When 17-year-old Petya Kertikova competed in the European Youth Olympic Festival in Lignano, Italy, back in 2005, she had never heard of SMU. Then the powerhouse runner for the Bulgarian national track team placed fourth in the 3,000-meter competition. That one race, filled with top athletes from all over Europe, changed the course of her life. In the stadium that day was then-SMU Track and Field Head Coach David Wollman. He sprinted over to meet her, and within days Kertikova was offered a full sports scholarship to SMU.
“It was a tough decision,” says Kertikova, who never before had thought about leaving Bulgaria. “America was an unknown country to me back then. It was another continent, something I used to hear about only in the movies.”
But an old Bulgarian saying nudged her to consider the offer. “‘The bird lands on your shoulder only once in a lifetime,’” she says. She accepted the offer.
Her first two years in America were difficult. Her biggest hurdle: understanding English.
“I did study it in my high school, but it wasn’t enough for me and my studies at SMU,” she says. “When I went to Dallas I took more English courses. There were people at SMU’s Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center [ALEC] who helped me a great deal.”
While she was meeting new friends and running track, money was another barrier. “It was really tough for me to cope with all the stress, being in a new country when I knew only a few words, starting from scratch at a brand new and really different place, having very little money,” she recalls. “My parents gave me less than $100. I struggled when ordering food, or when shopping at the store, simple things that were hard to do back then. I cried a lot. I remember looking at my suitcases under the bed in my dorm room thinking about leaving America and coming back to Bulgaria.”
Instead, she stayed. An overachiever at heart, she doubled down on her studies.
“I learned every day. My first two years at SMU were simply a test for my will. Looking back now, going to the U.S. was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, even though it was really hard for me the first few years.”
Fast forward to today: After graduating from SMU in 2011 with a degree in journalism, Kertikova worked as a news anchor for BiT TV, a Bulgarian-content station located in Chicago. She then returned to Bulgaria in late 2016 and worked for BiT in its Bulgarian studio for a year and a half. Recently, she accepted a position as a news anchor at Bulgaria On Air, a national television network located in Sofia, the country’s capital.
Of the many stories she covers every week, one topic in particular is close to her heart: stories of Bulgarians who left the country for better education or employment, but then returned. She is on fire with that topic, having walked that path herself.