Author Articles

Helping Expat Kids Transition to University

It happens every year about this time. Hundreds of thousands of students head off to be launched as a young, independent adult at college/ university. Wise counselors and administrators at international schools around the world are learning to make a big deal of this transition for their students who have grown up globally, and so they should. Their life experiences have been very different from most of the peers they will be surrounded by on their college campuses and they need to be prepared for how that will impact them.

The globally mobile life style of global nomads/ third culture kids (TCKs), as we refer to them, brings with it a plethora of gifts, skills and benefits including a broad world view, languages, and cultural competencies. But, as with anything, there is a flip side to moving across cultures during those critical developmental years (birth to 18). There are unique challenges TCKs must face on top of the usual transition issues they share with their domestic peers when entering college. There are four major insights that can help TCKs as they transition out of the expatriate culture.


Dr. Barbara Schaetti, who has done extensive research on TCK identity development, explains that, particularly upon repatriation, TCKs “wake up to the fact that they are different from others.” She calls this an “encounter experience.” If they understand it is their international experiences that make them different they can come to grips and be comfortable with their differences.


Every first year college student is making the transition to a new life stage as an independent adult, but global nomads and foreign students have the cultural adjustment to make as well – even the home country culture can be foreign to TCKs. Understanding what takes place in each of the stages not only prepares them but helps them appreciate it is normal and temporary.

Involvement Stage – this is life as the TCK knows it. She is involved in the community, has friends, roles, responsibilities, and feels a sense of belonging.

Leaving Stage – begins the moment she is aware of an upcoming change. For the college-bound TCK this could be from the time she is making college visits to application time or to the decision time. There is a separating and distancing from roles, responsibilities and relationships. There are mixed emotions – sadness mixed with anticipation.

Transition Stage – starts the moment TCKs arrive in their new environs. This stage is characterized by chaos. Everything is new and different. There are no routines or structure in place.

Entering Stage – begins the moment the TCK either consciously or unconsciously decides she is going to settle in and become a part of this new place. Feelings of vulnerability, self-doubt, anxiety, and ambiguity may still be hanging on from the transition stage, but she is committed to sticking it out and making it work.

Re-Involvement – when the TCK realizes, usually after a long school break, that this new place feels more like home. She has relationships, roles, and responsibilities and feels affirmed once again.


The high mobility lifestyle of a global nomad means there is a lot of separation and loss. When we lose people, things and places that are important to us we need to grieve over them. Allowing grief to run its course is considered ‘good grief.’ When TCKs can put a name on their loss, spend time with it, and mourn over it, they can come to closure and move forward. Being intentional with their good-byes helps confront the losses.


The most common complaint of TCKs at college is feeling as if they don’t belong, don’t fit in, can’t connect with their peers. There are many reasons for these disconnects – having no point of reference for one another, lack of shared experiences, they build their relationships completely differently – but they need to find commonalities. They can be reminded that they are all going through the first year experience together.


Not every TCK is going to have a difficult time making the adjustment to college/ university. In fact, because they are used to change they often tend to fare better than many of their domestic peers. But for those who are not prepared it can be difficult to recover from the unexpected challenges. Advance preparation can significantly ease the adjustment process and allow these wonderfully gifted students to use their international experiences to make the most of the college years and beyond.

*Suggested reading on TCK identity development can be found in Raising Global Nomads, by Robin Pascoe.

coverglobalnomadsguidetouniversityBy Tina L. Quick. author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.