The Board of Directors (BOD) is a volunteer group of people who are located worldwide and who are responsible for the overall organizational and fiscal health of BEST. They include BEST’s co-founders, as well as other motivated and energetic young professionals who play an active role in increasing BEST’s impact. To become a BOD member, one must be nominated and selected by current BEST BOD members.
2016-2017 Board of Directors:
Alex Kieselstein was a two-year Fulbright ETA and BEST Coach at Second English Language School in Sofia. Originally from Chicago, he received his B.A. in International Studies from Kenyon College and is currently studying in Italy.
He is also the undisputed godfather of BEST’s world-class social media presence, and any young whippersnapper running the Facebook page now should bear that in mind. He also likes dogs.
Athena Lao – Co-Founder, Chair
Athena Lao is the Chair of the BEST Board of Directors. She works as a Senior Program Officer for the Institute of International Education, and she holds an A.B. in Classics from Harvard University and an M.S.Ed. in International Educational Development from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Athena served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant for 3 years at Ezikova Gimnazia “Akademik Lyudmil Stoyanov” in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. During that time, she co-founded BEST with five other Fulbright ETAs and started her school’s award-winning English language speech and debate team. Athena loves the enthusiasm of BESTies, speech and debate, Bulgarian cuisine, and a good horo.
Claire Sagstuen – Co-Founder
Claire Sagstuen is a native Minnesotan with thirteen years of speech and debate experience. Overall, she has coached five students to the NSDA national tournament from Bulgaria and Minnesota. She competed at Gustavus Adolphus College, coached for ‘Ekzarh Yosif I’ FLS in Lovech for two years, and now coaches speech and debate at Apple Valley High School in Minnesota. With one Master’s from the University of Edinburgh in Nationalism under her belt, she is getting her second M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. She is a full-time ESL teacher and still dreams about eating banitsa! As a member of the BOD, she focuses on curriculum, training, and finally putting a BEST camp into action! Обичам България!!
Ettie (Tzvetelina) Nikolova graduated from Cornell University with a B.A. in Government and Russian Literature. After graduation, she lived in the Republic of Georgia, Taiwan, and Bulgaria, where she taught English at Bertolt Brecht Language Academy (located in the best city in Bulgaria- Pazardzhik).
In 2015, Ettie left Bulgaria to obtain her Master’s in Business Administration from Yale University. Although she no longer lives in Bulgaria, Ettie’s heart will always be with BEST and her former students. She is excited to watch BEST continue to grow!
Hannah Allen – Co-Founder
Hannah Allen formerly served as the director of finance for BEST. She first came to Bulgaria as a Fulbright ETA in Sliven in 2012. It was there where she decided to join the debate bandwagon by starting a team at her school, Zahari Stoyanov. After making it to the finals at BFL’s (now BEST) first tournament in Blagoevgrad in 2013 (and bitterly losing to Michael Deegan’s Kardzhali team in the finals), she knew there was something special and compelling about speech and debate in Bulgaria.
Wanting to continue teaching in Bulgaria and see the development of BEST, she took a position teaching 8th grade ESL at the American College of Sofia. Hannah is pursuing her Master’s in Education Policy at Vanderbilt University Peabody School of Education.
Juliana Wilhoit – Co-Founder
Juliana Wilhoit is a native of the Chicago area, and a lover of shopska salata, banitsa, and the Black Sea. She has been involved in speech and debate in a variety of forms since she was in seventh grade. She credits much of her success in life to finding an avenue in which she could succeed.
During the 2012-2013 school year she was an English Teacher at the Fifth Language School in Varna. Juliana holds a Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and currently works for a research institution conducting urban security research.
Michael Deegan – Co-Founder
Michael Deegan helped found the BEST Foundation and was part of the BFL project working team from the very beginning. He first came to Bulgaria in 2012 as a Fulbright ETA in Kardzhali and started the debate club there. He then moved to Sofia to spend two more years coaching debate and teaching English at the American College of Sofia while working on the BEST MT. Currently, Michael is pursuing two Master’s degrees at the University of Texas at Austin in Global Policy Studies and Eastern European Studies. He is also a FLAS fellowship recipient for the Bulgarian language this year. Michael misses Bulgaria, but at least he has his cat and faithful companion, Dinya, to help him cope until he is able to return.
Michael Pelehach is from North Carolina where he studied Psychology and Markets & Management at Duke University. After graduation, he spent four years working for Target Corporation in Minneapolis, MN. In search of more meaningful work, he accepted a Fulbright Grant to teach English at Peyo Yavorov Languages High School in Silistra, Bulgaria.
Michael is currently pursuing his Master’s in Business Administration at Northwestern University, where he is learning to apply business principles to solve social problems.
Sarah Craycraft studies Folklore at Ohio State University, where she is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Studies, and holds a B.A. in English and Psychology. With a research focus on place and revitalization efforts in Bulgaria and the Appalachian region of the U.S., Sarah enjoys hearing all of the fresh ideas and engagement with larger social issues that surface at BEST tournaments, and she hopes to continue listening to how BESTies narrate their experiences through performance and oratory events. Sarah taught English in Dimitrovgrad for two years, and also served as the BEST Programs Co-Director from 2014-2015. Her current focus as a BOD member is to align programming and organizational visioning that ensures the cohesiveness of BEST’s endeavors.