Nancy Schiller, America for Bulgaria President: The Real Secret to Success Is Not Giving Up

Commencement address to the graduating class of 2024 of the American University in Bulgaria, May 2024,
by Nancy L. Schiller, president and CEO of the America for Bulgaria Foundation

At the ceremony, Ms. Schiller was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris Causa) degree and delivered the keynote speech. The recognition honored her three decades of unwavering service to Bulgaria.

I will begin with a confession… I was never your age. Sure, I was in my early 20s during my university years, but my experience was very different than yours. I graduated in 1980. Being AUBG graduates, you are all pretty smart so you can figure out how long ago that was. There were a lot of challenges during my four years, but I never faced the adversity you had to overcome.

You are the graduating class that experienced Covid lockdowns during your first two years of study. It was you, the students who innovated hybrid versions of activities to keep your fellow students engaged. It was the student clubs that led the vaccination campaigns, swiftly achieving herd immunity. In partnership with AUBG leadership, you made the early, difficult decisions to protect every student, faculty and staff member on this campus. Congratulations to each of you for navigating this extremely difficult period.

Through this experience, you have a life skill that took me a lot longer to develop. You have resilience. You faced the brutal realities of life – sadness, loss, and loneliness – and the realization that life is unpredictable, and events are often outside of your control. Many of you also faced the devastating effects of war and the tragedy this brought upon your families and countries. 

The times are difficult, whether facing conflict, disease, or personal struggles. Through it all, you remained steadfast in your pursuit of knowledge and excellence. 

You are well prepared for the curves life will throw your way. The real secret to success is not giving up, sticking with it, and always finding a way to persevere through the obstacles.

And through your university experience, you’ve learned the value of a strong community. Of being surrounded by people who lift you up and watch out for you, who care about you and your wellbeing. That is the essence and magic of the AUBG community.

***

My first visit to AUBG was in April of 1992 during my very first trip to Bulgaria. I was working for the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund, and, on a free weekend, I borrowed the company car and drove to AUBG. Back then, campus was the former communist party headquarters in the center of Blagoevgrad.

Despite its modest, but symbolic beginnings, there was an energy to the place that is still hard to describe. Over the ensuing years, I made a point to visit AUBG whenever I could.

I had the great privilege of meeting several friends of AUBG – Dimi Panitza and Professor [Minko] Balkansky among them.

Dimi believed that everything depends on education – that education is the cornerstone of building the future.

Professor Balkansky’s formula for success was simple but effective: “Work, work, and more work.”

It gives me such pleasure to see the names of these two long-time friends adorning the building next to us. The vision and values shared by these remarkable individuals set a high bar that AUBG continuously strives to meet. 

And speaking of buildings, you might have noticed the building across the lawn – the America for Bulgaria Student Center. The gift of this building was the product of resilience and optimism. The Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund began in 1991 with a mission to invest in Bulgaria’s private sector. Those who remember the days after the democratic changes know that there was no private sector to speak of.

Your parents and grandparents were witnesses and participants in the dramatic events that democracy brought. Prior to the changes, the future was relatively predictable, although limiting. Life became more turbulent, but with democracy, opportunities that were only imagined became possible. Each of you embodies the adaptability and resilience passed down from your families.

The Fund’s first two investments were spectacular failures, but we persevered, pivoting our approach and ultimately becoming a 17-year overnight success. By investing in and with Bulgarians who were determined to build their business success in Bulgaria, we turned seed funding of $50 million into nearly $500 million.

This story of resilience and optimism was authored by many individuals during the past 33 years. The Bulgarian and American directors of the Fund, and now the Foundation, work in partnership to build Bulgaria’s private sector and democratic institutions. As you no doubt learned in economics class, the backbone of a democracy is a strong middle class. And a strong middle class is built by small and medium-sized business owners.

Aside from helping finance hundreds of businesses including Happy restaurants and Devin Water, the Fund created and endowed the America for Bulgaria Foundation in 2008. In the 16 years since ABF’s founding, we have funded more than 1,200 projects, for nearly $300 million. All of this is because of resilience.

AUBG has been and continues to be the largest beneficiary of ABF, totaling more than $28 million through that building over there, scholarships, loans, and grants for special projects. Throughout our partnership, I have witnessed the successes and challenges the university faced over the years, but AUBG, too, is resilient.

As you join the ranks of alumni, your responsibilities change. Instead of focusing on homework and grades, your new role is to nurture AUBG’s growth – as a proud graduate, as a member of the alumni association, as a mentor, and as a donor. You now share the responsibility of ensuring the legacy of AUBG continues for future generations of students.

But your greater responsibility is to your wellbeing and that of your family, your community, and your country. Forty-seven nationalities are represented on campus, creating a powerful network of friends all over the world. These connections are a superpower that will open doors and opportunities for whatever path you might choose – to improve yourself, your community, your country, or the world. Or all the above.

***
As I said at the outset, I was never your age. But my current age has afforded me a few life lessons that might give you an advantage as your new life journey begins. All summed up in twelve words.

Every morning, when my three kids, Hannah, Adam, and Ben, were leaving for school – starting in kindergarten through high school graduation – I would kiss each of them goodbye and recite the same 12 words: “Work hard. Do your best. Be kind. Have fun. I love you.”

Work hard. Bring your game day every day. If you are coasting, it means you’re going downhill.

Do your best. Why settle? By doing your best in your work and your relationships, you will have no regrets. Find what you love to do and find a person that you love and give them your best every day.

Be kind. We are all fighting the good fight and, sometimes, we face challenges that are unknown to others. If Covid taught us anything, it is to give yourself compassion and to be compassionate to others. Kindness matters. Empathy matters. Science matters, too, but that’s a topic for a different speech.

Have fun. Be present in the moment. Put down your phone and focus on the person you are with. Don’t feel the need to record or photo every adventure. Experience life without a filter. One of my favorite writers, actors, and monologuists was Spalding Gray. He wrote of the magic of being fully in the moment and realizing that, in that moment, he was happy. And that is a gift. Squeeze every bit of joy and delight out of every single day.

I love you. Every visit and every phone call with my family and friends always ends with “I love you.” Share your love with others. Don’t worry about whether it is reciprocated. Have the courage to open your heart and be vulnerable in your relationships.

Work hard. Do your best. Be kind. Have fun. I love you. I sewed these 12 words onto blankets that went to college with Hannah, Adam, and Ben so they would read them every day, upon waking in the morning and going to sleep at night. Although it was more likely that they were going to sleep in the wee hours of the morning and waking in the afternoon. It’s better that I didn’t know.

***

Through our life experiences, our resilience will continue to build. We are all still a work in progress, no matter our age or education, and we’re not done yet. I embrace the word “yet” as in it lies hope that, one day, I will speak fluent Bulgarian. I don’t speak fluent Bulgarian – yet.

And one day, I will read all the great books. I have not read all the great books… yet.

And one day, I will hike the Appalachian Trail. Not yet.

I’m not done learning yet and neither are you.

But for today, take a break and take a bow. You’ve earned it.

Congratulations, graduates! And as a proud parent of three college graduates, congratulations, parents! Well done, all!