What do you want to be when you grow up?

I ask this question to my students as often as I can. Albania is chalk full of talented individuals with no sense of personal drive, and the American go-getter spirit in me just can’t stand it.

I’ve spent countless days and nights asking myself why my students are afraid to pursue their dreams (or have any dreams at all for that matter). Why are they afraid to take a risk and do something different? Why are they afraid to break the status quo and make a change in this country that so desperately needs it? The US has one of the highest rates of innovation in the world (despite our terrible education standards), so I feel lucky to have grown up in an environment that continuously challenged me. In the US we are taught from a young age that “you can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it.” I never realized just how lucky I was to hear that phrase every day and how much it actually shaped who I am today.

A few weeks ago I met an Albanian man (the father of one of my student who shall remain nameless) who is one of the most charismatic people ever. Now in his 40s-50s, he obviously grew up during a much different era. During communism, jobs were chosen for you. Your field of education was chosen for you. Essentially, your entire life was laid out for you, without any input from you. This man currently owns a paper shop in Shkoder where he sells pens, notebooks, etc. and makes photocopies. Nonetheless he is one of the best stand-up comedians I’ve ever heard and most talented performers I’ve seen in Albania. He can host an event, act and recite poetry like you’ve never seen. In a different country, in a different time, he would be on tv or the radio and making a killing.

Now don’t get me wrong, he has a great life here in Shkoder with a wonderful family and a job that provides a comfortable living. But I still can’t help but think of what could have been if things were different back then. The whole aspect of a planned economy really did number on the spirit of entrepreneurship and go-getting in Albania.

Unfortunately, the education system in Albania is still reminiscent of those times and many of my students still face the same struggles (partly because their parents grew up during these hard times and still haven’t changed their mentality). It’s heartbreaking to see students who are so talented in, for example, politics tell me they want to become pharmacists. And students who would be great journalists decide to become economists. Why is it that every student in Albania wants to become one of three jobs, regardless of their real interests or talents?

On one hand I want to push them to follow their dreams and break the mold. But if I do that, they’ll be disappointing their families and setting themselves up for a life of hardship. So am I really helping by pushing them to be more “American” in their entrepreneurship? I’m not so sure. Yet somehow I can’t help it.

In Albania, all seniors in high school have to take an exam called the “matura”. Okay it’s more like a set of exams, but you get the picture. And these exams basically determine their entire lives. Students with high scores on these tests (together with their high school grades…half of which have been paid for through extensive corruption that I can’t even get in to right now) will be accepted into the best programs. Imagine the pressure of the SAT but times 1000. In the US if you don’t do well on the SAT there are plenty of other schools out there besides Harvard that will take you and prepare you for a great career. Not in Albania.

Here, there’s just the University of Tirana (that’s the capital). If you don’t get in there, you can pay 10 times more to go to a private university that isn’t accredited and probably has a bad reputation of students paying for degrees and never stepping foot in the classroom. Or you can go to a smaller local university (Shkdoer has one, so does Saranda), but they are far less prestigious if you want to get a good job later on.

What really gets me though is that in Albania, it’s not like the US where you apply to university and then decide you major later on. These students have to apply for the exact major they will have while still in high school. When they are 18 they have to apply directly to a program at a specific school and only the top few students will be selected. If you don’t get in, they take you second choice, then your third, then your fourth, etc. So in the end someone else still decides what the rest of your life will be without any say on your behalf. You put Architecture as your preference? Well that’s full, but you can study English. Oh you don’t know English? Well you better learn if you want to get a college degree because that’s what you’re getting.

And every year only a handful are chosen to study medicine (which is the most coveted degree here).  Those lucky few will go on to become millionaires. The next best thing is pharmacy, then law and economy. Anything else and you are setting for a life of mediocrity. At least that’s how it seems to me, as an outsider looking in. These kids spend their whole lives dreaming of being accepted to study medicine at the University of Tirana. Everything comes down to this moment and the happiness of their parents and success of their lives depends upon it. Talk about pressure.

So in the end, the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” is pretty much a moot point. It’s not like they have a choice. And if they did, they’ve never even considered what a different future could be like. Going from a planned society to a struggling illiberal democracy is a hard trajectory to follow. Especially when you don’t trust the government or the where the future of your country will be in the next 10 years. You do what you’ve been expected to do since the day you were born and you don’t ask questions.

And that’s one of the hardest things for a PCV life myself to face. Albania can be a real-life Catch 22 sometimes. So to all my senior students out there, keep on keeping on. Someday one of you will become the Minister of Education and make a change in the system so that the children of Albania can dream of what they want to be when they can grow up. And more importantly, they can make that dream a reality.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

4 thoughts on “What do you want to be when you grow up?

  1. Nice blog on the question of what you want to be when you’re old which I agree makes sense when you have a real choice over what you want to study. It used to be economics when I was going through the same phase in tirana and its no surprise it is still economics. Due to the economic insecurity of the country, studying one the four areas you highlight is safer. But on the other hand the possibility of the choice is a kind of luxury that young people can have mainly in western societies, if you look around the world in Asia, South America, Africa most of the worlds young people are limited in their choices by what their societies can offer them.
    Planting the idea in your students minds that they can achieve what they want if they put their minds to it, might be a middle way. Anyway I enjoyed the article. Laura

  2. A brilliant insight on the faults of the education system in Albania. I now consider myself to be very lucky to be graduating in the States, not because I dislike Albania but because of the lack of educational oppurtunities they have. It almost came as a “shock” when I arrived in America, the countless amounts of educational opportunities one could easily have.I see a complete difference between me, and my mates back in Albania. We are all seniors in high school now yet we are in very much different positions of our choice towards the future. To change that, in my opinion, there needs to be some serious change in the Educational sector, one that offers many more choices to a rising adult.
    Brilliant Article once again!

  3. Hey, it’s always nice to read your blog, since being an American you always have a different view of things (and you are living Albania in a completly different way than I am!). Anyhow what you described here is a pretty similar system as in Italy and nearly every European country (of what I know of). You need to do exams and they determine where you get in or not (either regarding the grade or by doing an other test before entering university), and you need to apply for the degree and not in general as in the US. I don’t know how it is in Albania, but normally you can still change subjects after time, in some countries it’s easier in some less! But yeah, it is really sad how some things are determined and people cannot just think about what they really want! At home I see often friends or aquaintances that just studie something because the job gives you good money, the parents pressured or because what they really want to do is not well seen in the society! And it’s really sad when after years of fighting to get a degree (or not putting 100% in it and taking to much time) they realize the wasted important years of their lives, but still don’t feel like doing what they like because they need to keep up an image or something!
    So what I want to say with all this is that you should still push your students, because at the end it’s their lives and their decisions! If you convinced them to pursue their dreams they will live a happier life even if it’s against what the family wants. Remeber, it’s really their choice, you maybe just giving the the push they need to make a change in society!

  4. You pretty much hit the nail dead on the head on this blog entry. It was a great pleasure reading each line of it. As you already stated, during communism era, more or less everything was chosen and decided for everyone according to overall nationwide country’s plans and requirements. Since the salaries among the professions that required high education were almost pretty flat in variation among them, if it ever came down to having any choices to be made, they would be narrowed down according to prestige and/or other non-tangible benefits. Complaining was not an option at all. That of course over time killed any type of liberal thinking and personal initiative so the only way of making choices, even in today’s times, is going through the already beaten path which includes what you listed earlier. After the early 90s things changed as you could chose what and where you wanted to do but the competition was fierce, which is good IMO.
    In my case fast forward to the late 90s, my turn came and I had to pick my 4 choices and roll the dices and see what would come out. A surprise twist gave me the option to study abroad with the limitation that I only could pick 1. So I did and 1.5 year into my western higher education I realized that it was not what I wanted to do but on the face of personal choices, pressured by family, had to finish what I started. Today I’m still trying see what I really want and can actually do.
    Retrospectively thinking about it all is that in Albania, but perhaps in many other countries too, it’s not the “you can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it” that should be taught. In Albania, one might want to be an astronaut or a nuclear engineer but given the place and time those currently would be really not that much feasible choices. What should be taught instead is critical understanding, reasoning and decision making especially geared towards invention, innovation and entrepreneurship. For a certain idea, after assessing the situation and coming up with a one or more solutions in order to being able to decide which path to follow are all more or less transferable skills that cover many fields. No mater what they chose or do in their life, the young generation in Albania would really benefit for having this kind of mindset. The saying goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”.
    Thank you for the work that you are doing! And to the rest of the PC as well.

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