How Schools Can Better Support Third Culture Kids

Fall 2019

By Angela Yang-Handy

The diversity characterizing international students matriculating at independent schools has become more complex and multifaceted. While there are international students who hail from their home countries, others may have lived in one or more countries outside of their home country before studying in the United States. Add to this complexity the fact that many come from mixed race, mixed ethnicity, multicultural, multilingual, and/or multinational families; some even possess dual or multiple citizenships. Moreover, there are American citizen students who have lived overseas for all or a portion of their lives. This subgroup of international students is commonly referred to as Third Culture Kids (TCKs).
In the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, authors David C. Pollock, Ruth Van Reken, and Michael V. Pollock describe a TCK as “a person who [spends] a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.” They are further characterized as having highly mobile childhoods as they accompany their parents, whose careers take them to different countries around the world. With the prevalence of transnational careers today, it should be expected that TCKs are among the international students coming to study at independent schools in the United States. American citizen TCKs are also part of a broadly defined group of international students, considering that their international experiences lead many of them to “share the characteristics of many international students, such as unfamiliarity with their passport country’s educational system, absence of family support nearby, and challenges in navigating new cultural social norms,” says Hannah Marie Morris, researcher and president of Intercultural Transitions, in “Third Culture Students,” a 2018 IEM Spotlight article published by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.   
TCKs are often overlooked, misidentified, and misunderstood by school personnel as well as by their peers, as the relocation and cross-cultural experiences that have shaped their development are often invisible. By understanding their experiences and needs, schools can offer better support and programming. 

An Overview of Third Culture Kids  

Sociologist research partners Ruth Hill Useem and John Useem first coined the term “Third Culture Kids” in 1958 to describe children who spent part of their developmental years in another culture because their parents worked overseas. Since then, there has been an expanding literature base on TCKs. Pollock, Van Reken, and Pollock built upon the Useems’ research and have become the leading authorities of the TCK experience today. In 2002, Van Reken coined the umbrella term “cross-cultural kids (CCKs)” to capture “the larger story of what is going on in our world,” amid a lively debate on who could or couldn’t be considered a TCK (see “The Cross-Cultural Kid Model Expanded” below).
In Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, the authors define a CCK as “a person who is living/has lived in—or meaningfully interacted with—two or more cultural environments for a significant time during the first 18 years of life.” TCKs are a subset of this larger CCK model. 
We’ve learned that there are some common strengths and challenges tied to the TCK experience. Students often possess well-developed cross-cultural skills, making them more open-minded and able to see multiple perspectives. They often speak multiple languages and can understand cultural nuances more deeply; hold a broad worldview due to immersed engagement with diverse cultures and communities; and can quickly develop and maintain broad-reaching relationships with other TCKs and with locals, sometimes across multiple continents.
Common challenges include feeling rootless; possessing a particular desire to strive for a sense of belonging; and experiencing unresolved grief due to the pain of separation from friends, pets, possessions, and places they have come to love. They often have difficulty with attachment and developing close relationships—in part because of frequent moves—and struggle with identity issues, which are aggravated by feeling misunderstood, misidentified, and mischaracterized.
There is much more depth to the experience that can be explored through the current array of TCK literature (see “Readings & Resources” below).     

Implications for Schools and Programming  

As independent schools prepare for a shrinking domestic student pool and experience a softening of previously robust international student markets, schools may benefit from turning their attention toward the expanding TCK applicant pool. The growth in families living outside their passport countries has grown exponentially worldwide over the past 50 years. While comparative global data focused specifically on the migration trends of families is not widely available, data from the United States can give insight into the staggering growth of global mobility over the decades. The 1960 U.S. Census report, for instance, cited that there were 761,892 U.S. citizens living abroad. Current U.S. Department of State statistics report that the number has grown to an estimated 9 million Americans in 2019. This number is projected to continue to grow, and many of the children of these families are likely expected to repatriate back to the United States. For American families in the foreign service or military, for instance, the terms of their assignments typically last from only a few months to a few years, so often their families return to the United States for some period in between assignments or upon completion of their service.
While there is considerable enrollment potential, schools should know that TCKs will require support to help them thrive. The implications for schools extend from admission through advancement. Schools can provide support in these programming areas.
Manage first impressions through admission. From the early stages of a school’s recruitment process, both domestic and international admission personnel should expect that TCKs may be among their prospective student pools. Learn to know what to look for to identify potential TCKs. Some of the most common clues include differences in birth country, passport country, and current country of residence; transcripts of schools located in various countries; a personal life narrative that mentions global mobility; speaking two or more languages; and/or being of mixed race/ethnicity/heritage/nationality. Many TCKs embrace the diverse and international nature of their life experiences, while others prefer to “blend in” and would rather not have attention drawn to this aspect of their lives. Regardless of how individual TCKs feel about their experiences, it is crucial to attend to the related logistics of their lifestyle.
It’s also important for a school’s admission team to have worked out the preferred approach for working with TCK applicants. For example, when American citizen TCKs come back to the United States, too often they are passed between domestic and international admission personnel during the admission process since they don’t neatly fit traditional applicant profiles. The lack of coordination among members of an admission team can reinforce a recurring struggle experienced by TCKs of feeling “in between” and not fitting in. Preparing admission teams to carry out seamless support for TCK families will leave a lasting positive impression. It may also help students feel welcomed and envision themselves belonging to your school. 
  • Consider: A student may come from one passport country, is currently living in another country, and their parents may be in the process of moving to yet another country. Keep track of the appropriate mailing address. Use an online platform to minimize the potential for communication mishaps.
 Help plant roots through orientation. As the transition and adjustment needs of international students are unique, it is essential for schools enrolling them to dedicate ample time for an international student orientation. Consider extending an invitation to TCKs, particularly to American citizen TCKs. Whether they accept this invitation, the offer acknowledges TCKs’ international connection and communicates that they are welcomed. Schools that decide to incorporate TCKs in their orientation programs, however, should consider providing a differentiated orientation to address the dissimilar needs of international students on F-1 visas, international students on F-1 visas who are TCKs, and American citizen TCKs.  

Certainly, the international student population numbers and composition varies from one school to another, and as such, the design and methods of orientation programs will differ as well. Whether you have one or 100 international students, set aside dedicated time for an orientation to facilitate their transition to your school.  
  • Consider: At Northfield Mount Hermon School (MA), we have an annual diversity summit at which our TCK affinity group has presented workshops on the TCK experience. Preparing for this workshop has allowed students to share their experiences, get to know other TCKs, and to design a workshop that supports their peers to learn about the TCK experience.
Provide opportunities for sharing and social connection. Many TCKs often feel that others will not understand, appreciate, or relate to their lives, so many keep stories or references to their experiences to themselves. This can result in feeling limited, inauthentic, out of place, or isolated. Providing opportunities for students to reflect and share their experiences can be a release for these students as well as an opportunity for others to gain an appreciation for their experiences. 
  • Consider: Understand the community and how such sharing could be received. If the stories or perspectives are outside of recognizable understanding for those in the local context, such an activity could lead to further isolation.
 Offer support through counseling. A globally mobile lifestyle leads many TCKs to experience unresolved grief, issues with attachment and relationships, and identity crises. School health and wellness counselors can offer support. The issues for those who fall into other CCK categories (mixed race, ethnicity, or nationality), can further add to psychological stress or cognitive dissonance. TCKs have lived lives of contradiction, and each move required them to reset basic understandings about cultural norms, assumptions, and expectations. Validating their experiences in a counseling setting can provide much-needed affirmation that could address common concerns and help build trust, self-awareness, and a sense of belonging. 
  • Consider: A normalization process can help some TCKs recognize counseling as a positive, nonstigmatizing, and helpful resource, particularly if counseling isn’t a familiar or accepted practice to them. Lois Bushong’s Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile is an excellent resource.
Understand academic gifts and needs. A defining aspect of TCKs’ experience involves moving countries and, ultimately, moving schools. TCKs arrive having attended a diversity of schools, each likely having distinct philosophies, curricula, preferred methods, and primary language(s) of instruction. Moving and changing schools can disrupt academic progression, and subjects taught vary from country to country. Consequently, some TCKs may arrive to schools in the United States to find that there are gaps in their content and background knowledge for some subjects, that they’ve learned different academic skill sets, and/or that their English language skills are not up to par. Some students who are from English-speaking passport countries may need English for Speakers of Other Language support similar to non-native English speakers. On the flip side, many TCKs can be quick studies to new environments and can nimbly adapt to new expectations and systems. They can also enrich classroom discussions by sharing unique, nuanced perspectives drawn from their life experiences.  
  • Consider: Give direction explicitly and try not to assume what they know or don’t know. While there may be gaps in their learning in some areas, they may be well versed and even advanced in other areas. 
 Provide employee training. At a minimum, student-facing personnel such as faculty, coaches, counselors, advisers, dorm staff, administrators, and campus security should receive a general International Student 101 training about working with international students and TCKs at their schools. Training should include relevant terminology, common issues and concerns, and how they can support these students, and it should emphasize the value of validating TCKs’ life experiences—as a means to support them to find success academically, develop positive relationships, and gain a sense of belonging at their school communities. 
  • Consider: Listen with interest to international students about how they self-identify and where they call their home or homes. The question “where are you from?” can be a lifelong exploration for TCKs, as many TCKs continue searching for a sense of belonging and aspire to feel connected with a community through a shared understanding and experience of place. This is a core struggle particularly for those TCKs who have moved frequently during childhood.
Understanding the multifaceted and complex nature of the growing diversity among international students attending independent schools has become a necessity, rather than just a value-added effort. The charge for independent schools is to be among those who contribute to help make TCK students whole, by letting them know that they are seen and heard, and by not jumping to conclusions or assumptions about their identities and what they do or don’t know. Validating their life experiences by encouraging them to share their perspectives and memories in and out of the classroom will not only support their transition to your school community but will also encourage their adjustment and overall success.


What International Families Need to Know

Moving to the United States and enrolling children into schools can be overwhelming. NAFSA: the Association of International Educators worked with independent school educators to write three new booklets that help international families through the transition process: 
  • U.S. High Schools: A guide to U.S. academic expectations and customs.
  • Introduction to American Life for High School Students: Tips and insights on technology etiquette, communicating with adults, and peer relationships.
  • International Parents' Guide to U.S. High Schools: Information on educational program options, predeparture documentation, and expenses.

Readings & Resources

  • Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Reken, and Michael V. Pollock
  • Third Culture Students” by Hannah Marie Morris, NAFSA IEM Spotlight, November 2018
  • Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century by Tanya Crossman
  • The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition by Tina L. Quick
  • TCK World blog
  • Expat Alien: My Global Adventures by Kathleen Gamble
  • Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile by Lois J. Bushong
  • This Messy Mobile Life: How a Mola Can Help Globally Mobile Families Create a Life by Design by Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore
Angela Yang-Handy

Angela Yang-Handy, an adult Cross-Cultural Kid and a Third Culture Kid, is the dean of global, experiential, and community engagement at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts.