Mission – possible. A story about the challenges I surpassed on the way to university. Dessislava Dimitrova, Cherven Bryag “The only person you are destined to be is the person you decide to be” Ralph Waldo Emerson

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To become a university student – for some this is child’s play, for others – mission impossible. The present story is not about the typical experiences of a future student, but my personal story in light of the anxieties which probably every young Roma person experiences on the bumpy road to higher education.

Oftentimes university applicants, especially young Roma people, are disoriented, insecure and timid. When I was applying, I was worried about whether I’d be accepted as an equal in the new environment and to what extent I’d be judged according to my personal qualities. But acceptance of the Roma community will become reality only if we start educating ourselves. The deprivation, lack of ambition and scarcity of information about our options, as well as early marriages in Roma communities, are a serious cultural issue when it comes to our social advancement. I had classmates who left school at 16 and got married, and now they lament the lost opportunities for professional development.

A decisive factor in the realization of my dream was the support of TSA, association Knowledge and the NGO Student Society for the Development of Interethnic Dialogue. These organizations contribute greatly to the development of the Roma community today, especially through easing access to higher education for young people from underprivileged backgrounds, with which they aim to encourage their successful integration in society. The programs focused on Roma students offer trainings which assist them in choosing appropriate degree programs at university. Thanks to this invaluable help which wasn’t offered to older generations, the number of Roma students has grown significantly over the last three years and their number is now over 2200 young people.

If young Roma people get an education, poverty, which is often part of the life experiences of our ethnic group, will decline as well. I believe that it is possible to overcome the segregation between Bulgarian and Roma communities. My personal story is an example that if you persevere, you can get chances at professional realization. Fulfilment is precisely the fruit of the active pursuit of our dreams and goals. Life’s difficult moments are the motivation which shapes our personalities. Poverty taught me to appreciate the little things and pain gave me the impetus to work for a positive change within myself. I would like to be one of the people setting an example as a dignified and successful young Roma person. Our background, skin colour and our financial status are not what makes us human. What’s important is to have real self-esteem which reflects who we are and to be proud of where we come from. Nowadays, respect is achieved mainly through intellectual development and, as John Dewey said, “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” So let’s live it!

My name is Dessislava Dimitrova, I’m 20 years old and I live in the town of Cherven Bryag. This autumn I will start my bachelor’s degree in “Pre-school and Primary School Pedagogy” at the University of Veliko Tarnovo. The road to my first steps in higher education wasn’t at all smooth. But I was determined to succeed.

I was a diligent and studious child in school, and after classes I liked to play “teacher” by mimicking my teachers. Focusing on my studies always appealed to me more than playing outside, in contrast to my classmates who were puzzled by my enthusiasm. In the summer months, I happily read everything on the list of required readings which was given to us at the end of every schoolyear. I remember that Pippi Longstocking was my first favourite book. And perhaps it was just like her that I tried to make my childhood happy in spite of all the difficulties.

My family is of Roma background. I have a brother who is 5 years younger than me. My childhood was uneasy and melancholy. We were paying rent, and our father was drinking alcohol every day and got aggressive towards our mother. I could feel that things in my family weren’t normal, and my only solace was studying. We could barely make ends meet, and the resources for everyday life seemed to be getting scarcer as time went on. I was 13 years old when, heavily in debt, my father decided to leave the country. This was the end of his relationship with us – he never looked for us again afterwards. My mother, whom I consider to be an exceptionally strong person, decided that we should move back in with her parents in the countryside, as she couldn’t cope alone and without work. My grandparents opened not only their door to us, but their hearts too. They started supporting us financially even though only my grandfather had paid work. It was very difficult for the five of us to be living off a single minimum wage, but with love and understanding among us, we were managing to face the everyday difficulties of life. After looking for a job for a long time, my mother finally started working in a sewing factory, despite the fact that she graduated from high school with an Economics specialization. For her, it was a great joy that she could now help us financially.

I had made it my objective to graduate high school with very good grades. I wanted to turn the bitterness which my father had left in me into motivation. In spite of everything I’d been through, I decided that my life would be different, and I would be a dignified person. As a girl from the Roma minority, I can share that I’ve faced non-acceptance on the side of ethnic Bulgarians. I had to fight hard to win the trust and respect of my teachers and peers. Already in primary school, I was made aware of the advantage given to Bulgarian kids over Roma, but with a lot of hard work and perseverance, I managed to prove myself equal to them and to finish primary school with 5.84 (corresponds to an A, t/n). In high school, I chose a track with intensive English learning. Once again, I was faced with the prejudice towards children of my ethnicity, but I had decided to persevere and change the negative attitude of those around me. I wanted equality and I was fighting to get it. In the first semester of the school year I already proved myself as one of the best students and I was receiving straight As. I started participating in national competitions, I was aiming for grades which would qualify me for a school stipend, and I wanted to be judged according to what I know. My mother was proud of me and I didn’t let myself disappoint her even for a second.

I finished high school with an overall of 5.40 (B+, very close to an A; t/n). To continue to study I needed money which was more than my family could afford. Despite this, I didn’t let go of my dream to be a children’s teacher one day. I looked for work, but no one would give a young inexperienced person a job, especially one of Roma background. I didn’t have the opportunity to enrol in university with my peers, but this year (2019, Ed.), I succeeded in doing this with the support of the Knowledge association in Lovech and a program for supporting young Roma teachers carried out by the Trust for Social Achievement, about whose existence I didn’t know before. I’m extremely grateful to them. Exactly when I had lost hope that I would ever have a chance at professional development, some family members put my application forward for consideration by the foundation. The successful outcome was thanks to my good grades from high school. The two NGOs helped me not only with advice, guidance and help with my university application, but will also support me with my tuition fees. For my family this success is a true miracle and a joy which can hardly be put into words.

I’m impressed by the friendliness and approachability of the staff of the University of Veliko Tarnovo. Submitting my application was easy – the process is very simplified, and the administrative staff are always there to help if an issue arises. What was difficult was waiting for the results, but the excitement I felt on the day I was accepted can’t compare to anything else. I believe that being a children’s teacher is more than a profession – it’s a vocation. When I graduate, I will be able to pass on my fervor to many talented and intelligent children who might feel hopeless now, but this only makes me more passionate about graduating from university with an excellent degree.