A broken education system: Third Culture Kids

This is such a hard article to write, because it’s based on a topic that, through the years, has grown and transformed alongside me – and that’s education. First a little background on me, I was born in Skopje, Macedonia – and lived there up until the third grade my parents decided to move us all to Maryland, US.

First and second grade are a little bit of a blur. I was a year younger than my classmates, and when you’re young that tends to take a turn for the worst. I was very emotionally dependent on the adults around me, and basically spent the majority of my time crying and feeling insecure.

In the third grade, upon moving to the United States, I was placed in an (obviously) completely English-speaking school. Aside from cat, dog, red and blue, my English vocabulary was pretty much non-existent. As all little kids do, I began mimicking my classmates, and basically started speaking fluent English by week number three. Unfortunately, I had to deal with the inevitable – I had a vocabulary gap in my knowledge of the English language that my new friends around me have been filling for the last nine years. I spent the next four years (third through seventh grade) trying to fill my vocabulary gap, trying to make friends and maintain relationships (which I still didn’t know how to do because I was still extremely insecure), and attempting to learn how to study. Now, you may say “Learn how to study? Nobody has to make a conscious effort to do that, we all automatically learn when we’re young”. To be honest, that’s actually what I kept telling myself as I watched my grades plummet to the ground, unable to do much about it. I couldn’t understand why it was always me that was struggling, or why my friends completed their work with ease while I simply couldn’t. I think that while I strived to fill my vocabulary gap, I never truly learned how to learn. I loved reading for fun, but announce a test at the end of the week and I’ll just sit there because I didn’t even know how to start studying for it. This is the period of time that my love for music grew. Music felt like my only escape because I didn’t need to know how to experience it – I just did. I made it through those few years with mediocre grades at best. I’m talking B’s and C’s (but mostly C’s).

In the midst of the seventh grade, my family and I moved back to Macedonia. This was the start of the hardest period of my life, both academically but more importantly, mentally and emotionally. While speaking conversational Macedonian with my parents around the house for the past four years, I was never exposed to Macedonian literature or anything that would expand my vocabulary in any way. I now entered the middle of the seventh grade with the Macedonian vocabulary of a second grader. To make matters worse, I had forgotten the cyrillic alphabet, so I had to go through an adjustment period where I literally had to practice writing letters and words over and over in a journal. While that was happening at home, teachers handed me readings in subjects like physics, chemistry, history and geography that were way beyond my comprehension. I could feel my teachers being frustrated with me, I could see that my parents were at a loss of what to do, and on top of everything, I had to figure out a way to start all over again and make new friends. Lucky for me, as introverted as I am, I’m also friendly and outgoing. In the next few years I bounced between many friend circles and made friends that are still around to this day. I also poured my heart and soul into relationships that quickly evaporated, but that’s something that everybody goes through – regardless of their academic situation.

In the ninth grade I entered high school. When I say that this was the absolute darkest period of my life, you have to understand how far from an exaggeration that is. I was in a new pool of kids, I had no accent that separated me from my classmates,and I had an enormous vocabulary gap (along with a lot of trouble expressing myself because my thoughts were entirely in English). My teachers and professors couldn’t grasp my situation no matter how many times I tried to explain it. I didn’t look stupid, so I was immediately labeled as lazy. It’s hard enough to be in a situation where the intensity of everything is magnified by 100 times, but getting past the fact that your professors think that you’re lazy and uninterested was a battle that I almost lost. High school was the peak of my depression. I felt completely misunderstood and hopeless. My professors were anything but understanding, and my will to fight back stated thinning immensely. Needless to say, some professors were better than other, but some were an absolute nightmare.

(A little detour – I had a professor make me stand in front of my class as she asked me questions about the last chapter we had to read. Reading something in Macedonian, translating it into English to understand it, and then having to reiterate it back to someone in Macedonian, all while feeling absolutely intimidated, is a situation I don’t wish upon anybody. Needless to say I started bawling in front of everybody and left the classroom absolutely miserable and embarrassed. Not only did I hate my professors, but I was starting to hate myself. I kept thinking to myself, how could I be so stupid?)

By the middle of the tenth grade, I had 7 D’s and heavy clinical depression. I was on anti-depressants just trying to numb the misery and hopelessness. I also began to have suicidal thoughts, and my body started completely rejecting meat / protein. At this point my parents made the best decision that they could have made, and they took me out of public school. I transferred into a very small private school. When I say very small – I mean that there were a total of 9 people in my graduating class. Still, I walked in there carrying the burden of the last ten years of my education. The rest of the tenth and eleventh grade are a bit of blur. I was heavily medicated, but I was also willing to work with my professors. Again, not all of them were understanding, but the ones that really took the time to hear me out and really tried to understand me are the ones that helped me dig myself out of the hole that I felt buried neck-deep in. By the twelfth grade, and the end of high school, my grades started improving immensely. Sure, I wasn’t getting straight A’s, and yeah – math was absolutely never my thing, but in those two years I learned how to learn. I got to work on projects I was passionate about, I started weaning off of anti-depressants, and my social life was booming at this point.

This whole struggle really made me second-guess whether I wanted to go to college or not. Why put myself through hell for another four years if I didn’t have to? I had no idea what I wanted to study, and to be quite honest, I didn’t know if I was smart enough. After being put down for so many years, i found it very hard to gain the confidence to move forward. Knowing that there was no way I wanted to take part in the Macedonian educational system any longer, I applied to university in the US, and patiently waited to hear back. While my grades weren’t my strong side, I was always the queen of extracurriculars. I was part of a debate club, I sang in a band, I did freelance photography, I even think I did some acting classes. Seeing all of these components on my application must have been a good thing, because I ended up with an acceptance letter from St. Lawrence University. At that point, there was no doubt in my mind that I had to take this opportunity because otherwise I wouldn’t even make it through a year of university in Macedonia. I packed my bags and moved my life to the (very) small village of Canton, New York.

It would be a lie to say that college was a breeze, but one thing I can certainly say is that it was the most influential growing period for me. The school I started attending was a small school, with a  campus located in the middle of nowhere. I joined an a cappella group my first week there, and during that first year I learned how to schedule my time efficiently. I also made lifelong friends, and my grades, while not amazing – were alright. Maybe even above average at times. I found myself surrounded by the most amazing, understanding and inspiring professors. My progress strengthened throughout the next three years, and as I grew, I learned more about what I wanted to study, and what my interests were. In those three years I wrote papers so complex, that reading them back now, it’s hard to believe that I developed such complex ideas in my head. By my third year of college, my grades were high enough that I could enroll in a study abroad program. I chose London and went on to have a new, semester-long life experience. It was only at this point that I began feeling like I really could do anything if I really wanted to. I immersed myself in things I loved, such as reading dense political theory, and making lighthearted (and sometimes serious) videos and films. This was also the year I made the dean’s list for the first time (which means that I had a GPA higher than 3.6 out of 4.0). By my senior year of college, I found myself passionately reading and writing lengthy academic works on topics that truly resonated with me. I finished all of my requirements during the first half of my senior year (along with my final thesis), and I made the decision to move to Manhattan for the final semester of my college education. I landed an amazing internship at Christie’s auction house (I freaking worked in Rockefeller center), and then in May I went back up to St. Lawrence to graduate (with honors!). That’s me in the blue dress.


I am immensely lucky to be sitting here confidently, with a college degree, a sense of self, and the knowledge and strength to fight for what matters. I decided to write this article in hopes that you, the reader, will be able to one day recognize that the kid that society labeled as “lazy”, could very well be the byproduct of a world that isn’t equipped to handle situations like mine, his or hers. It’s devastating knowing that many of my fellow “third culture kids*” will fall victim to this globally dysfunctional system, and will end up losing the battle against an educational system that is set up to fail them. If this article raises enough awareness to help just one person in a similar situation succeed, I will have made enough of a difference by writing it.

*Third culture kid is a term used to refer to children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their development years



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