Stela Stefanova has become accustomed to receiving flowers, hugs, and serenades. They are not from suitors, but former students.
Stela is the charismatic principal of a technical high school in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, who is helping her students follow their dreams. Stela, as she is known to her students, has transformed a deteriorating Soviet-era high school into a technical education powerhouse. Her students take top place at national and international competitions and receive automatic admittance to the country’s leading universities.
Bulgaria has had an active and engaged Networking Academy community since 1999. The Bulgarian Association of Networking Academies (BANA) supports more than 50 Cisco Academies, 6 instructor training centers, and 120 instructors. They are part of the transformation of the Bulgarian economy from a Soviet-bloc industrial base to a globally competitive information-based economy.
One of the most competitive and successful Cisco Academies in Bulgaria is at Technology School Electronic Systems (TSES), a highly competitive technical high school with close ties to Technical University in Sofia. TSES has taken the rigorousCisco Networking Academy curriculum and created a dynamic, active program where students work hard on their own and in teams to compete with networking students across the country. “Our teaching staff are the university teachers,” said Stela. “Our educational plans and solutions are developed by the Faculty of Electronics in the Technical University.”
Unlike a traditional principal who has little contact with students, Stela knows all her students by name and what motivates them. She is even an instructor herself. She has a Ph.D. in digital signal processing and has authored many scientific papers in Bulgarian and international journals. She is an accomplished woman with a quick smile and a generous spirit.
Radostina Gercheva, a former student and current Networking Academy instructor, describes Stela as a unique leader who inspires a strong connection with her students: “Students love Stela. They don’t just like Stela, they love her. Any time we teach together, I see how they are attracted by her behavior, how they communicate with her.”
Stela has cultivated a less formal, more open atmosphere at the school through her relationships with the students, yet she has also created a highly advanced and competitive environment. In 2006, BANA launched a National Networking Competition and TSES became the powerhouse school to beat. TSES sends the largest teams and regularly takes home top honors at national and international competitions. Stela’s students win competitions because they have a deep understanding of networking and are excellent problem solvers.
Months before the competition, students begin hands-on assignments in the Cisco Networking Academy Lab to develop practical experience, not just a theoretical understanding of networking technology. “Competitions are the real thing,” said Alexander Spasov, a recent graduate who placed 6th in the 2011 national competition. “You don’t just set a goal, you know what you need to know and go ahead. You have somebody who actually can be better than you at any time. You have to prepare for that. It’s awesome.”
The excitement is evident in the lab, where teams of students prepare together. They put their knowledge into practice, working on equipment donated by a local Cisco partner company that also sponsors them in the competition. Past winners recreate the feeling of the competition and challenge would-be contenders during practice. “We got to work with our guy who was the first place winner,” Radostina recalled about preparing for the national competition when she was a student.
TSES teams have won top honors at 6 BANA-sponsored National Networking Competitions since 2006. Their success in competition leads to success in higher education and careers. “Our students go on to work in ICT at big companies as programmers and networking specialists,” said Stela. Most go to university in Sofia or abroad and find opportunities in the growing economy. “They go into good careers and take leading positions.”
More than 700 students have completed the Cisco CCNA program at TSES with about 175 active students each year. A new agreement with the Technical University in Sofia guarantees enrollment for the top 15 National Networking Competition winners without sitting for exams. “Students are very motivated to practice and do their best in the competition,” said Stela.
More than the trophies and the awards, Stela wins the hearts and minds of her students. It is not uncommon for them to return to share their success with her. They bring her flowers and hugs. They share their experience with current students and offer advice. One student, who went on to the National Theater Academy and has become a working actor, brought his guitar to school to serenade Stela with a song about his success, dedicated to her.