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Bulgarians Look to West for Future

November 21, 1999

BLAGOEVGRAD, Bulgaria (AP) _ Dimitar Stoev is delighted to be studying at the American University in Blagoevgrad. He figures that’s the surest way to get out of Bulgaria.

Like many of his compatriots, the 23-year-old political science student at the first Western campus in Eastern Europe is facing limited opportunties in his homeland and looking abroad for a brighter future.

``I’m interested in U.N. development projects in Africa,″ Stoev said. ``Such job would allow me to travel a lot and to stand on my own feet.″

On Monday, Stoev will participate in a roundtable discussion in Sofia with President Clinton _ the first U.S. president ever to visit Bulgaria. About 200 of Stoev’s fellow students are attending a Clinton speech.

Since the fall of communism 10 years ago, about 700,000 mostly young Bulgarians have left the country. While inflation fell to 1 percent last year, down from 582 percent in 1997, growth has been flat as foreign businesses avoid investing in this impoverished nation of 8 million.

Discontent is growing over stagnant wages. The average monthly salary in Bulgaria is $100.

But not all of the 657 students at the American University are preparing to leave Bulgaria. Many are simply happy for a chance to learn the American way.

Traditionally, Eastern European schools followed a rigid curriculum, forcing freshman to choose a major before classes began.

At American University, which receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and a foundation established by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, there is a chance to pursue courses as varied as journalism, history and mathematics.

After the second year of study, students choose from one of nine degree courses developed in conjunction with the University of Maine, which extends its accreditation for the Blagoevgrad degree.

``This university is the best opportunity in Eastern Europe to achieve something real,″ said Diana Preotu, a 22-year-old politics and business student from Romania who speaks near-perfect English and hopes to continue her studies in diplomacy in Paris.

``I want to work in Romania or any other place in Eastern Europe, because the market for people like us is here,″ she says.

Blagoevgrad, formerly a city of cold concrete erected in the communist era, today reflects a university atmosphere.

The five-year old library has 100,000 books, and dozens of shops, cinemas and cafes that are crowded with students have brought life to this once drab city of 70,000 between the Rila and Pirin Mountains.

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