ANNAPOLIS — On the average summer day, Petya Rogacheva wakes up in her Annapolis apartment, drinks some coffee and calls her mom before heading out on a 15-minute bike ride to the Anchorage Community Pool where she works as a lifeguard six days a week.
Unlike most area lifeguards, however, she’s thousands of miles away from home.
Rogacheva is one of 30 Bulgarian university students who, in addition to experiencing American culture, are guarding swimming pools this summer around Annapolis, Anne Arundel County and other parts of central Maryland for Anchor Aquatics, a pool management company.
For five years, Anchor Aquatics has hired full-time Bulgarian university students ages 18 to 27 as part of the Council on International Educational Exchange’s Work & Travel USA program. This summer, these students represent about 12 percent of the company’s 250-member, high school- and college-age lifeguard staff.
Anchor Aquatics personnel director Kate Bjorke said the job provides the students an opportunity to make money as well as to live in a different country.
“It helps them pay for school,” Bjorke said. “They’re also looking for the American experience and the chance to see the world.”
As participants of the work-and-travel program, the students work for four months starting in May, followed by a month-long opportunity to travel where they please before returning home.
About to enter her last year at the University of National and World Economy, Rogacheva, of Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia, has been a lifeguard at the same pool for three consecutive summers, returning each year for the job, where she especially likes talking with the kids from the community, as well as the chance to travel.
“It’s a new culture and you can learn a lot about American people,” Rogacheva said.
When off duty, Rogacheva said she and other Anchor Aquatics lifeguards like to head to downtown Annapolis on the weekends to enjoy the nightlife. Later in the summer, she hopes to travel to San Francisco and the Bahamas.
Milena Doneva, a fourth-year student at Southwest University in Bulgaria studying tourism, liked the job so much her first summer that she also has returned twice to lifeguard in Annapolis. Doneva, who works at the Landings II swimming pool, said she’s grateful, as she has friends from Bulgaria who held other summer jobs in the U.S., such as housekeeping or a fast-food restaurant position, and didn’t enjoy their experience nearly as much as she did.
While she enjoys being a lifeguard, Doneva also has a love for travel that has led her to Washington and New York during her first summer abroad, and then Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon during her second summer. This year she plans to accompany Rogacheva, one of her roommates, to the Bahamas.
“Traveling really helps me meet new people and see new places,” Doneva said.
Although some students who apply to Anchor Aquatics already have lifeguard experience, the company offers training in Bulgaria for those who demonstrate strong swimming skills as well as the ability to speak English.
In addition to training, the company also provides housing and bikes as well as other household necessities for the students. Though the students pay for their own ticket to the U.S., supervisor and student recruiter Petar Angelov helps them maneuver through the government paperwork and other hurdles to enter the country.
Angelov said the company has increased its number of international students over the past five years from about five to 30. Angelov, who works with a number of pool companies on the East Coast, said international students, including those from Ukraine, Czech Republic and Bulgaria, are often the majority of lifeguarding staff as more companies have recently sought to hire from Europe.
Rogacheva, Doneva and Kalina Boydzhieva, who works at The Point swimming pool in Annapolis, all found the company through other lifeguards. Boydzhieva, also from Sofia and lifeguarding with the company for the second time this summer, heard about the job opportunity through a friend and seized the chance to travel to the U.S.
“I wanted to come for a summer program and work as a lifeguard,” said Boydzhieva, a second-year student studying public relations at New Bulgarian University.
Boydzhieva works seven days a week and also commutes by bike from a nearby apartment she shares with five other lifeguards. For Boydzhieva, lifeguarding in Annapolis is the perfect summer job, as she enjoys the water as well as atmosphere of the city.
“I like Annapolis, it’s really calm,” said Boydzhieva, who said Bulgaria’s capital city is comparatively noisy. “It’s good to have months of peace.”