The Culture Shock of Transitioning from International Schools to the American Education System

A Personal Account of the Challenges and Differences Faced by a Third-Culture Kid

Moving back to the US unexpectedly at the age of 14, the author found themselves thrust into the American education system after years of attending international schools. This transition proved to be a culture shock, as they navigated the stereotypes and expectations of American high schools. In this article, we explore the author’s personal experience, highlighting the stark differences between international schools and the American education system.

The Privileges of International Schools

Growing up abroad and attending international schools offered the author a unique and enriching educational experience. With smaller class sizes and a diverse student body, these schools provided a high-quality education that catered to individual students’ needs. The absence of state testing allowed for more creativity and experiential learning, fostering a love for music, art, drama, and language.

A Multicultural Environment

One of the key aspects of international schools was their focus on multiculturalism. Students were exposed to various languages and traditions, fostering a global perspective. Field trips and immersive experiences further enhanced cultural understanding, whether it was visiting historic sites in Hiroshima or exploring the art history of Florence. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which emphasized rigorous academics and international outreach, was also a cornerstone of international schools.

The Shock of Returning to the US

Returning to the US and enrolling in a high school in Gig Harbor, Washington, proved to be a stark contrast to the international school experience. The lack of cultural diversity in the small town and the insular mindset of its residents posed challenges for the author. Questions about their accent and difficulty learning English highlighted the lack of exposure their peers had to different cultures.

Challenges of the American Education System

The author found the American education system to be disappointing compared to their previous international school experience. The emphasis on standardized testing and the repetition of previously learned material left them feeling unchallenged. The large class sizes and state regulations limited teachers’ ability to create engaging and creative curricula.

Finding Solace in Advanced Placement (AP) Classes

In their junior and senior years of high school, the author discovered Advanced Placement (AP) classes as a haven. These classes provided academic rigor, critical thinking opportunities, and experiential learning elements. Finally, they found teachers and peers who shared their intellectual curiosity and global awareness.


The transition from international schools to the American education system proved to be a significant culture shock for the author. The stark differences in teaching methods, class sizes, and cultural diversity challenged their sense of belonging. However, through perseverance and finding solace in advanced classes, they were able to overcome these challenges and find their place within the American education system. This personal account sheds light on the complexities and nuances of transitioning between different educational environments, highlighting the importance of providing diverse and globally focused education for all students.






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