Professor Emilia Zankina: Bulgaria may become а strong educational center

Businesses and universities need to be partners in the preparation of future employees

Professor Emilia Zankina: Bulgaria may become а strong educational center
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Автор: Tatyana Yavasheva

Professor Emilia Zankina is the provost and professor of political science at the American University in Bulgaria. She holds a doctorate in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a bachelor's degree in political science and rhetoric. She has worked as a deputy director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and as an assistant editor of the East European Politics and Societies scientific journal.

Professor Zankina, you are saying that at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) you prepare students for the jobs of the future. How do you make sure that they get the good jobs of the present upon graduation?

This is not a light task and it is important to note how the approach to education has been changing over the years. Starting with the ideas of the Ancient Greeks for a healthy mind in a healthy body and for a broad spectrum of education, going through the specialist education which became dominant in Europe in the second half of the 20th century, and going back to the broad spectrum education.

The liberal arts system, well-established in the U.S., is now becoming more and more popular in Europe. It covers a wider range of knowledge and helps students become more adaptable. Young people should be able to think critically, to easily adapt to a new unfamiliar context, to not fear change, and to nurture their entrepreneurial spirit without fear of failure. We need to give them broad knowledge, but also good communication, computer and organizational skills. Ethics and morality are also an important part of education. We are helping them build certain traits of character in order to be able to resist in a rapidly changing environment while also having good values and contributing to society. We don't want to create ambitious machines working toward the future but destroying everything in their path.

What types of knowledge and skills do students looks for?

They are increasingly interested in practical skills and fewer students want to acquire theoretical knowledge, which is also important. The economy is becoming digital. There are many new professions and we need to educate these young people without knowing what exactly we are preparing them for. However, there is also the paradox that there are no jobs for the people, and no people for the jobs. Businesses should not only rely on fully prepared professionals, but should also put efforts in the career development of their employees. This is why it is important for the business and education sectors to become good partners.

A serious challenge that education is facing today is that information is now only a click away. What kind of knowledge should be given in this situation?

When the power is out, there is no information a click away. Knowledge is not just a tool that helps us get a job. Education and knowledge form our cognitive skills and abilities. The multiplication table is an exercise for the brain. Education leads to personal growth. It creates better people with bolder dreams and more ideas.

What other changes are you facing as an institution due to the rapid development of technology?

Today's students have a much more different attitude. They have more fragmented knowledge, are less patient, their attention span does not last very long. That makes it necessary to change not only the content but also the methodology by which we teach. It is hard to motivate a student to read an article and summarize it, not to mention a book like “War and Peace.” We are forced to implement creative ways to engage them in the learning process. We are introducing more multimedia presence in the educational process. Game is also becoming part of the training. The world is not static, and the fact that young people are different challenges us to change not only the system but also ourselves. Students are actively involved in the development of our new programs. Each faculty member is assessed by them so we keep our close relationship with the young people and their needs and expectations.

There is a lot of talk of the need for a good relationship between business and education. What is AUBG's practice?

Businesses should cooperate with educational institutions in several aspects. First, in the development of educational programs as companies usually know what their specific needs are. We cannot have education at a global level if we rely on tax funding alone. That is why businesses should invest in education. They should participate in shaping the content of the practical training. Internships are not sufficient. We need people from the business to enter the classroom. Technologies are constantly changing, and employers should also have concern for the training and the professional development of their employees. Universities can help them. The education process nowadays needs to continue even after graduation.

How is AUBG different from other universities in the country?

AUBG is different with our liberal arts system, our alumni network and our good relationship with business. When we develop programs, we contact business leaders, who are often our alumni, and we ask for comments and assistance from them. We invite business representatives as guest speakers. They provide practical knowledge, and make education more interesting and relevant. We are cooperating with businesses at various events like the job fairs. Companies have been consistently interested in our alumni.

Another unique aspect is that the liberal arts system allows students to have two majors and receive a wide range of knowledge and skills in other disciplines. A student of mine who is majoring in history and European studies is employed by Microsoft. They explained to her that they will teach her the necessary technical knowledge but that they are most interested in her communication and organizational skills.

We keep in touch with the people who have graduated from our university. They are our "ambassadors," our best advertisement, and they also give us invaluable help in many areas. The alumni network is an integral part of the living organism that a university presents.

What are you doing for the professional development of your students?

We have a career center and it does not only seek opportunities for specific internships but also actively develops a network of contacts with businesses. There are also individual sessions with each student to understand what their interests are and in what field they would like to make progress. Educators work with students on their career orientation as well. We are actively preparing the students for the moment they will be looking for a job. AUBG is a symbol of quality without compromise. That is why our students can succeed not only in Bulgaria but throughout the whole world.

What is your message to the educational community in Bulgaria, of which you are only one link?

To be a community. We are a link, but as a link from the Bulgarian educational system we are part of the network of universities in the country and also in the region and Europe. None of us can succeed independently. That is why we have to be a community. Together, we need to create a good educational ecosystem and make the country a strong educational center. Our own change is a must in this rapidly changing world. We will all benefit if we adhere to the changing world.

Is it feasible for Bulgaria to become an attractive educational center for foreign students?

It is completely feasible. Even now there are a lot of foreign students, mostly from the neighboring countries. Education in the West is becoming more and more expensive. Here the prices are low and we have good traditions in education. The environment is appropriate, the economy is developing, and there is an appropriate ecosystem of innovation, start-ups and entrepreneurial culture. We are becoming an increasingly attractive destination but business and education need to cooperate with the state to promote this potential. We need to make a successful global PR campaign to show how good Bulgaria is for education, investment and business start-ups. The competition is no longer national but global.

What are we lacking in order to be attractive?

There is not enough cooperation. But this is also changing. More and more people are realizing that they cannot succeed alone.
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