In 2001 my parents, in their early 40s and already established in their careers in Macedonia, took a giant bet and a leap of faith and came to the United States. My dad took a significantly lower post at the Macedonian Embassy than his position back home and my mom who is a structural engineer found a job as a temp. They left the advantages of developing careers because of a single reason: exposing my sister and me to America and the opportunities it offered.
Though I finished high school in three years and was a fairly bright kid, I only began recognizing what their sacrifice after my dads post ended and they returned to Macedonia. I stayed behind, working a full time job and going to high school full-time because of practical reasons an American high school diploma would simply be better than a Macedonian one. But in that last year, where I stayed alone in the U.S., it really hit me and I realized the scope of the bet my parents had taken. While they were here I experienced things no Macedonian boy could back home. I took part in varsity rowing in high school, I founded clubs, participated in extracurricular activities, and learned to speak and write well in English. I got to see the fruits of hard work, and how the parents of various friends married professional ambition and family affairs into a framework of personal growth. But, partly because I was so young at sixteen, and partly because I was alone and unorganized in my efforts, I did not manage to get into college, so I went back home to Macedonia disappointed.
When I arrived in Macedonia and enrolled in college I experienced reverse culture shock. Everything bothered me: from the malaise of post-communist transition society to the station in which my peers felt stuck. My college professors were former members of the Communist Party. It was intellectually difficult to reconcile with communists teaching political science to say the least. I began pushing back hard and becoming aggressive in my pursuits and plans. This is when I realized the risk my parents had taken in their bet. By bringing me to the United States and expecting me to adapt to a new operating environment even if temporarily they exposed me to what life can be like, and with this realization my American Dream was born.
Immediately I began thinking about how to come back to the United States. At seventeen I didnt know how, so I made a long term plan that would combine working, good grades, and social involvement. The summer after my freshman year in Macedonia I went to the offices of Booz Allen Hamilton/USAID and asked to work there, full-time and for no salary. This caught them off guard, but they allowed me; I think they perceived me as nave and a convenient busy-worker. I slowly realized that the Macedonian bureaucrat classes were all the same. They sought to re-delegate work so they dont have to do it. They had no incentive to do better because their pay didnt change either way. I used this opening and took on as much responsibility as I could. I still worked for free, but my responsibilities grew significantly and I gained the trust of my supervisors, taking the reins on bigger projects. I pursued this approach throughout my undergraduate summers. I would start working for free, live at home, and become indispensable in the office ecosystem. The results were evident: I had a case study published in a prestigious academic journal by the age of nineteen; I worked for the President of Macedonia, and for the Deputy Prime Minister.
My friends pitied my dedication to my employees as bordering on slave labor, and constantly asked me why I am choosing to overwork myself for free as opposed to weighting tables and earning a quick buck. What they couldnt understand is that my plan was long-term and required patience and discipline. I wanted to transfer to an American college and I couldnt afford tuition, the cost of which I could never earn in summer jobs in Macedonia. A tuition tab of $50,000 + per year is unfathomable to a typical Macedonian household which annually makes $10,000 combined. The only way I could raise this kind of currency was if I made my currency competitiveness instead of money and got a full scholarship. So I made myself the most formidable of competitors instead of the best fit to pay for school. I ended up being accepted and receiving a full scholarship to attend a decent private liberal arts school in upstate New York called St. Lawrence University. It is safe to say that while other students that had applied for transfer may have had good grades, not many had worked for a major consulting firm, been published in a major journal, or worked for the President of a country. Those two years in Macedonia before I transferred to St. Lawrence University made me realize who I am. For the first time in my life my relentlessness and efforts were being rewarded, and by an American private school which sought to invest in international students.
At St. Lawrence I was on significantly better footing than I had been in the university back home. For someone like me who loves competing and loves pushing the boundaries, stepping back on US soil invigorated me to keep going. With every step forward a multitude of new opportunities would open up. I used my full scholarship at St. Lawrence as a launching pad to get funding for traveling and conducting research. In my senior year I traveled to Israel and the Middle East to interview government officials about strategic concerns with the Iranian nuclear program a topic which I wrote my honors thesis on. My hard work and dedication landed me an acceptance into Georgetowns School of Foreign Service for a masters degree right out of undergrad. It also landed me a full scholarship and because of it I will soon complete my masters degree at age twenty-three.
While at Georgetown I started my own risk consulting firm, partly because I wanted to stress test what I had learned in my classes and partly because I had to find a way to make money. The latter reason is what has kept me grounded since I was seventeen years old, because through all my successes I have had to provide for myself and be financially independent. The firm itself has been a moderate success in that it is allowing me to sustain myself through graduate school.
For a twenty-three year old to be able to do this is something my parents still cannot believe. It may sound like I am Spartan in my approach and have aggressively torn down walls to get where I am, but it is really because America is the only country in the world where hope is underwritten by the promise of opportunity. No one promises you success, but the access to opportunity is sacrosanct. Its not that hard work on its own that is rewarded in the U.S. plenty of hard work goes by unnoticed. But it is that you have the opportunity to take risks and create value that is the determining factor. This is how I got where I am: I built stable foundations and took risks in expanded from my previous station. Every step I have taken has been a step toward the better: better schools, better jobs, more sophisticated skills, broader reach. It has not been easy. In honestly, the majority of my spectrum of efforts is filled with failures, especially in the initial stages of my plan to pursue my dream. And there is a long way for me to go until I truly realize myself, but I am proud of my achievements. My dream is simple, and it is to not be limited and to continue growing. When I have children, I dont want them to have to go through the kind of toils I have gone through. I want to be able to afford them the opportunity to realize their talents without being limited.