Beating the odds: Roma youth overcome low expectations with English

Bulgarian students place last in terms of global competences, according to a PISA study from 2018.  Even though they speak several foreign languages, Bulgarians demonstrate low global competencies.  This unfortunately does not come as much of a surprise, given the tendency of Bulgaria to occupy the last (or near to the last) place in almost every educational ranking.  That said, global competencies are becoming increasingly relevant.  They also relate to the main horizontal values and principles of the European Union.  What are global competencies?  In short, they refer to the ability to understand and appreciate the perspectives of the world views of others, to examine local, global, and intercultural issues, and to engage in open, appropriate, and effective interactions across cultures.

Why is it important to know English (or other foreign languages)?

Learning a foreign language is the norm – both for students and adults.  And it is becoming increasingly important to speak and work in English.  Even children now are often able to perfectly quote their favorite cartoon characters.  New terminology has entered our lives and has even become a part of colloquial Bulgarian.

Despite the fact that English has become an indispensable part of our daily lives, there is still a huge mismatch between the growing market need for people fluent in English and those who are able to meet this need, according to the British Council.  English is often not just seen as a job requirement, but also as a key skill that can have a significant impact on business results and employee performance.

Access to innovative and high-quality English language instruction is essential to maintain the interest of young people and to ensure comprehensive mastery of the language.  Unfortunately, good English language instruction is often too costly and out of reach for young people from poorer families or those living far from large urban areas.  Among these are Roma students, who rarely consider the prospect of learning English. 

Why and how did we combine English with Global Competencies?

Unfortunately, there is a prevailing attitude that Roma students are better suited to traditional fields like music, dancing, and singing. This stereotype is passed from generation to generation and has somehow firmly established itself in the minds of teachers, parents, children, politicians, etc.  Sadly, expectations have the power to influence a child’s self-image and expectations for themselves.

The Trust for Social Achievement launched its third edition of the project, “Code Success: A step toward success.  Access to English for youth in Roma communities 3.”  This continued a tradition of quality, innovative English language training coupled with the development of civic skills for Roma youth.  The training aims to encourage young people to stay in school and to become better prepared to eventually look for work. The project also aims to increase self-confidence and belief in one’s abilities, discover one’s strengths, and to develop global competencies.  TSA pursues these goals through its model, which incorporates a variety of approaches.

TSA organized hybrid (online and in-person) English lessons together with the “LARGO” Association in five settlements, including Kyustendil, Lom, Lovech, Peshtera, and Sliven.  We began selecting high school students at the end of 2021, and the classes started at the beginning of 2022.  Nearly 120 students applied and local coordinators were involved in the selection process, which looked both at students’ educational achievements as well as motivation.  Two groups of 10 students each were formed in each of the five locations, with a total of 100 participants from families that could not typically cover the cost of this type of training for their children.  English language teachers from Bulgaria, together with volunteer teachers from the US Fulbright Program in Bulgaria, actively participated in the training and allocated 120 teaching hours.  Fulbright teachers brought a unique perspective and were able to help develop the students’ English communication skills. They also introduced students to American culture, values, and history.

Within the 12-month program, the most motivated and dedicated participants had the opportunity to participate in three informal sessions to develop key soft skills.  During these workshops in Blagoevgrad, Plovdiv, and Veliko Tarnovo, the students developed and strengthened competencies for cooperation, critical thinking, communication, creativity, and confidence.  These skills were strengthened through the introduction of topics like leadership, volunteerism, democracy, civil society, ecology, climate change, political systems, etc.

Trainers sought to help students to objectively analyze issues they identified from their localities and to brainstorm collaborative and sustainable solutions. While discussing solutions, the functions and responsibilities of local, regional, and national institutions were also discussed.  Students were able to compare experience and know-how from other European countries where the problems have already been tackled. And within the framework of these exercises, Roma youth learned to speak in front of an audience, to defend their ideas, and to consider not only what to say – but also how to say it.  This approach helped students to increase their confidence when expressing their position.

During these workshops, the actress Nataliya Tsekova came and presented her plays, which for many students was their first exposure to the art of theater. The plays provoked debate and discussions about culture, history, identity, pride, and other topics of concern. This popular Roma actress not only served as a successful role model, but she also challenged young people with her engaging stories and examples from Roma culture and history, past and present, while also touching on taboos.

In Blagoevgrad, two students who have received scholarship support from TSA to study at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) – Tsvetana and Elvira, organized a visit for participants at the university.  They discussed the admission process and the opportunities that education at AUBG provides. Their visit coincided with HackAUBG (a hackathon/programming marathon), which gave young Roma high school students the opportunity to get in touch with some of Bulgaria’s best, young IT specialists. Elvira and Tsvetana also shared their personal experience and discussed some of the challenges and battles they had to overcome in order to get to where they are at today.  These stories inspired the young participants to believe that it is possible for Roma to study at the American University. 

Participants in Plovdiv also had the opportunity to find inspiration with three other TSA scholarship recipients – Maria, Kancho, and Emilian, who are students of Medicine, Pharmacy, and Dental Medicine at the Medical University in Plovdiv. Their personal stories touched the youth, as they shared stories about the challenges they faced both at school as well as with their families and communities. Maria, Kancho, and Emilian are living examples that there is a place for future Roma professionals in the field of medicine. This dream of becoming a doctor is something that Roma children rarely aspire to, as they rarely have the opportunity to meet someone from their community who has managed to become a doctor.

Students attending the workshop in Veliko Tarnovo had the opportunity to meet with Silvia from Center Amalipe and Kadrin from the Roma Standing Conference.  Together, they engaged in an open and also challenging conversation.  The group discussed the role, commitment and responsibility of each individual to contribute to the development of Roma communities.  Students debated about topics related to civil society building and talked about the meaning of community organization and the struggle for civil rights.  Participating youth were impressed by Silvia and Kadrin’s personal stories and came away from the meeting with valuable historical insights.

Almost all of the youth that participated in these workshops shared that they were visiting the given city for the first time.  Many had only seen the sights and historical places in pictures from their textbooks.  Now, they were able to visit in person the Old Town in Plovdiv, Tsaravets Hill, and the Museum of the Revival and Constituent Assembly in Veliko Tarnovo.

In addition to this rich program, all participants received an invitation from Member of Parliament Elisaveta Belobradova to visit the National Assembly in Sofia.  Participants were able to see the parliament building, to learn about its history, and to observe a regular plenary session.  During their visit, they participated in a discussion with a group of MPs on topics related to youth policy, the participation of Roma in Bulgarian politics, the role and function of the National Assembly, the process of creating laws, etc.

At the end of this project, 80% of the participants successfully completed the entire English language course.  More than half of all the young people improved their English language skills by at least one level.

This approach – learning through shared experience – demonstrated its high value.  No matter the background of each participant, their differences contributed toward a fuller, more valuable experience for the youth.  By combining an informal approach, field trips, and delegation of responsibility to students, the participants were able to develop their learning skills, to increase their engagement in formal education, and to build on their own dreams and ambitions.  They overcame their own expectations and the expectations that had been thrust on them by the society around them.

The Bulgarian educational system often fails to create an inclusive, unbiased environment for Roma students. Rather than encouraging Roma students to become learners of foreign languages, competitive and ambitious, it discourages them.  Even more, it can harm the willingness of students to collaborate and to find joint-solutions to common challenges. The tendency of Bulgaria’s public educational system to rely on private tutoring increases the gaps in educational outcomes and reinforces educational inequalities. This affects the possibility for young people to choose a high school where they can continue their education.  Students that experience financial hardships face enormous challenges, which limit their opportunities for growth and development.  This can be seen clearly through the continuation of the “Code Success” project.  When given the opportunity, every child can and does have potential.  They just need an opportunity to rise above the biases that constrain them.  With a little help, every child can beat the odds.