BLAGOEVGRAD, BULGARIA — From his office in former communist headquarters in this eastern bloc country, Dave Evans has a unique perspective on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Since the invasion began, nearly 94,000 Ukrainians have arrived in nearby Bulgaria, about 50,000 of whom still remain. So far, about 3.1 million people have fled Ukraine, with 2 million going to Poland. Daily, about 100,000 refugees arrive in the European Union.
Currently, there are 23 Ukrainians, 13 Russians and two Belarusians enrolled at American University in Bulgaria, where Evans — the former leader of Southern Vermont College — serves as its president.
Opening in 1991, the privately funded, nonprofit university is the first American-style, English language, liberal arts institution in Eastern Europe. It started with 208 students and 16 full-time faculty members. Today, the student body numbers around 1,100 with people from more than 40 countries who come to the university for an American-style liberal arts education.
During a Zoom call from his office in Blagoevgrad, Evans told Vermont News & Media that the university’s Russian and Ukrainian students have been the epitome of poise since the Russian onslaught began Feb. 24.
“[They] have been absolutely wonderful. They are friends with each other. The Russian students are appalled,” said Evans. “It’s highly unlikely that a great fan of Vladimir Putin would have come to school at the American University, so that’s not an issue. The biggest issue right now for us is that neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians have access to any of their money.”
The university has been able to offer support to them during this crisis, said Evans, and they have risen to the challenge with remarkable composure.
“It’s been astounding, absolutely astounding, what they’ve done and how courageous 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 any of our lives. I just couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Most of the students who attend the university are between 18 and 23; most come from Bulgaria, and most are looking for a ticket out of their home country, mostly to other wealthier nations in the European Union. That means Bulgaria, like many corners of New England, has a “pretty significant brain drain.”
“At the same time, though, quite a number of our graduates from Bulgaria have been really, really successful here,” said Evans. “And just recently, in the last month, an electronic payment company [Payhawk] that was founded and developed by a group of our alumni became Bulgaria’s first unicorn.”
“Unicorn” is a term used in the venture capital industry to describe a privately held startup company with a value of over $1 billion.
“Bulgaria has been very kind to the university. We were founded in part because the people who were in charge of the city in 1991 were very generous in offering a space for free for the first number of years in the old communist headquarters. It’s pretty cool. My office is in the old communist boss’ office. It has a secret elevator that goes down to the parking lot.”
Evans has been in Bulgaria for nearly three years, much of it under the specter of the pandemic.
“From the end of January 2020 until the end of March 2021, I was more or less trapped here due to COVID,” said Evans, who grew up in Los Angeles. “That was definitely not great. We’ve got Zoom and those kinds of things now, which makes it a lot better, but that was very hard.”
COVID-19 also made it hard to travel in Europe. “There’s all kinds of interesting stuff in this region to you know; there’s thousands of years of history. None of it was available.”
These days, the university is returning to its former self. Evans noted that, while Bulgaria is “different from Southern Vermont ... the outcomes and the goals are the same, which is to educate students for economic mobility, to make the world bigger for them and to give them the confidence to be players in a lot of different spaces.”
“We’re very successful in that,” Evans said.