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SMU Alumna and Bulgarian News Anchor Petya Kertikova on Life as an International Student, and Why Bulgarians Are Returning to Their Homeland

Kertikova (’11), host of TV series "The Ones Who Return to Bulgaria," says “The stories give hope that change is coming, that change is here”

International Students at SMUWhen 17-year-old Petya Kertikova competed in the European Youth Olympic Festival in Lignano, Italy, back in 2005, she had never heard of SMU. Then the powerhouse runner for the Bulgarian national track team placed fourth in the 3,000-meter competition. That one race, filled with top athletes from all over Europe, changed the course of her life. In the stadium that day was then-SMU Track and Field Head Coach David Wollman. He sprinted over to meet her, and within days Kertikova was offered a full sports scholarship to SMU.

“It was a tough decision,” says Kertikova, who never before had thought about leaving Bulgaria. “America was an unknown country to me back then. It was another continent, something I used to hear about only in the movies.”

But an old Bulgarian saying nudged her to consider the offer. “‘The bird lands on your shoulder only once in a lifetime,’” she says. She accepted the offer.

Her first two years in America were difficult. Her biggest hurdle: understanding English.

“I did study it in my high school, but it wasn't enough for me and my studies at SMU,” she says. “When I went to Dallas I took more English courses. There were people at SMU’s Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center [ALEC] who helped me a great deal.”

While she was meeting new friends and running track, money was another barrier. “It was really tough for me to cope with all the stress, being in a new country when I knew only a few words, starting from scratch at a brand new and really different place, having very little money,” she recalls. “My parents gave me less than $100. I struggled when ordering food, or when shopping at the store, simple things that were hard to do back then. I cried a lot. I remember looking at my suitcases under the bed in my dorm room thinking about leaving America and coming back to Bulgaria.”

Instead, she stayed. An overachiever at heart, she doubled down on her studies.

“I learned every day. My first two years at SMU were simply a test for my will. Looking back now, going to the U.S. was one of the best decisions I've ever made, even though it was really hard for me the first few years.”

Fast forward to today: After graduating from SMU in 2011 with a degree in journalism, Kertikova worked as a news anchor for BiT TV, a Bulgarian-content station located in Chicago. She then returned to Bulgaria in late 2016 and worked for BiT in its Bulgarian studio for a year and a half. Recently, she accepted a position as a news anchor at Bulgaria On Air, a national television network located in Sofia, the country’s capital.

Of the many stories she covers every week, one topic in particular is close to her heart: stories of Bulgarians who left the country for better education or employment, but then returned. She is on fire with that topic, having walked that path herself.

Завърналите се с Петя Кертикова (“The Ones Who Return to Bulgaria, with Petya Kertikova”)

In addition to serving as a daily news anchor for Bulgaria On Air, Kertikova is the writer and host for a television series called “The Ones Who Return to Bulgaria, with Petya Kertikova.” It airs two to three times a month.

“The ones who choose to return have very valuable and important experience,” says Kertikova. “They havea different perspective of how things can be done, of how corruption—one of the biggest problems in the country—can be defeated, of how politicians should take care of the people who elect them. Their experience is really important for the country.”

That importance is underscored in an International Financial Timesarticle from January 2018, “Bulgaria battles to stop its brain drain.” Bulgaria has been through tumultuous changes over the past several decades, including an exodus of about one million people between 1990 and 2007. But now, ever since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, an estimated 10,000 Bulgarians return annually.

“From what I hear when I interview people who return, I can say that the main reason is because now they think there is a future here, that life here is not that bad: You can take nearly two years’ paid leave to raise your child. You can find jobs that are well-paid, or start businesses and help improve the economy and hire more people.”

She adds that Bulgaria is also working toward becoming the tech capital of the Balkans. Overall, she believes good things are happening. “We just have to help,” she says. “People who lived and studied abroad have the power to speak up, to work for the long-awaited change. And they are not afraid to fail.

“I want to tell the good stories because I think people need them. News is often negative. And I do news every day. But my TV series is positive. The stories give hope that change is coming, that change is here, that things are not that bad.”

SMU and people who made a difference

When asked about her time at SMU, Kertikova says that even though there were difficult times in the first couple of years, there were bright spots as well. People and experiences that left lasting impressions include meeting Sue Bierman, director of ALEC, where Kertikova received one-on-one tutoring. “She never stopped believing in me,” says Kertikova.

She also worked as a main desk assistant at Hughes-Trigg Student Center and has a great deal of appreciation for David Hayden, who at the time was a member of the Hughes-Trigg executive board. “He was understanding and patient with me while I was learning the language,” she says. “He helped me learn how to give people directions and information about campus events.”

Other names crop up as well, such as David Wollman, the coach who recruited her; assistant coach Cathy Casey (now SMU head coach of women's cross country and track & field); journalism professors Michele Houston, Camille Kraeplin and Karen Thomas; Bulgarian-born Spanish professor Miroslava Detcheva. “I did enjoy Professor Detcheva's Spanish class,” says Kertikova. “It was nice to have someone with whom I could speak in my own language.”

All of these people and others whom Kertikova befriended on campus helped during a time when Kertikova learned some crushing news in her sophomore year. “I found out that I had to stop running and competing,” she says. “I have osteoporosis. That was another difficulty I had to cope with. I never learned how to live with that in mind. Even now, almost 10 years after doctors told me I had to stop running—it was like telling me not to breathe.

“I felt a lot of love from the people I met at SMU,” she says. “People tend to focus only on the bad things in their lives and there are plenty of good ones to be thankful for. You just have to have eyes for them.”

Read more about the SMU Meadows Division of Journalism and the SMU Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center (ALEC), and SMU International Student & Scholar Services for those with F or J visas.

To see examples of Petya Kertikova’s work as a news reporter and anchor (note, English audio translations not available), see Petya Kertikova’s Facebook page.

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