One of the main questions I got when telling people about my plans for this year was, “What are you actually going to do in Bulgaria?” When I told them I would be attending a public high school taught entirely in Bulgarian, the reactions were mixed. Many of my friends made jokes about me being a Super Senior (a term used to describe someone who takes a 5th year of high school) while others asked if I spoke any Bulgarian or if I would just be sitting there in complete confusion (hint: it’s the second one). I seriously considered both of these issues before I applied to the YES Abroad program. Would I be miserable stuck in high school for an extra year? Even if I wasn’t, would the massive language barrier between myself and the material make it a waste of my time anyway? Ultimately I came to the conclusion that because school systems vary so much around the world it wouldn’t feel like a 5th year of the same old thing and that full immersion is the best way to learn a language, so I could deal with a few months of utter incomprehension in exchange for stronger language skills in the end.
Flash forward almost a year and here I am. I’m halfway through my second full week of school at 18-то СОУ “Уилям Гладстон” (18th School Sofia “William Gladstone”) in class 11в. Yes, that’s right. 11. Because 12th grade in Bulgaria is focused almost entirely on preparation for graduation exams, Delaney (the other gap year student) and I have been enrolled in 11th grade. As far as coursework goes this doesn’t make much of a difference, seeing as I can’t understand anything my teachers say anyway, but it does mean that my classmates are all 1-2 years younger than me. In Bulgaria students start school at either 6 or 7 years old, so there’s more of a range in each grade than is usually seen in the States. So far, however, the age gap hasn’t been an issue. My classmates have been incredibly welcoming and we’ve gotten along really well!
Technically the first day of school was Friday, September 15th, but all we actually did was stand in a courtyard for 45 minutes while people made speeches that no one listened to and had a brief meeting with our head teacher, of which I didn’t understand a word. Though it told me very little about what my daily life would look like at 18-то, I greatly appreciated having a chance to introduce myself to my classmates before we were thrown into a room together for 6 hours a day. It was such a relief to walk into school on Monday with everyone expecting me and ready to help, rather than being the surprise American no one knows what to do with.
18-то is one of the largest schools in Bulgaria with over 2000 students in grades 1-12. That sounds like a lot, but since it’s distributed between twelve grades rather than four, class sizes are much smaller than what I’m used to — mine is only 20 people! Unlike in American high schools, you don’t switch classes for different subjects. Everyone takes the same set of required courses (though each class does choose certain subjects to take intensively) and you stay in one room with the same people all day while teachers come in and out depending on the subject. This makes getting to know my classmates way easier and also pretty much eliminates any risk of getting lost, but it does mean that if I want to meet more people the burden is on me.
Like most public schools in the country, 18-то runs on a shift system: Half of the school has class from 7:30-1:20, the other from 1:30-7:20. Both shifts have seven 40-minute classes with 10-minute breaks in-between, with the exception one 20-minute break after the 3rd class. After the second semester ends in mid-February, the shifts swap. Right now, I’m in the first shift which means I have to get up at 6 every morning, but I’m done at 1:20 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and 12:30 on Tuesday and Thursday. The early wakeup time has definitely been a huge adjustment, one I’m still making, but it’s also really nice to finish school and basically have a whole day ahead. For example, after school today I headed to the city center to meet Delaney at the cafe in which I’m writing this. We just got lunch at a market hall nearby and we’re going to the gym with Makana and Lily in about an hour. Once we’re done with that, it will still only be 5:30 pm!
From what I know, the U.S. school system is relatively unique in that most students have the exact same schedule every day or every other day (this is known as a “block system”). In Bulgaria, as in most European countries, each day of the week has a different lineup. This explains the variation in end-times I mentioned earlier, as well as how I’m taking 12 subjects with only 6-hour school days. Over the course of a week I have 1 hour (a class is referred to as an hour despite only lasting 40 minutes) each of homeroom and philosophy, 2 hours each of physics, biology, chemistry, math, P.E., and geography, 4 hours each of Spanish and history, 5 hours of Bulgarian literature, and 6 hours of French. Reading my schedule in a list like that makes it sounds more overwhelming than it is. Sure I’m taking a lot of science, but I only have 80 minutes of each per week, which combined is equivalent to about 3 1/2 class periods at my high school back home. All in all, it’s not that bad. Besides, I’m basically only taking French due to my aforementioned complete inability to understand a word my other teachers say.
Enough facts and figures. What’s it actually like to be an exchange student in a Bulgarian high school, you (presumably/hopefully) ask? So far, really good. The school itself is an old, graceful yellow building with tiled floors, huge staircases, and high ceilings on a tree-lined street, so I have no complaints there. Though the first week was utterly exhausting and there were moments when I wanted to curl up and disappear from the stress of it all, I never once felt unsupported, unwelcome, or ignored. My classmates, hopefully soon-to-be friends, have the biggest hearts and have already invited me to hang out, let me tag along for weekend plans, and answered all of my questions without making me feel as stupid as the things I’m asking are. Every day I feel a little more comfortable and confident at 18-то. It won’t be easy (nothing about exchange is), but I’m lucky enough to be in a community that’s excited to have me. As a result, I’m excited to have them as well.
My school schedule does not make it easy to find blogging time, but there is still a language update post coming soon as well lots more (most of which I probably haven’t even experienced yet). After almost a month here, I’m feeling mostly settled in and like I’m starting to figure this Bulgaria thing out. I’m sure there are lots of curveballs coming, but I’m ready to face them! Until next time, довиждане!