The idea of immigrating to America is easily tied to material things—a higher standard of living, a nicer apartment, maybe even your own car.
But when Vesselina Kotzeva's mother's name came up on the list of eligible green card applicants, her parents willingly gave up their middle-class lifestyle in Bulgaria for something that can't be touched: The opportunity to give their daughter an American education.
"They knew that coming here they would have lower pay," said Kotzeva, a recent graduate with a dual degree in English and English education. "For my parents, to them, that change wasn't as important as educational attainment."
In Bulgaria, her father served in the military and her mother worked as a nurse. After resettling in the Buford Highway area of metro Atlanta—itself an international enclave—her father took classes to repair and maintain HVAC systems and her mother found work as a housekeeper.
Growing up and attending schools with an extremely diverse population, Kotzeva came to the University of Georgia with a deep appreciation for her teachers and a love of writing. After taking required service-learning courses, Kotezva realized she wanted to be a part of that same diverse community—and schools were the best way to make that connection.
"In order to integrate into a community, you have to give back as well," she said. "I feel like the classroom is representative of the community. Once I started taking these service-learning courses, it was a good way to see what Athens was all about."
"So I feel like, when I was here, I took part in Athens."
Working through the Family Connection/Communities in Schools program, Kotezva began tutoring at Clarke Central High School in Athens. She also volunteered at Classic City High School and Oasis Catolico Santa Rafaela, a primarily Hispanic neighborhood outside of Athens with a tutoring program.
She found a connection with high school-age students, and felt a pull to work with a diverse group of teens similar to the students in her own schools growing up. After graduation, Kotezva accepted a job teaching middle grades language arts (6-8) at New Life Academy of Excellence in Duluth. She begins teaching this fall.
Kotezva also received several scholarships that helped make her UGA education possible. The Del Jones Memorial Scholarship, the Wells Fargo Scholars Program Scholarship, the COE Student-Teaching Scholarship, and the Jonathan Robert Scruggs Scholarship all helped fill in the gaps when coursework and student-teaching filled up any available time for a part-time job. And as a recipient of a study-abroad scholarship, Kotzeva was able to take creative writing classes in Costa Rica.
Time management is one unexpected skill Kotzeva learned while a dual major. "When you go from high school to college you think you'll have a lot of time. You think, 'Oh, I'm only going to have 15 hours of class." Then, once I decided I was going to take on the challenge (of a dual degree), I decided to do it."
The combination of English and English education has allowed her to explore issues of educational policy and immigration policy, creative writing, and British and American literature.
American literature, in particular, intrigues her.
"I'm sure there's going to be more challenges ahead. But it's what you do with your time that matters," she said. "You have to find a way to work around the time constraints. But I've found ways around it. It's just time, and doing the best that you can."