IIE Blog Opening Minds
IIE Blog Opening Minds

What Does It Mean to Be American? Observations from Bulgarian Students in the U.S.

By: Emil Levy on Thursday, March 7, 2013

Recently, I facilitated a five-day enrichment seminar in Washington, DC for the participants in the U.S. Academic Immersion Program (USAIP). Sponsored by the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF), USAIP is a non-degree scholarship program, which places 20 Bulgarian students in select U.S. colleges and universities and provides them with the opportunity to study in the United States for one academic year.

USAIP Participants at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DCDuring the seminar, the 20 students, with already more than a semester of experience studying and living in the U.S. under their belts, shared their impressions of American culture, values and system of higher education. In addition, the seminar introduced them to the U.S. system of government through visits to the U.S. Capitol, The Library of Congress and the Lincoln Memorial.

Here is a summary of the main observations shared by participants during the seminar:

1. The United Sates is an extremely large and diverse country, and each state has its own distinct culture, history and way of life.

During the first day of the seminar, participants delivered short presentations about their experiences at their respective U.S. host universities. These presentations were eye-opening, as participants realized that every single one of them has had a quite unique and different American experience. For example, Mila Dimitrova, who studies at Barnard College, shared her admiration for the diversity and “craziness” of New York City, while Pavel Valkanov, who studies in Augustana College, remarked that Sioux City, South Dakota has a large contingent of Americans of Scandinavian and German decent, as well as much celebrated Native American heritage. Ivaylo Gyurov at Boston University compared Boston to a major European city, and shared how much he enjoys using the T (the Boston area subway system), while Trifon Tsekov and Todor Popov, who study at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, noted that public transportation in Flint is virtually non-existent and shared a funny story about the locals’ dismay when they walked the 2 ½ mile distance from their campus to the local Walmart. After listening to all presentations, Slav Denyakin, who studies at Denison University in Ohio, declared that while Europeans often make fun of Americans for not knowing a lot about the different European states, Europeans are probably equally ignorant about the diversity and enormity of the United States.

2. There are some American values that have helped the U.S. and its people to be successful, that Bulgarians can learn from.

During the seminar, participants read and discussed The Values Americans Live By (84 KB, PDF), an article by L. Robert Kohls, which attempts to explain Americans to foreign visitors by identifying 13 values that guide American behavior. Based on their American experience, the Bulgarian students identified values such as Time and its Control/ The Importance of Time; Individualism/Independence; Future Orientation/Optimism; Practicality/Efficiency; Competition; and Informality as essential parts of the American psyche that have helped Americans become successful.

3. Americans believe in individual political action, and in the importance of an active civil society and participation in the political process.

USAIP participants discussing their experiences in the U.S. As part of the seminar, participants listened to a brief presentation on the U.S. system of government. We then discussed the reasons why the U.S. founding fathers created the system of checks and balances, as well as the functions and powers of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the U.S. government. In addition, participants learned about the unique and important role of the Supreme Court in interpreting laws and changing the course of U.S. history by reading the decisions in landmark Supreme Court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade. The students were most interested in what they witnessed in DC- Americans mobilizing to protest hot button social issues that showed energetic and active participation in the American democratic process. The students were extremely impressed by the fact that so many people from different states had come to Washington at their own expense to express their political will in a peaceful and orderly fashion.

With the USAIP participants now in their second semester, I am confident that over the next four months, they will continue to improve their understanding of America and its culture and people, as well as increase the understanding of their fellow American students of Bulgaria.

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  • Curtis said:
    3/11/2013 12:10 PM


    One of the many things that I did not realize when I moved to Europe (England and then Germany) as an American, was the skewed perceptions of the United States by foreigners. I naively thought that Europeans would have had a better understanding of the fundamentals of how our country works. Maybe this is a little of American arrogance, but my European colleagues were positive they new much about the United States. Surprisingly, or not, they really did not understand the basic premise of our system. We really are more like the European Union than one country in many ways. Each state was purposefully given a high degree of autonomy to compensate for our enormous diversity. Therefore, culture, laws, customs, accents, and more change throughout the country. When a European would say, "I have been to America and know all about it; I vacationed in New York (or Florida)," I was amazed. The perception that we are one big homogeneous culture apparently is entrenched, probably because of the media. I believe that this is an important learning point for anyone visiting the United States.

  • Eurolinguist said:
    3/15/2013 2:30 PM

    Curtis- when you are saying that the Europeans you met have a "skewed perception" of the United States, I trust that you spoke with a lot of Americans in United States who have a much clearer picture of Europe than the Europeans have about America. I am sure you have met a lot of Americans who, when asked, were ready to differentiate the countries in the euro zone and the ones that are members of the EU; the ones that can right away name the official languages of the EU and substantively discuss the role of the European Parliament. Intelligent Europeans like intelligent Americans are educated enough to conclude that neither the United States nor Europe is a “one that fits all definitions” country. But vacation experiences and live-in experiences are definitely very skewed in any case- and here the continent and the background truly have nothing to do with it.

  • Julian said:
    3/15/2013 8:43 PM

    The "Values Americans Live By" seems to me to be propagandistic, in terms of its lack of sophistication and nuance. To cite two of the first three examples given, Change and Time and its Control, both descriptions and related assertions would not seem to take into account very obvious realities of American life. In the case of "change," there is a considerable clash in American culture and politics between those voices who advocate change in many laws and social policies and those equally strong voices who consider such changes to be dangerous or even "Un-American." I am sure that with a bit of reflection we can all easily list a host of divisive changes currently being advocated in American society. Change is not equally embraced across our vast country. Another example is with regard to the importance of time. From my experience, the sense of urgency with regard to time is quite different in parts of the Northeast than it is in parts of the Southern United States. Contrary to the document, time is not universally prioritized over relationships throughout the United States. New York manners in the South will not generally get one far. I won't even begin to parse the assertions on equality given as Value 4. Personally, I am somewhat appalled that "The Values Americans Live By," with its chauvinist and condescending tone, is being presented to foreign visitors as a definitive expression of American values. Fortunately, it seems that the Bulgarian students, even with their limited experience in the United States, were able to narrow the list down.

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