This May, 11 University of Arkansas – Fort Smith students began their summer immersed in the educational experience of a lifetime, during an International Honors Maymester course in Bulgaria, offered by the Myles Friedman Honors Program. Steeped in the rich cultural heritage of the region, the students focused their studies on sustainable development through the lens of the Bulgarian experience since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the democratic political changes that followed.
The group visited 11 cities and villages, touring UNESCO World Heritage sites and protected areas and museums, meeting with government officials, environmental and public health organizations, and business leaders to learn about how each are working towards achieving the United Nations Global Sustainable Development Goals, while participating in a wide diversity of cultural enrichment activities.
Coursework included assigned readings, writing pre- and post-trip essays, keeping a travel journal, presenting on one of the UN goals, and creating a carbon footprint estimate for the 12 days of travel.
The course was led by Dr. Svetla Dimitrova, assistant professor of sociology at UAFS, and Dr. Tyler Fox, a postdoctoral research fellow and graduate teaching faculty in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The couple first met in Bulgaria in 2003 while working and volunteering in Bulgaria with the U.S. Peace Corps.
During the trip, students visited the capitol of Sofia, the Black Sea Coast, the Strandja Nature Park, the Valley of Roses and Thracian Kings, Plovdiv and Bachkovo Monastery. Plovdiv, is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe, and was a group favorite, giving them an unparalleled appreciation for the extensive history of European cultures. Currently the 2019 European Capitol of Culture, the city's heritage dates back to the sixth century BCE, offering students a truly unique experience as they visited archaeological sites, experienced the burgeoning Slow Food Movement and attended a live concert held in an ancient Roman Theatre. The Black Sea Coast provided an opportunity to learn about traditional sea salt production and biodiversity conservation in coastal lakes, as well as, of-course, sunbathing, while the National History Museum in Sofia and Asen’s Fortress in Asenovgrad allowed a deeper look into eras of Bulgaria's past.
“When visiting new places, tourists often see only the more tourist-centered places,” said Madalyn Steward, a senior history major from Jonesboro. “But on this trip, we’ve been given the opportunity to understand the people who actually live in Bulgaria. I not only learned a lot about sustainable development and how to apply it to my life but also about a culture that I didn’t know anything about.”
In the Strandja Nature Park, the largest protected area in Bulgaria (1161 km2, 448 mi2), the students stayed in small guest houses in Brashlyan Village and learned about the unique challenges of balancing biodiversity conservation and preservation of economic livelihoods of the people living within its borders.
The socio-economic dimensions of wildlife conservation were also highlighted during one of the more novel stops on the 12-day tour: The Dancing Bears Park Sanctuary in Belitsa, a refuge for bears that were trained as entertainment in Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania. Thirty-one former dancing bears have been rescued and housed in the sanctuary since the country outlawed the practice in 1998.
“Throughout this course, we have primarily focused on how we can lead sustainable lives to better-off the citizens of the world,” said Shawn Williams, a senior international business major from Bakersfield, Calif. “But the excursion today showed that the bears, as well as other animals, deserve to have the same peace and justice.”
Other students reflected on the importance of sustainability from a cultural aspect as well as an ecological one.
“Bulgaria has shown me the importance of preserving your culture, investing in local producers, reducing your impact on the environment, appreciating nature and so much more,” said Nicole Phillips, a junior business administration major from Houston. “I now see that, even though I am only one person, my actions can make a difference.”
"During this trip, it was made abundantly clear just how interconnected the different facets of sustainable development are,” said Claudia Lackie, a senior graphic design major from Conway. “Not every nation can be America, and for the sake of our environment, there is a lot we ‘developed’ nations can learn from the places we might initially consider ‘underdeveloped.’”
Participating in the course were students from the College of Business, College of Health Sciences, College of Communication, Languages, Arts and Social Sciences, and College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
• Stacie Bynum, junior mathematics with teacher licensure major from Van Buren
• Davin Chitwood, junior international business major from Fort Smith
• Amber Hall, senior biology major from Lavaca
• Joshua Hooper, sophomore business administration major from Fort Smith
• Rachael Keomany, senior nursing major from Fort Smith
• Claudia Lackie, senior graphic design major from Conway
• Nicole Phillips, junior business administration from Houston
• Ryan Smith, senior history major from Fort Smith
• Madalyn Steward, senior history major from Jonesboro
• Hannah Whitlock, senior information technology major from Fort Smith
• Shaun Williams, senior international business major from Bakersfield, Calif.
Maymester courses are condensed classes offered in May between spring and summer semesters. Courses take place at varying locations in the United States and abroad depending on the subject. For more information on Maymester courses, contact the Office of International Relations at 479-788-7267 or email@example.com. For more information on the Myles Friedman Honors Program, contact Program Director Dr. Dennis Siler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 479-788-7537.