Marina Velikova

"My aim is to help students to find their ‘why’ and pursue it"

Story 4 min. Melinde Bussemaker

Alumna Marina Velikova has been chosen as the Volunteer of the Year 2023. With her vibrant personality, intellect, experience, and gusto, she inspires Tilburg University students to follow their own inner guide – which she calls their ‘why’. “For me, this university felt like coming home, which is why I want to give something back for today's students.”

Marina arrived in Tilburg from Bulgaria in 2002 to do a PhD in Computer Science. “As a former international student, I know what challenges you face: how much fun and yet how scary it can be. That's why I particularly want to support these students. I do this by sharing my own experiences and asking them about their ‘why’. It’s a learning experience for both parties. At the moment, I’m working with several students based on the vision ‘pave your own path with purpose’. It actually relates to my own ‘why’. It bothers me when people continue doing something they've always done without really enjoying it because they’re afraid of breaking out of their comfort zone. I want to give people a ‘spark’ to light their own ‘fire’ that will then go on to shine on other people. My message is: just start with something your heart desires. Do it, and, in the process, discover where it takes you.”

Marina Velikova krijgt taart overhandigd
taart alumni vrijwilliger van het jaar

Computer love 

In addition to her efforts to give a ‘spark’ to students, Marina was the keynote speaker at the Career Café and a panel member at the International Career Café. “By sharing my own experiences, I hope to inspire others.” So far, Marina’s path in life has been anything but predictable. She was born in Bulgaria when it was still a communist country. At the age of ten, she dreamt of becoming a math teacher, just like her mother. By the age of 14, she had fallen in love with the computer. “I just found it magical. At my Bulgarian secondary school, a small group of lucky students were allowed to use computers. I wasn’t selected and looked on from the sidelines with a broken heart. A couple of years later, I did have the opportunity and learnt programming. That’s when I discovered my passion.”

Investing and pushing forward 

After completing her Bachelor’s in Computer Science in 1999, she decided to go to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia to do a Master’s in Artificial Intelligence. “I could have stayed living close to my parents, but there was a fascinating new study program at the University of Sofia”, explains Marina. “Fortunately, my parents gave me the freedom to go.” But it wasn’t easy. “In order to support myself, I worked full-time as a secretary. I spent the rest of my time studying for my Master’s. Because I was the only student on the study program, I did mainly independent study. I also learnt English, because I had an opportunity to do a PhD in the Netherlands. I had no social life during those two years, it was all about investing and pushing forward for a promising future.”

I realized that life’s too short to continue on the comfortable path I’d chosen

Seizing the opportunity 

When, at the end of her Bachelor’s, Dr Penka Bocheva told her of the possibility of doing a PhD in Tilburg, it really opened up her eyes. “I just had to seize that opportunity. But when it was time to leave for the Netherlands, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, which made it a very difficult decision. My mother insisted that she’d recover, saying I was helping her to see the world. And so I decided to go.”

A smile 

“I was 25 years old and I was spreading my wings”, she continues. “I see my time in Tilburg as my student days, because I finally had time to build my own community. I met international students from across the world and enjoyed the diversity in Tilburg. I had a chance to get to know the best people while also earning money. I had a smile on my face the whole time.” After her PhD, Marina found her way to Radboud University and ultimately became a researcher in system innovations at TNO. That was until something caused her to change her mind.

A little voice 

“In all those years, I’d been pursuing my interest: my love of artificial intelligence, applied data and mathematical modelling. But there was a voice in my head that I could no longer ignore: I had to do something in education.” Her mother’s death in 2018 merely made the voice louder. “I realized that life’s too short to continue on the comfortable path I’d chosen. I needed to do things differently.”

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Breaking free 

So she reduced her hours at TNO to three days a week and spent the other two days exploring what direction she wanted to take. “I was like a newborn baby in a new world. Without any knowledge, network or experience in education. I visited schools, events and talked to lots of people. I set up my company Creazzia, which stands for ‘create, creative, crazy (in other words, authentic)’. I used my computing background and started to design and teach workshops in computational thinking for young people and teachers in secondary education. But I felt that my heart wasn’t in it. After four years of searching, experimentation and talking, I discovered what my contribution will be: based on who I am and what the world needs most right now. This contribution is not about technology, but about peace via inclusivity. This is why Creazzia is a partner for organizations that aims to integrate inclusivity into everyday life as a means of enabling people and organizations to make maximum use of their potential.”

I don’t know 

“I broke free from my established patterns and did everything based on my ‘why’, on my ‘spark’. I think we’re too preoccupied with the ‘how’: how we can reach our goal as quickly as possible – if we already know it. The purpose in life is not to find work, but to be able to look in the mirror every day and be happy with who you are and what you’re doing.” To this end, she set up the THE I Don’t Know MOVEMENT, in which she challenges people to say what they do not know but actually feel. A direction, based on who they are, that they want to pursue without really having a concrete objective in mind. “Simply ‘I am. I do. I know’. Just like children learn to discover the world in a playground. As for where my path will now take me from here, I don’t know yet. My aim is to explore that together with other people, as equals. My voluntary work at Tilburg University helps me in that process.” 

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Date of publication: 4 december 2023