Teaching internationally

A love of Slavic languages has led a Columbus native to pursue teaching English in Bulgaria.

Connor Leach, 23, a 2015 Indiana University graduate, has been chosen as a Fulbright Scholar, serving as an English teaching assistant for eighth and ninth grade Bulgarian students.

Right now, Leach is in the beginning phase of his 11-month experience in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Leach said he was always drawn to the culture of southeastern Europe, which motivated him to earn degrees in Slavic languages, Turkish and political science.

His interests took him all the way to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a semester, where he volunteered with local non-governmental organizations and helped Russian students prepare to take the SAT for entrance into American universities.

“They had a lot of trouble with SAT words and memorizing them, so I had them watch ‘The Simpsons,’” Leach said. “That gave them contact with the American culture.”

When he returned from Russia and heard about the Fulbright program — a teaching position that would allow him to once again use his linguistic abilities in a classroom setting — the opportunity seemed too good for Leach to pass up.

He submitted two essay applications — one detailing his classroom experience, and one discussing his future plans — and, much to his amazement, was chosen as an English teaching assistant.

“I was actually kind of surprised,” Leach said. “It was such a big deal that I didn’t think it was something I could get.”

Once the shock of his acceptance wore off, Leach was faced with an even more daunting task than applying for the program: preparing to teach 100 teenagers one of the most difficult languages in the world.

“The part that scares me the most is working with high school students,” Leach said. “I just don’t know how that’s going to go.”

But beyond his fear of having to deal with teenage attitudes and discipline issues, Leach said professionally, he felt prepared to take on a year of living abroad.

Although he did not know Bulgarian before the Fulbright program, his knowledge of other Slavic languages made him confident he could pick it up with ease. As an added bonus, being a teaching assistant means Leach will receive free lessons in the Bulgarian language.

But it is the Bulgarian culture that Leach is most excited about immersing himself in.

His apartment — which is partly paid for by the school he is working in — is located in Sofia, the country’s capital, which puts him in the center of the cultural activity.

The program even pays for him to participate in various cultural activities around the country, including volunteering for non-government organizations as he did in Russia.

Leach will travel to other countries while he is in Bulgaria, giving him the full experience of southeastern European culture.

“(Bulgaria) is so close to a lot of interesting places,” Leach said. “It’s just fascinating. Ancient Greek history, community history, Ottoman history, all of that stuff.”

And while the Fulbright Scholar experience is one that will benefit him personally and help him further his goals of becoming an international educator, Leach said his motives for becoming an English teacher in Bulgaria are not entirely selfish.

“I’ve always been interested in the government side of education, and how education can be used as a tool internationally to promote peace between countries,” Leach said.

Leach will stay in Bulgaria until July 2016.

About the Fulbright Scholar program

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program awards grants to undergraduate or graduate students, as well as to young professionals, for research projects, or for Leach’s English Teaching Assistants program. The program is designed to facilitate cultural exchanges between the United States and other countries, which creates greater understanding between the various cultures of the world. Applicants can choose the country they wish to study in, making the experience more meaningful to personal and professional development goals. For more information about the program and the application process, visit us.fulbrightonline.org.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.