The Ones Who Stayed

 No one needs the lights anymore.

An empty lobby in the Skaptopara I dorms. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Click… The buzzing inside the plastic switch is gone.

The halls succumb to darkness. The sound of emptiness in the lobbies is the new ambient noise. On my way out, while holding the door to the staircase, I turn back and look at the lonely couches. The Resident Assistant’s (RA) rounds are now desolate.

It was a quiet, peaceful afternoon, Nov. 5, when the students at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) received the email from President David Evans.

“We highly recommend that you leave the campus for the remainder of the semester.”

Frequent written updates regarding the COVID-19 situation on campus became permanent residents of everyone’s inboxes. However, this one was different. Unlike the previous email from March this year, students were now encouraged to go back to their homes. It was not mandatory to leave. Students could stay in the dormitories. All in-person gatherings – lectures, events, club meetings – transitioned to the digital world. We were to become the next cohort of Zoom boxes – distracted faces or black backgrounds with names inside.

Some students chose to leave and study entirely online. Irdi Duka, a senior at AUBG, said that he decided to go home to save money and start an internship.

Irdi Duka, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Irdi Duka.Irdi Duka, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Irdi Duka.

“I tried doing that in Bulgaria but [I] failed. Also, I became an uncle and promised my sister I would be there for my nephew’s birth. The pandemic changed my plans, but I got back and was really happy to spend time with [him]. I hadn’t seen my family in almost a year.”

According to AUBG’s leadership team, an increase in the numbers of infected people in the area meant that the risk of community transmission was too high.

“The situation in Bulgaria today is different from when we returned to campus. On 7 September, there were 39 new cases in Bulgaria. Over the last two days, there were over 4,000 new cases per day,” President Evans wrote. He explained that the university would not have started the fall semester on-ground if Bulgaria had the same rate of infections in September. Staying meant that students would take the risk of not finding a hospital bed if they got sick and needed one. In addition, the president asked students to avoid all travelling and stay only on campus, if they do not want to go back home.

“Dear students, we absolutely rely on your honesty. Otherwise, it would be extremely hard for us to keep the AUBG community safe.”

When the news, the administration, and everyone else is talking about the virus and what students should and should not do, why would someone decide to stay? It seems irrational to not pack your suitcases and go home. The truth is, however, that dispersing hides the same risk as staying, maybe even greater for parents and relatives. Staying here makes more sense because we might be carrying the virus, we might be asymptomatic and put our relatives at risk if we go home. We would have to do it eventually but not right now. The more time we buy, the better for everyone. Besides, there must be something else that convinced students and seniors in particular to stay.

“There are many reasons behind my decision to stay on campus, but it was mostly because of the AUBG environment. This is my second home, and I feel safe here,” said Maria-Magdalena Stoyanova.

Megi, as her friends call her, is one of the seniors who stayed on campus. She believes the whole community behaved responsibly during these tough times. Ever since her freshman year, Megi has been actively participating in extracurricular activities. She thinks that being surrounded by friends has helped her stay emotionally and mentally stable. Going back home was never an option for her.

“I know that next year I will not be at AUBG, and this makes me stay here as long as I can before this chapter of my life is over.”

Maria-Magdalena Stoyanova, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Georgi Staykov. Maria-Magdalena Stoyanova, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Georgi Staykov.

Last year’s group of graduates, class of 2020, did not finish the year in the usual fashion. AUBG’s commencement ceremony was cancelled twice – in May and in October. Now, months later, the future of the next class of graduates seems as clear as mud. The chances of having the spring semester online are high. Unless the situation improves on a global scale, students who are going to graduate in 2021 will do so without a commencement ceremony.

“I would honestly be heartbroken,” said Ventsislava Bormaliyska, a senior at AUBG. She finds it difficult to explain because only people who have studied here, who are here now, can relate.

“It would be utterly devastating. There are no words for this because we have all worked so hard, we’ve struggled so much studying endless hours,” Ventsi said.

Ventsislava Bormaliyska, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Ventsislava Bormaliyska.Ventsislava Bormaliyska, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Ventsislava Bormaliyska.

Graduation is one of the essential rituals that students celebrate and is often seen by others as an event with a certain dose of pomp and pageantry attached to it. For Ventsi, it is more about a student’s personal journey and transition into adulthood. It is not about the dress, the shoes, the party.

“This is a really important rite of passage for us, and it signifies a very important accomplishment. It's a launch point, it's a crossroad…. This is what we’ve all been waiting for, the moment we hear our names, move the tassel from right to left, and finally, toss the graduation cap high in the blue sky…”

The pandemic and the new health and safety regulations turned the world of many seniors upside down. Diana Radkova, another senior at AUBG, said that she was supposed to be in the US now.

Diana Radkova, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Georgi Staykov.Diana Radkova, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Georgi Staykov.

“Being a senior on campus is definitely emotional. I imagined a completely different senior year. I was supposed to be on an exchange program in the U.S., then to come back and have the best semester on campus. However, things turned out differently,” Didi said.

Irdi, Megi, Ventsi, and Didi acknowledge that their worlds have changed a lot since March. During the first part of the fall semester, events were allowed after approval from AUBG’s health centre, the Dean of Students, and the president. All of this is gone now. The lights in the sports hall, the Carl Djerassi theatre, the Andrey Delchev auditorium are permanently turned off.

“As a part of AUBG Olympics,” Ventsi said, “I can confirm that it was a huge challenge to organize the first-ever fall Olympiad in September, keeping in mind the social distancing and following the government’s guidelines for public gatherings. But I can proudly say that we made the impossible possible.”

Many clubs, RAs, and professors organised creative and exciting events for students to attend online. Even closed in a room, behind a screen, there is always something to do.

“However, there is no comparison between the feeling you get from attending a real lecture and discussing it with your peers face-to-face,” Megi said.

It has been difficult for her to spend so much time on her laptop. Nonetheless, she always hopes for the best.

“Being online all the time demotivates me, and it is harder to keep my spirits up! However, I am sure everyone is doing their best, and I just hope that things will come back to normal pretty soon,” Megi added.

Most seniors did not expect their last year to unfold in such a way. Didi thinks that if someone had told her what would happen, she would have laughed in their face.

“I would probably say that there is no way something like this [would] happen. The global pandemic definitely surprised everybody. Probably all of us have seen the movie “The Pandemic,” but not that many people were expecting to live in it,” she smiles.

Despite the uncertainty and the changes that students witness, most of the seniors are eager to be on campus or come back for the spring semester. Steliyana Yordanova is a senior who opted for moving entirely online back in the summer. Her mindset, however, changed a great deal since then.

“I decided to stay home because I honestly thought there would be nothing going on campus, no extracurricular activities, no club meetings, no nights out.”

Steliyana Yordanova, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Steliyana Yordanova.Steliyana Yordanova, senior at AUBG. Photographs by Steliyana Yordanova.

This is what she thought after all the webinars during the summer months. The idea of having her classes online did not bother Steli at first. Especially when she found out that there would be no events, staying home and saving some money did not sound like a bad idea.

“When the semester started, I immediately regretted my decision. I do have more time at home, but it is so much different than being on campus, living with your friends. I really miss that.”

Eight months after the initial panic started, the dust of uncertainty has somewhat settled, and people are not afraid to make plans. They know that things can go sideways at any moment, but they are certain about what they want. Seniors know they want to be here. They are the ones who stayed. The seniors who left want to be the ones who returned. 

Didi said that she wants to spend the spring on campus, too. “It is going to be my last semester and I want to enjoy my last moments as much as possible. Same goes for my friends. We just want to [live] our last moments together,” her emerald eyes smile with hope.

“For sure,” Ventsi said, “I would never miss my last semester here and I hope and pray that the experience would be as normal as it could be. That includes the organization and participation in the traditional AUBG spring events such as D-Day, the premiere of the new musical, the Honors Convocation, the Start-Up weekend, the TEDx event, the More Honors award ceremony and many more,” her smile lights up the place and she laughs with a buoyant uncertainty in her voice.

Every now and then, when I walk back from the America for Bulgaria Student Center to the dorms, I stop in the middle of the lawn and look around. I am usually listening to music, and I just think about all the events I have attended or organised there. I think about all the memories, the smiles, the laughter, the sky, the grass, the times that will never come back. It is so barren now. Bleak and lifeless. I feel a lump in my throat. “Go away,” I tell her. She does not move. I know I have done many things, but I want more. I sense the days slipping by. The fleeting moments of glorious solitude have transformed into a bird inside my ribcage. And it flutters with its wings, flutters in continuous attempts to escape. I cannot set it free. Not yet.

 A full lobby in the Skaptopara I dorms from a time gone by. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

“There will be time, there will be time

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions.”

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