The Modern Superwoman: Zigzagging Her Way Through Life

Orlina Boteva | Personal Archive

I’m not particularly good with dates but I recall Jan.14, 2020, as if it were yesterday. I remember stepping out of the cab and inhaling the dry cold air, feeling both excited and relieved to have finally reached my home for the next four months, the campus of the University of Maine, U.S.A. My first destination was the office of international programs, which I knew, was headed by a Bulgarian AUBG alumna named Orlina Boteva. Besides a few exchanged emails and the assurance of a previous exchange student that she was “cool”, I knew nothing else of her.

I’m in the office, sweating from the abrupt change in temperature, waiting for the advisors to fix my papers when she walks into the room. Eastern Europeans in the U.S. have this special power of recognizing each other just by a single look and the first thing I notice is her warm and genuine smile. The second are her out-of-fashion bootcut jeans, which immediately make me realize she is truly a Mainer because you definitely can’t find those in Bulgaria.

The first time Orlina stepped on U.S. soil was in 1999 and she came to spend a year on exchange at UMaine. She never imagined that 15 years later she’d be raising her two kids on the same street she passed by in awe back on her first tour of the university area. “I was flying over Maine and wondering where the houses were, it was all trees,” Orlina says.

Coming from a small Bulgarian town called Shumen, Orlina always wanted to get an American-style education and pursued her goal even when she got rejected. When she first applied to AUBG in 1997, her TOEFL and SAT scores were not good enough for admission. Instead of applying to a Bulgarian state university as her mother suggested, she decided to persist.

“I locked myself in the house for almost the whole summer, I think it was four months, and I just did drills and vocabulary and SAT and TOEFL prep. I took the exams again in September and then got admitted with a full scholarship,” she says.

Orlina remembers her time at AUBG very fondly, even though it was difficult for her to operate in English in the first year. While at AUBG, she worked for the Student Affairs office and was also a Resident Assistant. Those first work experiences later turned out to be instrumental since she found her vocation in helping students succeed and have a great experience at university.

She graduated from AUBG in 2001 with a double major in International Relations and History, while also being named the presidential medalist of her class.

“I just remember being on stage and we were two women along with 7–8 men. For me, getting that honor and having my parents and grandparents there was a big deal. I was the first grandchild to finish a bachelor’s degree. My grandparents were so much in awe. Just to sit on that stage and be the person who embodies the spirit of liberal arts education was a big deal,” she says.

After graduation, Orlina found herself torn between the two countries. She faced a serious choice. Orlina could either stay in Bulgaria to help the country’s developing democracy or accept UMaine’s offer of a full scholarship for the master’s program in History. Confused and frustrated, teary-eyed Orlina went to Jill Rasmussen’s apartment, the former Director of Residence Life, looking for advice on what to do with her life.

“She just calmed me down, gave me some hot chocolate, and said, ‘You Bulgarians, you think life is a straight path, you go from point A to point B. Life is a zigzagging path. It’s okay to try different things until you find yourself’,” Orlina recalls.

The hot chocolate I got when my friend had problems with his housing and we were waiting in Orlina’s office. Photo: Simona Todorova

With the help of her advisors and family, Orlina decided to go for the master’s program in History. The program turned out to be a poor fit for her interests. She was mainly interested in contemporary European history, while the program was focused on Maine/Canadian history. While growing up in Shumen, Orlina was reading about the Ottoman Empire, Bulgarian Renaissance, and 19th century Bulgarian history. Her fascination with this period came from the large Turkish minority in her hometown. She also lived through the 1986–87 period when the Turkish population was forced to leave Bulgaria.

“I think I had read all the books on the World Wars in my local Shumen library because I was fascinated with finding out what happened and how it happened,” she says.

Homesick and disappointed, Orlina had all the reasons to go back to Bulgaria but she didn’t. She enrolled in a second master’s program in Higher Education, which turned out to be her niche. She says the best part about her job is watching her students figure things out and ask questions.

Orlina with some of her international students | Personal Archive

Our Zoom call occasionally gets interrupted by a curious little girl who takes notice of my fake Zoom background, which is full of books. While we are discussing her career in Maine, her 6-year-old daughter Leksi, short for Aleksandra, becomes impatient, unable to find her favorite coloring book. Orlina calmly rationalizes with her, explaining where her book might be as if she’s talking to an adult. “I’ve done a whole new labeling system [of her storage bins] now that she can read,” Orlina says.

Simona Mitevska, a Macedonian AUBG alumna and currently a graduate student in Global Policy and Economics at UMaine, describes Orlina as a superwoman. “She has a busy full-time job, kids to take care of, and yet somehow she always manages to find time for all the international students who need her,” Simona says.

A thousand miles away from home, Simona didn’t feel homesick on big holidays because Orlina invited her to her home on Thanksgiving and Christmas. “The food she cooked and the atmosphere made me feel like I am home with my family,” Simona shares.

Simona recalls a time when she was studying for a difficult exam and didn’t have much time to cook and eat. Orlina stopped by with her daughter Lexi and brought a lot of homemade food — lutenica, kjofteta, beans and sarmi. “It made my day and gave me a lot of energy to study,” Simona says.

Her domestic nature made an impression on her now husband, whose first memory of her is pulling out a tray full of roasted chicken. They’ve been together since 2004 and have two kids, Aleksandra who is six, and Paul who is nine. Her husband, a Mainer who enjoys to hunt and fish, learned to speak Bulgarian. They got married in Maine but had a Bulgarian-style wedding with traditional Bulgarian food, music, and drinks. ”I feel like that stage of my life was like My Big Fat Greek Wedding [the movie]. We had so many cultural misunderstandings,” Orlina says.

Orlina shares that having an intercultural marriage is not easy. Everything has to be negotiated and there needs to be a lot of communication. It took them a long time to figure out they have different communication styles. Culturally speaking, Bulgarians tend to argue passionately, while Americans are rather reserved and try to avoid conflict.

Orlina’s mission to help and educate doesn’t stop when she steps out of her workplace. She is constantly trying to educate her kids and show them the world is not a fairy tale. She is teaching her young children about social inequality, slavery, European colonization, and the local history of Native Americans.

“I’m just trying to gently and kindly fill in the gaps in my kids’ education and prepare them to be globally aware, civic-minded people. It’s a lot of hard work. I’m using all of my knowledge to prepare them and set them up for success,” she says.

— — —

Simona Todorova graduated from the American University in Bulgaria in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. In 2020, she spent an exchange semester at the University of Maine and felt more than welcome by the community there.




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Simona Todorova

Simona Todorova

Simona is a storyteller, a fan of sad movies, and an aspiring journalist. She enjoys wine and offline interactions.

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