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Third Culture Kids

Author: Tina Quick

Author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition

Four Pearls of Wisdom in the Expat Student’s Transition 

For the launch of a third culture kid (TCK) community on a large U.S. east coast university campus I was asked to speak about “Why is it so difficult for global nomads to transition to college?” In fact, that was the actual title of the talk they wanted me to give. Kudos to these students who weren’t afraid to talk about what many global nomads go through in the college transition but no one likes to admit.


Third Culture Teens
There are four things I truly believe if every expat student understood before making the transition, whether repatriating or transitioning to yet another host country for the college / university experience, he or she would have a much smoother adjustment. Obviously many factors come into play in transition but knowing what to expect ahead of time can take some of the stress and angst out of the equation. Following are what I like to call the “Four Pearls of University Transition.”

Pearl #1 - Third Culture Kids Identity Development


According to Dr. Barbara Schaetti, TCKs go throw five stages in their identity development which she cites as being “the search for congruence in our sense of who we are.”

  1. Pre-encounter - when global nomads are living their normal but cross-cultural, highly mobile lives without really thinking about how they are being impacted by that lifestyle.
  2. Encounter - when they are suddenly woken up to the fact that they are different from others. This often happens upon repatriating for the college experience. Even if there are transitioning to another host country, they are stepping out of that “third culture” and suddenly find themselves surrounded by others with whom there is no shared experience.
  3. Exploration – when their sense of feeling different is strong enough to make them wonder why, they move into exploration. They will search the web, read books or talk to people to try to understand themselves.
  4. Integration - if they come to the realization that it is their international experiences that make them different they can be comfortable with whom they are as people. Dr. Schaetti says that those global nomads who never quite figure out this reality suffer from “terminal uniqueness” syndrome.
  5. Recycling – the Third Culture Kid is likely to experience more encounter experiences as he goes through life, but they will not be as profound as the first one. He will need to remind himself that it is his international experiences causing him to feel different and once again become comfortable with that reality.

Pearl #2 – Unresolved Grief


Pollock and Van Reken state in their book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, “For most TCK’s the collection of significant losses and separations before the end of adolescence is often more than most people experience in a lifetime.”
upset teen tck

The high mobility lifestyle that expat children experience, whether they are the ones coming and going all the time or the people around them are, means there is a lot of loss. When we lose people and things and places that matter to us, we need to grieve over them. Too many times, TCKs do not have the opportunity or the permission to begin the grieving process. If grief is not allowed to run its course, it can surface later in life in dysfunctional outbursts like rebellion or depression.

In college, this grief can show up as homesickness. Every first year college student is going to experience homesickness to some degree, but for the TCK, this can be deep grief, especially if their family is still an ocean away. Or it could be that the family has moved to another country or decided to repatriate at the same time. In that case, this student has lost everything – an entire lifestyle. Grief needs to be encouraged.

TCKs need to be able to put a name to each of their losses, spend time with them and move through it. I encourage students to give in to homesickness. Crawl into bed under the covers, listen to their favorite music, look at photo albums, journal or do whatever they need to do to spend time with their grief. These are times and things and places that are worth being sad over. By allowing the grieving process they can come to closure and move forward.

Pearl #3 – Stages of Transition

Pollock and Van Reken also talk about the five stages of transition anyone goes through when making a major life change. If our college students know, before leaving, what happens in each of these stages they can be prepared for them and get through them.

  1. Involvement – where they are in their last year of high school. They have roles, responsibilities, a reputation, friends and more. They are a functioning part of the community.
  2. Leaving – begins the moment they are aware of an upcoming change. This could be when the college acceptance letters start to role in and they need to make a decision as to where they will spend the next three to four years of their lives. This stage is characterized by denial. That’s why they may seem to drag their feet on making decisions, filling out paperwork and deciding on their meal plans. Parents may notice they are acting like clingy five year olds one day and demanding they be treated like an adult the next. They are likely to experience vacillating emotions.
  3. Transition – begins the moment they hit their new environment. This stage is characterized by utter chaos. Everything is new and different. They have so much to learn not only about the university but how everything works in this new place. They may not know their home country as well as they thought they did.

    This is something Dr. Schaetti says can throw TCKs into having an encounter experience. This is also where they will experience culture shock or reverse culture shock. They may have a wonderful re-entry with lots of fun and games, especially in the beginning weeks of school, but eventually things begin to wear on them and they become dissatisfied with life in this new place. Their emotions wreak havoc.

    There are good days interspersed with bad days, blue days and happy days. But the real dip in the ‘u’ curve of culture shock tends to come right about six to eight weeks into the first term. This can happen for many reasons – the days may be getting shorter, darker and colder; mid-term exams may be causing anxiety; and Parents’ Weekend may have come and gone without mom or dad being able to make the trip for this one weekend.

    All these can be very depressing in themselves but they all add up for the TCK. This is around the time parents may hear things like, “I made a mistake coming here.” “I want to transfer.” Students need to be encouraged to stick it out at least for the duration of the term. They are likely to feel different as time goes on.

  4. Entering – many of the emotional ups and downs of the transition stage and feelings of self-doubt, loss of self-esteem, anxiety and more may continue in the entering stage but the difference is that the student has decided either consciously or unconsciously that he or she is going to settle in and become a part of this new place.

    Emotional instability is still normal. What is not normal is getting stuck in a cycle of depression. Any deep sadness that does not go away for a minimum of two weeks needs to be treated. Students need to be encouraged to seek out student mental health services.

  5. Re-involvement – the TCK wakes up one day and realizes he/she once again has status, roles, responsibilities, friends, etc. They know more than the newcomer. Their dorm rooms may feel more like home to them now than their real home. Many TCKs say they feel they have reached the re-involvement stage after coming back to campus after a long vacation such as winter or summer break.

    Knowing that each of these stages is temporary and unique will help students know they are not going crazy but can survive the transition. They also need to understand that everyone goes through the stages differently and at different rates. Everything is normal.


Pearl #4 – Relationships with Domestic Peers

Global Nomads often feel as though they “don’t fit in,” “can’t connect,” “don’t belong” with their locally based peers. This occurs for many reasons that they need to understand:

TCKs feel different. We’ve already talked about that. It’s because these Third culture kids are quite different. Not they as people, of course, but the international experiences they have been though are quite dissimilar from most of the people they meet on their college campuses. They need to find commonality with their domestic peers such as realizing that they are all going through a transition to a new life stage as an independent adult.

Domestic peers have no reference point for people who have lived the life of the TCK and vice versa. They don’t know how to relate to each other. I encourage the TCK to ask lots of questions. Maybe then others will ask questions of them and in that way, they can slowly reveal the complex layers of their lives.

TCKs can come off as being arrogant because they are typically well-educated, well-traveled, and have extensive global experience. They may see their domestic peers as being silly, immature and uninterested in global affairs. But TCKs can also be perceived as being arrogant just by trying to share their life stories.

What others don’t realize is that these are the only stories the TCK has to tell. The TCK may need to keep certain aspects of his/her life under wraps until they know people better and can share their experiences little by little.

TCKs relate differently than people who have not moved around much and never had to worry about losing his best friend. Historically the domestic peer has time to watch and wait to notice if a relationship will emerge. So she will spend a lot of time in the superficial, safe levels of conversation waiting for trust to develop before sharing something at a deeper level.

On the other hand, TCKs are in a hurry to make their relationships so they delve right away into those deeper levels of conversation in the hope that the other person will share something back and he or she can tell if a relationship will develop. TCKs need to learn, however painful it may feel, that it takes time to develop relationships.

The domestic peer may really want to connect with a TCK but really doesn’t know how, so he will throw something silly out there like, “Cool! So you used to live in Egypt. Did you used to ride camels to school?” The TCK may feel like the domestic peer is making fun of him and be offended. But this is actually a good sign. It means the domestic peer is trying to be friendly. TCKs need to learn to laugh along too.

And lastly, TCKs need to find a sense of belonging with others of shared experience. Encourage them to look for or start up their own TCK community on their university campus. And keep in mind that other international students may also be TCKs. 

About Author Tina Quick

Tina Quick, author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition is a cross-cultural trainer, writer and international speaker. She is the mother of three daughters and a well-seasoned traveler.

Tina is an (ATCK)or Adult Third Culture Kid and has lived with her children across four different cultures and continents. She currently serves as Program Chair on the Board of Directors of Families in Global Transition (FIGT). She is a member of the Advisory Board for TCKid and the Overseas Association of College Admissions Counseling. Tina is very involved with many colleges and universities, and with local and international schools.


Third Culture Kids

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