With university students barred from work-and-travel opportunities this summer by the Covid-19 outbreak, and their parents’ incomes threatened by the ensuing economic downturn, many academic futures are in jeopardy. To offer financial relief and an incentive for students to stay and work in their home country after graduation, the America for Bulgaria Foundation in partnership with Tokuda Bank launched Your Future in Bulgaria, a loan program for Bulgarian students.
Low-interest, no-fee loans are available through the program to eligible students from the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) and Arc Academy, Fulbright scholars and members of the national Olympic teams in natural sciences pursuing higher education in the United States. The Foundation guarantees all loans and will repay 20 percent of the loan for every year program participants work in Bulgaria after they complete their studies. For more information, visit the program’s webpage.
We talked to Iliya Kardashliev, the American University in Bulgaria’s chief financial officer and AUBG class of 2004, about the program’s benefits and the additional measures adopted by the university in support of students during the 2020–2021 academic year.
Kardashliev is a successful finance professional with 16 years of experience at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and financial services giant KPMG. In 2012–2019, he worked at EBRD in Sofia and London, where he was responsible for the bank’s investments in sustainable infrastructure in Central and Southeast Europe. He began his career as an audit assistant at KPMG and between 2006 and 2012 held the role of corporate finance manager at the company. Iliya Kardashliev is a CFA charter holder.
America for Bulgaria Foundation: What measures did the American University in Bulgaria take to protect its students, faculty, and staff from infection with Covid-19 in the new academic year?
Iliya Kardashliev, American University in Bulgaria: When the crisis broke out in February-March this year, we were on our traditional spring break, and the students were not on campus. We had to act really fast, deciding to move classes online. I think we were the first university in Bulgaria to do so. The university had invested in an online learning system, so technologically the move to distance learning was really rapid. Luckily, the students and faculty showed a lot of understanding and quickly adapted to the new reality.
For the fall semester we looked at many options, including moving classes online completely and going back to presential learning. What was key [in making that decision] is that we are a residential university—that is, what students get isn’t just an education, which is undoubtedly extremely important, but a full experience. This is why we decided that we needed to offer a hybrid form of learning, giving students the opportunity to be on campus and preventing those with health issues from missing a year and allowing them to participate remotely instead. In the hybrid model we applied, some of the students are in the classrooms—this is a small enough percentage to allow appropriate physical distance between them—while others learn online. These two groups alternate periodically so no one misses out on the interaction with faculty and classmates.
Apart from that, we took an array of measures aimed at improving hygiene. Classrooms are fully cleaned and disinfected after every class. They are equipped with special air-cleaning devices. We purchased body temperature–measuring equipment and placed it at the entrances of all major public buildings. Mask wearing in public spaces is required, of staff, students, and faculty. We implemented the full range of measures recommended by health authorities such as the World Health Organization and the Bulgarian Ministry of Health. We did everything that was possible and reasonable in this situation.
Moreover, we developed protocols for public gatherings of more than ten people. We are trying to not discontinue all social events, but they have to occur in a way that takes stock of the situation and implements all possible measures to protect participants.
In addition to offering blended learning, we decided to allow some students to learn online. This means they won’t be here during the semester but will be learning remotely instead. As a result, 230 students selected the online learning option during the fall. Another 130 students chose to live off campus. The number is not insignificant, but it ensures that those who remain can enjoy a comfortable physical distance from one another. More people will be accommodated in single rooms, and there will be more physical distance in classrooms and cafeterias.
ABF: Did the economic slump resulting from the coronavirus outbreak affect students’ decision to return to school or not? Did it impact the intake of first-year students?
I.K: Yes, it definitely had an impact. Many of our students rely on the work-and-travel programs in the United States. Students travel to the US, work during the summer, and earn enough to cover their university tuition and fees. This year they couldn’t do that because of Covid-19.
We expected that many of them would take a leave of absence, unable to return for financial reasons. To prevent this, we did several things. On the one hand, we created two additional financial aid funds, the so-called Student Support Fund and Student Emergency Fund, which were financed with donations mainly from alumni, faculty, and administration. Some of the funds came from the America for Bulgaria Foundation. This way, we were able to allocate more than $300,000 in the form of additional financial aid for the neediest students.
We are extremely grateful to the Foundation, which, along with the active participation of AUBG trustees Victoria Entwistle and Michael Marvin, created an instrument for granting loans to Bulgarian students on really good terms. The instrument is an innovative product that, in essence, is a loan from Tokuda Bank, but if students remain in Bulgaria after graduation, the loan principal will be fully covered by the Foundation. In practice, this will exempt students from repaying the loan, making it a quasi-scholarship. This way, AUBG students—who are some of the best students in general—are encouraged to stay in Bulgaria and contribute to its well-being, which is great for the local economy.
This is a win-win-win product: The university wins because it allows students who can’t pay for their education to do so. Students win too, and so does the economy because it will acquire a highly qualified workforce.
The two funds we created as well as the ABF/Tokuda Bank product played a decisive role, and, as a result, those taking a leave this semester aren’t much more than in any other year. The total number of students continues to be above 900.
We also have a good number of first-year students this year, 225. We have some really talented incoming students: winners of math and chemistry Olympiads, people with accomplishments in the arts and sports. And it is not just Bulgarians; we have students from 25 countries. In terms of first-year intake, we have achieved some really good results. The Covid-19 outbreak helped us to an extent because many people who were headed for more remote destinations chose to remain in Bulgaria, and people from the region opted to stay close to their home countries.
ABF: How do AUBG students usually finance their education? What kind of financial support is available to them?
I.K.: AUBG education comes with a price tag. It is much more affordable than education at some universities in the United States, but it is a serious investment for people in the region. We strive to give our students the maximum support we can through different scholarships, based on academic merit, as measured through admission test results and high school academic achievements, and on actual financial need. Nearly 70–80% of our students receive financial aid. Over the years, we have relied considerably on the support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, our largest benefactor at the moment.
The other way we support students is by facilitating loan assistance. Bulgarian and EU students have access to state-guaranteed loans from commercial banks. For international students, we developed another loan product, in cooperation with two banks, with the university guaranteeing those loans.
The third option is the newly created ABF/Tokuda Bank product. Eleven people applied for the program in just a week. The crisis is far from over, so this product will be extremely useful in the future, too.
ABF: Was your investment in an AUBG education worthwhile? To what extent did the university aid your professional development?
I.K: AUBG is probably one of the best investments I have made in my life in general. I have had a relatively successful career so far, and I owe this to AUBG. I did some further studies, but the university has had a crucial role. First, it shaped me as a person and introduced me to valuable people, and the courses I took help me in my work to this day. The fact that it was difficult, that our education was demanding, paid off in the end. The world is a demanding place, and you have to get used to that thought. AUBG is a good place to build those work habits.
From a purely financial perspective, the investment pays back fairly quickly because AUBG students are in demand among employers in Bulgaria and the region. We also have a very good reputation in academic institutions, and that’s useful when students decide to pursue master’s or doctoral studies.
ABF: What is it like to work for your alma mater? Why did you accept the position?
I.K.: The prospect of working at an academic institution that I graduated from and that is undergoing a transformation seemed really challenging, but I decided that the professional experience I have built over the years could prove useful. Having to come back to Bulgaria was another attraction. I was based in England, and it is not that I don’t like it there, but Bulgaria is my motherland, and honestly the opportunities here are much more abundant than they are in a city like London, which is super competitive. Sometimes it is much more difficult to make it there than it is in Bulgaria, where you still have many opportunities.
ABF: On several occasions you mentioned people and organizations supporting the university through their giving. What is the role of philanthropy in financing a private educational institution like AUBG?
I.K.: Many AUBG graduates ask me, “Why should I give to the university? My tuition wasn’t cheap, and I paid that. Sofia University graduates pay much less, and no one is asking them to donate.” This might be so, but right now only about 60–65% of our expenses are covered by tuition. There is a gap of 35–40% that we have to fund in other ways, and this is where giving usually comes in. We have larger, institutional supporters as well as smaller donors, usually AUBG alumni.
I graduated thanks to a group of people who supported the university. We owe our education to supporters and benefactors, and, in my opinion, it is our moral duty as alumni to support the university because, by doing so, not only do we help future students achieve professional success, but we also ensure they become good, honest members of their communities. I think it is important for people to give because this is how they “return the gesture” to those who once supported us in our quest to get a better education.