Interview with Maria Atanasova: Woman in Youth Activism Awardee

December 8, 2020

“I never dreamed that I would achieve all these things: to be an international student, to be part of RGPP and soon apply for an MA”, says Maria Atanasova, current student of the Roma Graduate Preparation Program, awarded with the Woman in Youth Activism Award 2020 for her work as a Volunteer & Advocate for Integration of Roma Youth.

There is no such thing as a “typical RGPP student”. Here at RGPP, we admit students from all walks of life with a wide range of interests. Some students have legal or STEM background and wish to become professionals in private, government or nonprofit sectors. Others are interested in building career in academia and engage in knowledge production. Again others, like Maria Atanova, have extensive background as activists, their achievements are publicly recognized, and choose RGPP to address political and public policy challenges in their future. Regardless of their differences, all of our students are highly inspirational and motivated proud Roma individuals, who care deeply about Roma communities. 

The first RGPP student we feature is Maria Atanasova, who is a current RGPP student. Maria is a bright and confident young Roma woman from Bulgaria. She has recently been awarded the Woman in Youth Activism Award. The Award is given by the European Movement International and the European Women's Lobby for individuals who strengthen the voice of young women in Europe. Our interview focuses on Maria’s background and future ambitions, her views on activism, and her experiences as an RGPP student.

Who is Maria?

It’s strange to talk about yourself…The first thing I would definitely say is I am Roma, I am Bulgarian, - I am Maria - and I graduated from a medical university but I have another ambition, which is to work in the social field. This is why I am in RGPP, to learn and to apply for MA.

You have recently won an award, the Woman in Youth Activism Award 2020. How did it come and how do you feel about it?

I was nominated for the first award –the Schwarzkopf Foundation’ Young European of the Year’ s award - because I see activism and social work as a 24-hour commitment and not a 9 to 5 job or something that you just drop at the end of the work day. As an activist you must continuously remain alert when you see something or hear something that is hurting your cause. You must react even to the simplest conversations among friends. I believe that if you want to change something in our society, it takes devotion and compassion.  I have been involved with many organizations and with a mentoring program including the social enterprise initiative, The Social Teahouse. These organizations trusted me, and I think they also saw me as a role model for young children. For a child it is confusing when you are in an environment where you face so many issues, including identity. Because of this I try to help and guide children to better understand the complexities of their identities. 

Why did you apply to RGPP?

I heard so many good things about the program from Nasko, actually, who is also an RGPP graduate. Almost all the people I have met, people who have been through the program say that RGPP is amazing, and they have become totally different people, you can grow here, and improve all your skills.

When you started your undergraduate studies, what did you think: what will you become? What were your future goals back then, 3 years ago?

OMG, actually until a couple of years ago I could not have imagined that I would be here and I would achieve so many things. I mean, we come- most of us - from small and conservative communities with not enough information and confident. I remember in high school my one dream was to be a student, a graduate, and to have a university degree. That was my biggest dream. I never dreamed that I would achieve all these things: to be an international student, to be part of RGPP and soon apply for an MA. If somebody had told me back then that I would be here, I would not have believed them.

So what has changed in your life?

I met Roma organizations, voluntarism and activists and I saw how people could achieve their goals, even if you are Roma. It’s really hard to get out of this state of mind – thinking that we cannot succeed. Back in high school I started doing voluntary work and joining Romani organizations, and non-Roma youth organizations. At some point I realized that anything is possible and I can go even further. 

There are so many Roma organizations great organizations with great people, but others – the mainstream organizations - don’t know about their amazing work. When I participated in the events of mainstream youth organizations in Bulgaria, I was the only one; the only activist from a Romani background. I always had to explain to everybody that we have so many brave young Roma and great organizations. That was really strange for me that Roma and non-Roma youth organizations were not connected, that people didn’t even know about the existence of Roma organizations. We have youth organizations but Roma people are not part of them. The Roma are only in Romani organizations – and there is nothing bad about this – but I think somehow you have to connect all these people. This experience gave me the start, and that’s how I started to become more active and talk more about visibility and issues of Roma communities. 

What tutorial classes do you take in RGPP?

I am taking a tutorial in International Relations and Political Science. I will probably apply to two master’s programs at CEU, Political Science and International Relation. 

Why these?

During my BA degree I came across theories regarding the social determinants of health, social policies and building community relations, and I became really interested in those subjects. I can see how through studying socials sciences you can bring change. I also became really interested in political participation. I follow the Bulgarian and EU-level political developments, especially regarding Roma inclusion and participation. I feel we lack Roma political representation, or if we have representatives, it is hidden. 

How are your days structured?

RGPP is always intensive; we always have classes and assignments. There are 11 students in my cohort, but we are divided into even smaller classes. We learn English in 2 groups, in my group we are only 5 of us, and in my tutoring I am the only one.  

Our tutors and teachers work with you in a very personalized manner. They know your work very well, and if you need some help, they will give it to you. This setting really is nice, you can share anything you want. 

What are you enjoying the most in this program? What was the most exciting thing you have done so far?

Definitely the academic life! It is really different from what I have experienced and I know of in Bulgaria. The teachers are really amazing, they really try to teach you and challenge you to reach your full potential. It is really amazing. If I need something from another tutor or professor, all of them are trying to help you. The classes require your active participation, so you end up learning a lot. 

During my tutoring classes we have really good discussions. You can see how people bring different perspectives on the same problems. I love discussions. You have your perspective, and the discussions help you see how others reach different opinions and see things differently, and then you suddenly say: “Oh now I see how you get to this point!”. It is important to hear other opinions. 

What are the favorite memories so far about the RGPP?

I actually I have known about RGPP for 2 years. All this time, I knew I wanted to apply. I was very excited when I did finally apply. It was my first chance to apply to a program where I would study in English and be in an international environment, so I spent lots of time thinking how to prepare a successful application package.

I remember when I received the email for the interview. My family and friends were really happy and excited, and they were really confident that I would get in. But I was really nervous. I think the most remarkable memory so far was the interview because I met some of the teachers and faculty. I felt really-really happy after the interview, because this gave me a peek into the program’s environment; even the challenging questions made me happy. 

What was the most useful help the Program offers during the application process?

Applicants have to read everything really carefully, the guidelines are well-written. But if they have the opportunity, Applicants should connect with Alumni. I remember there was a webinar before the deadline where we could ask so many questions. This helped me so much.

Message to Applicants

I think a lot of people look at the program and they think that they are not capable of being part of it. Even if they know that it would be a good place for them. Even from Bulgaria I know many people who graduated but don’t apply. I want to encourage them and tell them that if they are interested, and want to study social sciences, RGPP is the best possible place they could apply. They should start their application process because they don’t know how amazing it is to be an RGPP student. You can learn English, but also prepare for master’s studies and find yourself in an excellent academic environment. The people in the program are really generous and patient, so just apply!

Being part of the RGPP family is a really great thing. The people here will be your friends and family. In Budapest we cook, eat and go to classes together, when possible. You are also building your network, which will be very useful. 

The interview was conducted by Kata Nemeth, RGPP Alumna, 2014

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