Connecticut Professor Empowers Girls in a Former Soviet State, Bulgaria

Laurie Gaboardi/The Litchfield County Times.

Think of former Soviet Republic member states and the mind’s eye often goes gray, envisioning grim concrete structures, downcast people, despair that seems to hang like a fog over the landscape.

The reality is often quite different—beautiful, vibrant countries with great historical architecture and artifacts and people that are hopeful about their futures. Such is the case in Bulgaria, currently the poorest of the European Union countries but one that is evolving and emerging.

It is an area of the world that has captured the attention of Dr. Jean Hatcherson, an assistant professor teaching cultural anthropology at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) in Danbury. A lifelong humanitarian and inveterate traveler, she became intrigued by the potential of young Bulgarian women that is being unlocked through the efforts of a summer youth camp developed by Peace Corps volunteers in 2000, now known as Leadership Academy GLOW.

An all-volunteer, all female-run program, it is dedicated to empowering young Bulgarian girls through peer leadership training. “I’m interested in the social, economic and political aspects of inequality, particularly in regards to gender, health and education,” said Dr. Hatcherson, adding, “I believe in providing people with opportunities for experiential learning.”

For many years she has worked with colleagues in the humanitarian field to take students and others on service learning and travel study trips to Asia, South America and Africa. That was the vehicle that led to her discovery of Leadership Academy Glow.

“I had a regional winter program in Asia and was looking for something in summer time for students and other volunteers,” she said. “Through the Bulgarian American Society I found out more about Bulgaria and was introduced to Tsvetta and Margarita Kaleynska, and thus began my association with GLOW.”

An exploratory trip to Bulgaria by the professor revealed it to be a “beautiful country topographically,” but one that is “still plugging its way out of the transition stage” from communism.

“Bulgaria was under Turkish rule for 500 years and was really at the crossroads of history. There is tremendous architecture and historical culture there, but after the Turks, they had only 30 years of independence before the Soviets came in—they haven’t had much experience with independence,” she explained.

“After the transition [from being Soviet member states] all those countries went through a terrible time. Bulgaria had an exodus of people looking for work elsewhere. When I left there last spring there were a lot of protests going on,” she reported. “People were filling the streets and holding the government hostage. There is so much corruption and people are really demanding a new government.”

Her exploratory visit satisfied her about the validity of the work being done by GLOW, however, a program originally created by Peace Corps volunteers. “The Leadership Academy GLOW program is a perfect fit as my academic interests include issues of gender equality and female empowerment. After several meetings and email exchanges with Tsvetta and Magy, I was able to travel with three volunteers to Bulgaria in the summer of 2012,” she reported. “We assisted the GLOW staff in their camp activities. In 2013, we were five volunteers from the U.S,” she said, adding that she is organizing a third excursion this summer for students and volunteers this summer.

The Peace Corps left Bulgaria in June 2013, and Dr. Hatcherson’s volunteers are now the only American helpers, the first non-Peace Corps volunteers to work with GLOW.

“Leadership Academy GLOW is a seven-day empowerment camp for girls,” she said. “The Peace Corps started it around 2000 because of the sex trafficking in the area. They wanted a camp to educate girls about these things and how to become active citizens in their country. The Peace Corps turned it over to Bulgaria last year when it was exiting, and some young women who were GLOW campers are now running it. Leadership Academy GLOW was chosen as one of the best things the Peace Corps had established there.”

She said that Bulgaria is still a patriarchal society where men make the decisions. “Even though you will find women doctors and women in leadership positions, men are the decision makers. In Bulgaria women are good at managing—when there is a crisis, the men bring women in, but when the crisis is over it is still very much a man’s world. When a girl has her first serious boyfriend, there is an assumption this is the guy she will marry. Part of what GLOW is saying is, ‘This is lovely if it is what you want, but there are other options as well.’ The camp is working to show girls there are other things they can do.”

This is particularly important, she said, for girls who come from small villages. “In this country we meet new people all the time,” she said, “but in small Bulgarian villages you are with the same people all your life. Families are very close. To meet people from other parts of Bulgaria is very interesting for the girls—it’s an important experience. There is a network that is established that continues after camp is over.”

The volunteers that Dr. Hatcherson takes with her to Bulgaria include university students, college professors and corporate professionals. Mostly women—there is one male volunteer—and aged 18 to 70, each hopes to inspire the Bulgarian girls through socialization, conversation and instruction.

See the full story at The Litchfield County Times online.

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