than 40 countries who come to the university for an American-style liberal arts education.
In a Zoom call from his office in Blagoevgrad, Evans told Vermont News & Media that Russian and Ukrainian students at the university have been the epitome of balance since the Russian onslaught began on Feb. 24.
“[They] were absolutely wonderful. They are friends with each other. Russian students are appalled,” Evans said. “It is highly unlikely that a big fan of Vladimir Putin came to school at the American university, so it’s not a problem. The biggest problem for us at the moment is that neither Ukrainians nor Russians don’t have access to their money.”
The university was able to offer them support during this crisis, Evans said, and they rose to the challenge with remarkable composure.
“It’s amazing, absolutely amazing, what they’ve done and how brave and resilient they’ve been in the face of what is by far the biggest crisis of their lives and certainly one of the biggest crises of all. our lives. I just couldn’t be more proud of them.
Most of the students who attend the university are between 18 and 23 years old; most are from Bulgaria and most are looking for a ticket outside their home country, mainly to other wealthier countries in the European Union. This means that Bulgaria, like many corners of New England, is experiencing a “pretty significant brain drain”.
“At the same time, however, a number of our Bulgarian graduates have been really, really successful here,” Evans said. “And just recently, last month, an electronic payment company [Payhawk] which was founded and developed by a group of our alumni has become Bulgaria’s first unicorn.
“Unicorn” is a term used in the venture capital industry to describe a private start-up worth over $1 billion.
“Bulgaria has been very kind to the university. We were founded in part because city officials in 1991 were very generous in providing free space for the first few years in the former communist headquarters. It’s really cool. My office is in the office of the former communist boss. There’s a secret elevator that goes down to the parking lot.
Evans has been in Bulgaria for nearly three years, largely under the specter of the pandemic.
“From late January 2020 to late March 2021, I was more or less trapped here because of COVID,” said Evans, who grew up in Los Angeles. “It really wasn’t great. We have Zoom and that kind of stuff now which makes it much better, but it was very difficult.
COVID-19 has also made it difficult to travel to Europe. “You know, there are all kinds of interesting things in this area; there are thousands of years of history. None of this was available.
These days, the university is coming back to itself. Evans noted that while Bulgaria is “different from southern Vermont…the outcomes and goals are the same, to educate students for economic mobility, to make the world a bigger place for them, and to give them confidence necessary to play a role in many different spaces.
“We’re doing very well in this area,” Evans said.