Brian Farrell poses in the main hall of Sofia University in Bulgaria. Farrell, the academic achievement director for the UI College of Law, is currently teaching in the law faculty at Sofia University through the Fulbright US Scholar Program.
By Brian Farrell
“So you’re moving from Iowa to Bulgaria?”
“Do you speak… what’s the language there?”
“Bulgarian. No, I don’t.”
“Do you know a lot about Bulgaria?”
“Well, not a lot, but I’m excited to learn.”
This was a common conversation for me last summer.
I’ve often thought that the best destinations are those that weren’t on your list. My experience as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer in the faculty of law at Sofia University certainly falls into that category. Unlike many of my Fulbright colleagues, I didn’t begin my experience with a particular country, or even region, in mind. Instead, I focused on trying to identify an award that was seeking someone with my background and skills, with a large degree of flexibility as to where that might be. Happily, this approach led to my selection as a Fulbright scholar and an incredible experience in a place I have grown quite fond of.
I arrived alone in Sofia in mid-September 2012, while my wife and daughter initially remained in Iowa. In the first days I met a number of people in my neighborhood and at my host institution. Most were exceedingly friendly and welcoming. I enjoyed the warm temperatures, the sidewalk cafes, and the sound of clarinet music through my open windows at night.
In early October I attended the law faculty’s formal opening of the semester, and days later I taught my first class. I had been cautioned that my students might seem reserved because they are accustomed to lecture-based courses, but I found them to be quite engaged and willing to share their opinions. The topic of my course was wrongful convictions, which examined the lessons learned from the cases of more than 300 Americans who have been convicted of crimes that DNA evidence later proved they did not commit. My students learned the basics of the American criminal justice system, and then examined the common causes of wrongful convictions, some of which are the result of very universal factors such as the fallibility of eyewitness identification. I regularly asked my students to take a comparative approach and consider whether the problems that have occurred in the United States could occur in Bulgaria. By employing this approach, I learned a great deal about the Bulgarian system while my students became familiar with some very real problems that are not limited by geographic boundaries.
In early November I was invited to participate in the ceremony marking the 120th anniversary of the law faculty. This was a lovely event, and for me in embodied Bulgaria’s rich educational and cultural traditions. It occurred in the university’s beautiful central auditorium and involved a number of speakers from the university, the government, and the legal community. The highlight for me was a set of pieces performed by a string orchestra composed entirely of members of the Sofia bar. The performance prompted a colleague to lean over to me and say matter-of-factly, “everyone in Bulgaria is talented. You might not know it, but everyone has a talent.”
Throughout the semester I had opportunities to talk with individuals and groups beyond the university. The topics of my invited talks were varied – a seminar on the causes of wrongful convictions at the Institute for Legal Studies, a discussion of the independence of courts and judicial selection with the Sofia Law Society, and a lecture on international law for students at the American University in Bulgaria. I also enjoyed the individual contacts that I made with Bulgarian judges and lawyers. I learned a great deal about the workings of the system, the professional community, and legal education. I also made some good new friends.
My wife and daughter joined me in Sofia in late October. Naturally, we were a bit curious to find out what it would be like to fly across the Atlantic with a toddler to live in an Eastern European capital where we didn’t speak the language. It turned out to be a more positive and enjoyable experience than we could have expected. Bulgaria is very child-friendly, and wherever we went, our daughter tended to break down whatever barriers might have existed. She would make a new friend at the playground and run ahead of us into our favorite café to give the server a hug. The hardest part was flying to other European countries and realizing that pushing a stroller no longer gets you to the front of the queue.
Sofia was a comfortable home for our family. While it may not have the same tourist draws as some other European cities, we found a lot to appreciate. The city has a tremendous number of green spaces, and in the warm weather we were in one of the parks daily. Hiking on Vitosha Mountain and the history of Boyana Church were only a short cab ride away. We explored a number of Sofia’s great museums, became regulars at the ballet, and enjoyed many delicious yet inexpensive meals in the restaurants around our neighborhood. Air travel from Sofia is convenient, and we paid visits to Istanbul, Austria and Hungary, Venice, and Athens.
Farrell presents a guest lecture at the American University in Bulgaria
As positive as my experience was, it would be unrealistic to suggest that there weren’t difficult moments, or that Bulgaria doesn’t have its problems. I saw plenty of poverty, and I heard people talk pessimistically about the economic and political challenges that the country still faces twenty years after the end of communism. I regularly tried to remind myself that my perspective was impacted by the privileges I enjoyed due to my relative wealth and access to resources. And I personally had moments of frustration or found myself missing home. But, that is a part of any new experience, and fortunately those moments were few and far between. What’s more, they often led me to a greater appreciation of the support I received from my new Bulgarian friends and neighbors, my host institution, and the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission.
Any endeavor is more enjoyable and more enriching when you embrace what is new and different and actively work to seek out the positive aspects. When I first decided to apply for the Fulbright program, I didn’t know what opportunity might arise, but knew I could commit myself to getting the most out of whatever it was. As it turns out, Bulgaria and its people exceeded my expectations. My time was personally and professionally transformative. I am fortunate to have had this experience, and I hope that I was able to make some contributions in return.
Brian Farrell is an adjunct assistant professor of international studies, adjunct lecturer in law, and academic achievement director for the College of Law at the University of Iowa. An Iowa native and UI alum, Farrell graduated from the College of Law in 1998 and went on to receive an LLM in human rights law from the National University of Ireland, Galway, in 2002.
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