A Mattituck grad’s inspirational journey to becoming a Fulbright scholar

Growing up with dyslexia, Cara Slotkin could have had her education greatly derailed. Instead, the Laurel native’s desire to improve as a reader fueled her thirst for learning and inspired her to dedicate her life to helping others study history, theater and language.

Ms. Slotkin, a 2010 graduate of Mattituck High School, found out April 1 that after years of hard work, she has been awarded the highly competitive 2019 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant. In September, the 26-year-old will travel to Rwanda to begin a new chapter in her life.

“Cara is one of our really, sort of, true success stories, from where she came to where she is now,” said her high school guidance department coordinator Brian Lynch. “When Cara came through, she had some early struggles.”

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that makes it difficult to read due to issues identifying speech sounds and relating those sounds to letters and words. A specialist diagnosed Ms. Slotkin in the third grade. The disorder, her mother Joanne said, has been present in the family for generations.

Ms. Slotkin, 26, said school was never easy for her and still isn’t. 

“The story my mother tells is that something that took my sister five minutes to do, an assignment, took me an hour,” she said. “I couldn’t focus. It wasn’t that I wanted to do other things, I just didn’t get it.”

From about the third to fifth grade, Ms. Slotkin recalls being tutored by Linda Tillinghast at Cutchogue East Elementary School, who she said taught her how to read. At that time, she was still just approaching grade level and was in an elected support class. By eighth grade, though, she was meeting grade requirements and was formally declassified as a dyslexic. She’d end up attending college at Ohio-Wesleyan University, where she earned a degree in history education.

For the past four years, Ms. Slotkin has taught ninth and 10th grade history to immigrant students for whom English is a second language at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., a public inner city Title I school, where she also started a theater club. While working full-time, she attends graduate school at the University of Maryland and is set to finish her master’s in TESOL curriculum instruction by May.

Mr. Lynch said overcoming her early struggles, helped Ms. Slotkin continue to strive for new heights.

“When she was declassified [as dyslexic] … it was a celebration here,” he said. “It was a great day to say, ‘Look what you’ve overcome.’ I feel like that might have played a part in continuing to allow her to reach for things that maybe she saw as out of reach.”

Fellow Mattituck graduate Ashley Finger, a fellow Fulbright scholar and longtime friend, encouraged Ms. Slotkin to apply for the grant.

Ms. Finger said that with Ms. Slotkin’s longstanding interest in genocide studies, her passion for teaching and her commitment to Rwanda, where she studied abroad in 2013, there was ample reason for her to apply and for the Fulbright Commission to select her.

While she’s since come to recognize her skills, Ms. Slotkin says she still has trouble believing that she’s done it — that she’s a full-time teacher and a full-time student who applied for and earned a Fulbright. 

“I’ve made it work,” she said. “I’ve always seen that as an adult, having the accommodations … I think something I thought was so negative when I was little — it was just such a blessing.”

Ms. Slotkin credited her childhood travels with her family, including older sister Sydney, who now lives in Colombia, as a big reason for her interest in international relations and foreign languages. She said the two girls were always exposed to different cultures. Both her parents come from different places and were raised in different religions.

Her father, Dr. Jay Slotkin, a geriatrician with a practice in Southold, said his daughters take travel to a whole new level.

“I get to go to Riverhead and she goes to Rwanda,” he joked.

Ms. Slotkin also credits teachers from the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District — including Gary Buckner, Alex Papadopoulos and Tom Brennan — for her well-rounded education.

In September, Ms. Slotkin will leave for Rwanda. She’ll live there for 10 months with her fiancé, fellow Mattituck graduate Ethan Crook, whom she is set to marry in August. She will be teaching adults adapting curriculum to teach English and also serving as a professor herself. She is able to communicate in two of the country’s native languages, Kinyarwanda and French — and plans on taking lessons to strengthen her skills. 

“I’ve always said, I’m not just a teacher,” Ms. Slotkin said. “I’m forever a student. My students are my teachers … This is just another one of those experiences that’s really going to continue to show me who I am and what I can do.”

Caption: Slotkin and Crook in an engagement photo. (Credit: Aleah Myers)

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