Why is it so hard to go back home? Why do students who grow up abroad – third culture kids (TCKs) – have such a difficult time when they return to a place they have grown up calling ‘home?’ David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken explain in their book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds that their cross-cultural, highly mobile lifestyles impact children in more ways than one could imagine. The benefits reaped are numerous, but certain challenges become apparent as soon they step out of the third culture – the expatriate culture where they have a sense of belonging with others of shared experience.
It has been my experience that there are four main areas that can create stumbling blocks for TCKs facing the college/ university transition or repatriation and if they are aware of these ahead of time, they end up having a much smoother adjustment. I talk about these and much more in my book written specifically for the TCK student and other internationals and the parents who prepare them and come alongside them in this transition, The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Education.
TCK Identity Development
Dr. Barbara Schaetti has done extensive work on TCK identity development. She clearly explains what happens to many expat kids when leaving their host country and the expatriate culture. She says most TCKs will have an experience that wakes them up to the fact they are different from others. Typically they don’t take into account that their international experiences make them different. All they know is that they don’t fit in and don’t belong. If they come to the realization their life experiences have been very different from most of the people they are surrounded by, they can learn to be comfortable with who they are. Suggested reading on TCK identity development can be found in Raising Global Nomads by Robin Pascoe.
Anyone going through any type of major life transition goes through five predictable stages. Every first-year college student will go through these same five stages as they adjust to life as an independent adult, but TCKs and foreign students have a cultural adjustment to make too. Each of the five stages and the associated emotional responses that take place in each is described in my book. Knowing what takes place in each of these stages not only prepares us but also helps us to appreciate that it is expected, normal, and temporary.
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.
The most common complaint of repatriating TCKs is feeling as if they don’t belong, don’t fit in, can’t connect with their peers. There are many reasons for the disconnects but to begin with TCKs need to remind themselves they are different from their domestic peers – not as human beings, of course, but because their life experiences are very different from someone who grows up in a traditional, non-mobile community. They need to find commonalities with their home-country peers. That’s one reason we recommend groups such as USA Girl Scouts Overseas – it’s a place to find others who have had the same shared experience wherever they have lived.
Not every TCK is going to have a difficult time making the adjustment back home or 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.
For an extensive list of other useful resources, visit International Family transitions
Tina L. Quick, author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition