Stratsi Kulinski, a successful Bulgarian in the USA, discusses education during a crisis

Experts say the coronavirus pandemic is gradually passing. Despite that, we must continue to maintain personal hygiene and social distance, we must learn to live with the virus, but also to control it. Now, however, the main question is how to revive the economy, education, culture and other affected areas of our lives.

During the crisis, teaching was done mostly online. This trend may continue until the beginning of the new academic year. I spoke to Stratsi Kulinski, an expert in university education, about these and other topics.

How did you spend the time of social isolation? The pandemic caught you in Washington, where you live. Apart from the trouble, was there a silver lining to the whole situation?

I prefer to call the situation “physical isolation” because I think the term better describes what was required of each of us during this pandemic. Even when we have to be at a distance from each other, we have a lot of opportunities to communicate with other people – either electronically, or even 2 meters apart from each other in the park or on the street.

People are very social in nature and in their habits, so it was an absolute mistake, in my opinion, on the part of governments around the world to impose the term “social isolation”. This has led to the enforcement of the idea and constant reminder that we are under a heavier weight than we would otherwise feel. People crave social contacts and, in my opinion, this is the vast majority of the population, even introverts. There are countless experiments that show that human contact and live communication are critical to children’s development, as well as to the mental health of both children and young people and adults. That’s why solitary confinement is considered one of the most severe punishments and methods of torture, especially in the long run.

We have all been subjected to this milder form of isolation, but even that has brought extremely severe trauma to many people around the world. In my opinion, it remains to be seen how many negative effects it has for many people and for society. I look forward to returning to at least a temporary form of physical intimacy and live communication. Again, it was a big mistake to remind ourselves many times every day, even in the few places where we could see other people (such as shops and pharmacies), that we were far apart and often isolated. The fact that we have to be physically away from friends and relatives as a concept and way of thinking is much easier to assimilate and rationalize by our subconscious mind – how many of us have been students in another city or workers abroad? We are all used to Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and Facetime. Things could have been presented in this way and given such names that everything would be at least a little easier for each of us. Instead of “social distancing”; it should have been called “physical distancing”. Even without that, each of us has a plethora of problems apart from the pandemic.

It would have been great if there had been psychological support and consideration of the population’s mental health, not just the ambition to stop the virus. It would have been easier if there had been real leadership from politicians and governments around the world for systematic thinking and strategy, consideration of the consequences, solid organization and coordination between countries, and so on. Isolating and shutting down your population is the easiest solution, but when you put the health of the population first, it must include mental health as well. I want to be completely clear that it was necessary to have physical isolation to stop the virus, but there must also be concern for the well-being of each of us as a person, as a person with a gift of humanity that we must protect and maintain, whatever may happen.

Yes, of course, it is easy to criticize, especially after the event, but I think that this pandemic has shown that those in power in many countries still have many opportunities to improve their governance. Human health and life are inviolable and sacred as values wherever I have been, but we often forget how to prioritize them and succumb to the careless, illiterate, and sometimes irresponsible and even corrupt behavior of politicians. When all people are at the center of a country’s interests, its rulers must be competent, genuinely concerned about the physical and mental health of their people and, above all, humane. Some leaders, such as the Prime Minister of New Zealand, have shown how you can be a good leader in times of crisis; many others have shown how inefficient and concerned about the wrong priorities they are, such as their personal popularity, their financial markets, the distribution of capital to large companies and banks, and lastly about those who need it most, and only financially and only a little – providing support to the masses as a matter of routine, in the background, just so that they do not rise up if they are hungry.

I spent the pandemic in Washington, where I live. Fortunately, I have a child and close people, with whom I spent these 2-3 months. If you are alone, it is very difficult wherever you are.

Despite all the challenges, when all the madness of everyday life we were used to suddenly stopped and gave many of us the opportunity to think about what is important, what is a priority, as well as to see again who these people are who think about us, I found silver linings.

I’m grateful that the City of Washington and the local government of its suburbs in Maryland are a little more concerned about the people and allowed outdoor sports and kept the parks open for most of the quarantine. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a bike as often as I did in March and April this year. We have a lane that is 15 km long and goes from our house to the White House and winds along the river. I managed to burn some calories accumulated by my psychotherapy, i. e. eating ice cream at home.

Admittedly – and with great guilt – I watched a lot of TV shows and movies. But I also read a lot of articles and studies that were piling up in my to-read list months before. I talked to my relatives in Bulgaria more often than before. I watched on social media how ordinary people find inspiration in the crisis or help others. I learned to be a little more patient.

And professionally, most of the newfound time that was freed up from cancelling travels and meetings gave me a broad line to think about how to solve problems with the team in a more creative and effective way, in line with the new reality. You need to have time to make sense of ordinary things, to know who you are and what you are fighting for, so that you can resolve big challenges and pursue dreams. One of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett, said that he would start thinking creatively only after he was sure there was another, ordinary way of thinking.

How do you protect yourself and what is the news about the coronavirus in America?

To my great regret, the whole world saw how America failed to take the lead during the crisis. We have a lot of problems to solve. Even more reputation to repair. I have not seen many competent leaders at either state or federal level. The speed and measures to combat the pandemic have been and continue to be mediocre. The results on paper look terrible – almost 20% unemployment, a huge downturn in the economy, a sharp decline in consumer confidence. The economic damage is very serious, especially considering that almost half of the US economy is small and medium-sized businesses, which practically closed for months, and that the majority of the population has no savings to cover even 2 weeks of expenses without income. The US Federal Reserve is printing money to boost the economy, but unfortunately this money supply only seems to keep the stock market afloat, and structural reforms are not on the menu.

These dynamics contribute to the polarization of society between those who criticize the government for their slow response at the beginning of the pandemic and those who criticize quarantine as the cause of economic difficulties. The dynamics are quite complex and it is difficult to say where the truth lies, but it is clear that we need changes in our society with a greater focus on the benefit and well-being of people. But this is also the strength of a democratic society – pluralism, freedom of speech and separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. Lately, fortunately for us, civil society has once again signaled to the government that we need change for the good of all of us, with mass protests in all states for true ethnic equality.

Speaking of the good of society, we’ve also had a huge problem with higher education in the United States over the last thirty years. Access to quality and affordable higher education, as well as its derivative problems of a low percentage of graduates and huge student loans, are directly in my field of vision and I am committed to their solution. When the state administration and the bureaucracy of existing universities cannot or will not make reforms, this does not solve the problems, but makes room for entrepreneurs and people with a vision for a better future. There are many such examples in the land of unlimited opportunities – from companies in Silicon Valley in the 70s and today which take innovations above those of state-owned companies, or large companies such as IBM and Xerox, to modern developments in the space race, where entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are making progress in space flight possible.

Our idea about NewU (www.newu.university) is to create a university of the future, where students can receive a higher education and an American diploma in 3/4 of the time and a third of the price that other universities offer. There is a huge problem with student loans in the United States – they amount to over 1.7 trillion (yes, trillion) dollars, with only fifty percent of students completing programs and only 55% of graduates finding a job requiring a university degree … and that was before the pandemic! Now the situation is even worse. However, the existing universities here (and in most countries around the world) are slow, cumbersome, bureaucratic machines. They have an interest in defending the status quo, even when it fails its students by dooming them to lifelong debts and not preparing them for the market well enough.

Of course, there are also very good universities, but they are highly selective and train a tiny elite at very high prices. We will compete directly not with them and not with the 2-year public colleges, but with the other 4,000+ universities here, which are in dire need of reforms but do not make any. Our goal is to fulfill our plan and prove that better education can be offered at a much lower cost. In addition, we add elements that are vital to the success of prospective students – the ability to cope with the unknown and come out stronger than any challenge, as well as to have experience through living and learning from America, Asia and Europe during your training with us.

What do you think of online education, what is its effect, what are the advantages and problems?

This is a very interesting question, but also a very sensitive topic. Technology is an ever increasing part of our lives in almost all areas. Sometimes it helps us, sometimes it stresses and hinders us.

In the current pandemic, technology is a way to continue educating students as effectively as possible, given that we cannot physically gather in one place.

Even before the quarantine, many universities implemented a somewhat successful online learning model: Arizona State University, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), Western Governors University (WGU) and Minerva chose online learning as the main channel for teaching their students, even when there was no quarantine in the last 7-8 years. Their motivation is mainly to reduce the cost of providing training by teaching one course to thousands of students or using teachers from one city to teach people scattered around the world.

In addition to universities, there are many companies that teach online or deliver courses in this way: Coursera, Khan Academy, Top Hat and others provide technology and services to other universities to reach students and teach.

There are several basic models for online education: synchronous, where a real-time teacher conducts a course on the Internet; and asynchronous, where teachers record lectures and provide materials to students so that students can watch lectures, do homework, etc. at a time convenient to them. Both models have their advantages and disadvantages, but this is a topic for deeper analysis.

The main question here is whether online education is an effective substitute for the traditional classroom. From one point of view, the “flipped classroom” is a model where video lectures, preparatory materials and even homework are sent online to students before the class, and they are expected to prepare and come to class ready for discussions, debates on different points of view and group exercises. This model is a hybrid between traditional lectures and online education and is considered much more effective than having students come, listen to the professor (or even the assistant) narrating the lecture and leave. I can side with the flipped classroom model, and many of the teachers I have worked with are big supporters. Unfortunately, in a quarantine situation, this model is inapplicable because it requires a physical presence in the classroom.

Many people say that online education will completely replace the traditional model. Most of these people are either representatives of companies that sell online education products, or are missing a major dynamic in human nature, and that is that humans are definitely social beings. We use a lot of subconscious signals, such as body language, which is largely lost online. An additional difficulty is that our brains process and interpret information from other people in sync with their signals – body language, facial microexpressions (which are invisible on most online platforms), and even pheromones that we release but do not consciously register with our sense of smell to signal our feelings, intentions and preferences to others. Everything that evolution has been building for hundreds of thousands of years about us as humans is under the stress of a new and unfamiliar educational environment.

An additional, and perhaps the main argument against online education is the fact that we learn most effectively in the process of discussion, debate, interaction in search of truth and while processing information and extracting the essence and knowledge from what is learned.

Socrates said that if you ask a question to an inanimate object, such as a document or a painting, you do not receive an answer. Instead the object says one and the same thing at any given time and forever. In the same time, if we direct a question at a video or a podcast, we will not receive an answer. We cannot have a dialog in this situation. And as Socrates said, dialogue – evoking ideas and challenging them with arguments and counterarguments – makes true education possible. I completely agree with Socrates until proven otherwise. An additional voice in favor of traditional education in the classroom comes from the most important people – students. The vast majority of them already had the opportunity to compare online learning with the classroom, and they almost unanimously voted for the benefits of the classroom and the physical presence of the teacher and fellow students.

Do you keep in touch with AUBG (the American University in Bulgaria), where you served as a board member for many years? How did your colleagues cope during the quarantine? 

The American University in Bulgaria is in my heart. I am one of the students from its first class, 1991-1995. There my horizons and my vision of the world expanded enormously, and to a large extent shape me as an individual to this day.

I was the first graduate to establish a scholarship for other students. Even now AUBG students receive my scholarships every year. I am also a co-founder of Radio AURA at the university, where we collaborated with Darik Radio in the 90s. I was a co-founder of the Student Government too, I worked in the Education Department as an intern under the current director of Junior Achievement Bulgaria, Milena Stoycheva, I sang in the university choir with the amazing pedagogue and musician, Professor Hristo Krotev, I lived in dormitories all 4 years, trotted countless times a day up and down the marble steps between the floors of the former Party House in Blagoevgrad, where the university was housed, and I was a student representative on the AUBG board of trustees while studying there.

Years later, I served on my alma mater both as a member of the board of trustees and as the first Bulgarian president. My team and I achieved the best financial results in the almost 30-year history of AUBG in 2016-2017. We attracted exceptional professionals and ignited unprecedented support among graduates. To my great joy, we had many supporters, both students and alumni, and benefactors (we raised $ 5 million in donations in one year). We had the motivation and energy for more reforms and even greater success. To my great regret, many people in the board of trustees, the administration and the teaching staff were not ready for this. Sometimes you do everything right, but either the time is not right or people are not ready for the future.

AUBG is facing huge challenges, precisely because of its propensity to defend the status quo. The pandemic is exacerbating these problems due to the drop in student fees that students are willing or able to pay. The current board of trustees, as well as the administrative and academic staff, have the unenviable task of not only surviving but also developing into a new world where the status quo of higher education will perish. They are under scrutiny to justify the trust of more than 5,000 graduates and almost 1,000 current students, as well as to show their benefactors that the money we have given to the university is an investment, not a future expense and loss. I am keeping my fingers crossed for AUBG, but I also want to be very clear that trustees and senior management are accountable to all their former and current supporters, especially to alumni and benefactors.

Tell us more about your new position as president of the NewU non-profit corporation.

This is the work that I think (I hope that doesn’t sound too arrogant) destiny has been preparing me for all these years – from my student years at the American University in Bulgaria to my work in Silicon Valley and from my years at the English Language High School in Pleven to my voluntary “exile” in Hawaii after the fight to save AUBG.

The concept behind NewU (wordplay on “a new you” and “a new university”) was largely put together over a period of several months, when I was living in Hawaii and went to bed after dark and woke up with the sunrise, I enjoyed the ocean, the stars, the tropical downpours, the unforgettable sunrise and sunset every day, I went on walks along empty beaches and through the wild jungle down the volcanic slopes, defragmenting my brain overall and enjoying my merging with nature while thinking, for days and weeks on end, about what I want to do and how I can contribute to the world.

Now I see myself both as an entrepreneur and as a reformer in higher education. I definitely don’t feel like a president of anything, although I have that responsibility in the corporation. Now I am just happy to have a meaningful cause to stand behind. We managed to gather a lot of supporters and like-minded people in these 2 years from the time when we were writing the ideas and concept behind NewU literally on a napkin in a restaurant (yes, there is a real napkin even with a little chocolate cake on it) with the amazing Sevda Yoncheva, whom I know in her capacity of former treasurer of the AUBG Alumni Association.

We are working with leaders in professional services in Washington – large prestigious and ethical law firms, real estate companies, leading software companies – to make it possible for us to open our doors for our first class of students for the fall of next year, in August 2021. The management team has a few of my former colleagues from the American University in Bulgaria and sometimes we joke that once the Americans made a university in our country, and now we are reforming higher education in America! All this gives me energy and motivates me every day. We have a much socially necessary project. I think we are in the right place at the right time. And we have an incredibly strong team, which in itself is the strongest guarantee for success. Speaking of the team, we are fortunate to be receiving help and advice from people in San Francisco, New York, Washington, Boston, Barcelona and Sofia. When we gather in meetings, we realize that we are in 10 time zones around the world, and this is just the beginning!

How do you envision life after COVID-19, are people going to be afraid of social contact? Is communication going to be normalized?

Developments in vaccine research seem significant, but it is too early to say what the world will look like in the next 12 months. In the field of education, we rely heavily on students to punish universities that try to push online learning at the high prices they put on their traditional programs. If students vote with their money, then many universities will go bankrupt and close or merge with others. This was already happening before the pandemic, but now it will be a faster process.

And there will certainly be caution in society as a whole, but in the end, the connections, systems and relationships between people, companies and government organizations around the world that have been built for so long cannot be replaced suddenly and completely. We are already seeing a lot of forward movement – from restaurants with outdoor tables to more flights between countries and even continents.

Of course, if there is a new wave of the virus, as in the flu epidemic of 100 years ago, then many countries will try to do what they know, and that is to impose strict quarantine. I hope that, if necessary, this time the government will learn from the latest information that scientists have, and will be much more focused in their approach.

I really want us to have the freedom to travel and communicate. Now is the time to think about how to stand up for these rights, while also contributing to risk reduction efforts. People are smart and enterprising in general. I believe that we will find a way to enjoy life again and be together. Every crisis is also a huge opportunity and a catalyst for change. It is up to us whether this change will be positive. Thanks for the opportunity you gave me to share some of my thoughts and projects with your readers!

***

Stratsi, as he is known to his friends, is the first Bulgarian-born leader of the American University in Bulgaria and a graduate from its first class.

Kulinski graduated AUBG in 1995 after completing a Bachelor’s program in business administration. Subsequently he completed an MBA program at The Wharton School with the University of Pennsylvania, which was then rated by Business Week as the #1 place for business programs in the world. Through the years he was a supporter of AUBG, member of the board of trustees and a member of the university council.

Since 2008 (before becoming president of AUBG), Kulinski has been head of the international corporate development division of the American company TiVo, which offers interactive television subscriptions. Before that, 2001 – 2008, he worked at Washington-based Intelsat – the largest provider of satellite communication services in the world. His last position there was related to business development and the development of new company products. He also worked for Merill Lynch as an investment banker, as well as for the American company Metromedia International in Russia and the former USSR republics in the 90s.

Now Stratsi is founder and president of NewU (www.newu.university), a new model of university, based in Washington, USA, which aims to reform higher education in America and around the world and to offer 3-year programs in exchange for a third of the current market prices for the betterment of society and university students. Follow NewU on Facebook www.facebook.com/newuworld and Instagram www.instagram.com/newuworld.

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