From Australia to Revere, MA: What Studying Abroad Taught Me About America’s Achievement Gap

Lindy Smalt

In the spring of 2009, I packed my life into two small suitcases, kissed my family goodbye, and got on a 20-hour flight that would take me 10,000 miles away from home. My knowledge of Australia fell somewhere between Steve Irwin, kangaroos, and Mary Kate and Ashley’s Our Lips are Sealed—but I knew if there was one thing that would change those conceptions, it would be that mythical and insurmountable experience of studying abroad (or so everyone said).

The following year, I graduated from college and became a Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools. Though eager about the new challenge that lay before me, I couldn’t help feeling like I was largely unqualified to be working in the inner-city. I had, after all, grown up in the suburbs of New York City, gone to college in the suburbs of Chicago, and studied abroad in a first-world nation—at least my older sister went to Africa!

But as I got to know and love my nineteen incredible sixth grade students, a series of unexpected parallels began to emerge between their struggles and those of the Australian people. I was stunned. Up until that moment, I felt I had failed to integrate my overseas experience with my pre-established life in America; was it really possible that my desired incorporation of worlds was going to be found here—in Revere, MA?

The answer was yes. Being a globalized citizen, it turns out, is not just about utilizing iPhones and social media; it’s about making interdisciplinary connections—absorbing our cross-cultural experiences, however different they might appear, into a holistic worldview uninhibited by our unseen biases.

One of the ways that my experience in Australia continually informs my work in Revere is through a growing understanding of national myth. While the “American Dream” informs us that any individual can achieve success regardless of means or circumstance, the Australian “Tall Poppy Syndrome” seeks to equalize achievement rather than encourage it (poppies grow at exactly the same height, strangling any plants in the field that grow higher than their surroundings). Without American-like competition, it is not uncommon for Australian children as young as fifteen to drop out of school and begin working, and even students who do receive a high school degree often take at least at one gap year or attend TAFE (a type of vocational school) before contemplating college. Although I still often struggle with this Australian methodology, it continues to give me a framework for approaching many of my low-income and immigrant students in Revere. Rather than examine them through a lens of what they don’t have—my own commitment to often externally-validating academic achievement—living among the Australian people taught me to better see them for what they do have: tight-knit families and neighborhoods that value relationships and shared experience above anything else (whereas the five members of my family are all currently pursuing their own idea of “success” in five different states). In realizing this, I take steps to meet my students where they are—by regularly communicating with their families to ensure that both home cultures and school cultures are in consistent agreement as to how to provide the best future possible. And as an added bonus, this realization also consistently reminds me to take a step back and remember why it is that I work for Citizen Schools: to work through cultures—not to “make them more like mine.”

Overall, the most impactful experience I had during my four months abroad was gaining the ability to see America through the eyes of an outsider. Despite a Massachusetts address, many of my eleven-year-olds feel like outsiders; they see images of success and have no idea how to make that success into a personal reality, or even to discern what kind of success they truly want for their own lives. Is staring on a reality show success? Or being discovered on YouTube? Or something else entirely?

As the behavior management specialist on campus, a large part of my role includes finding creative ways to inspire students to reach for their own definition of success. When they misbehave, I ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And then I let them talk until I see that little click  go off in their eyes—that moment when they realize, “Whoa, I actually get to decide my life for myself!”

It’s been two-and-a-half years since I left for that sun-burnt country. Occasionally I’ll click through old Facebook albums, giggling at pictures of me dancing in front of the Sydney Opera House or holding a koala near the Great Barrier Reef. I’ll post, “Meet you in Australia?” with a smiley face on my old roommate’s wall. But then, for a moment, I’ll remember the things that Facebook could never capture: stories of stolen children, faces of protesters in the capital city, and the impossibility of my own four-month struggle to adapt to a culture in which I—for the first time—was labeled as an outsider. For somewhere between Vegemite and sunshine, there was an incredible authenticity to my experience, one that taught me just as much about humanity as it did about a country.

It is that wisdom that translates to my work with Citizen Schools; in classrooms, in phone calls, in the tears of the students who get picked on for their differences. Every day I get to teach a new generation of visionaries about tolerance, culture, and the future of our world.

What will YOU teach?