TCKs have a unique background of cultural adaptation, resilience, and creativity that should make them particularly adept at “adulting” when heading off to university. Usually TCKs have had a range of experiences that make them mature, articulate, and poised, traits that help other adults feel like TCKs have it under control. Of course, this worldly perspective and perceived maturity can also lead to some unique challenges as TCKs transition solo into university.
Many TCKs return to their passport country to pursue higher education. Some do so due to language, some due to parent’s and school’s familiarity with the process, and others to pursue opportunities or an experience that is a rite of passage within their home culture. Regardless of the reason, going to university is often one of the most challenging transitioning experiences for a TCK. TCKs are often fully on their own for the first time and are responsible for more than they may have been in the past: funding their education, feeding themselves, paying bills, holding themselves accountable to school work, paying bills, etc. This transition can be hard for anyone, but TCKs face particular challenges based on their international school experience and potential distance from support networks. We explore these challenges below in the contexts of why they happen, what frameworks surround them, and how a TCK can respond with some navigation ideas and approaches.
What and Where is Home?
Know that homesickness is normal for all students at university. Being removed from home, family, community, familiar cooking and closer laundry facilities can all be challenges for any freshman student who deeply misses those comforts. This is particularly true when students fall ill and miss the support they’ve received from family and community during the recovery period. Most freshmen are struggling with these life transitions though in different ways. The people who get you through these transitions are likely to be lifelong friends.
For TCKs home might mean something a little different than it does for other classmates. But university is also a great opportunity to define for yourself what and where is home and what grounds you to it. Having moved so many times, home for a TCK was most likely established by and with the nuclear family and was probably a constant like family – something you now find yourself away from and one that might not be as close as some of your classmates’. Establishing a “home” base in the residence hall and establishing a local community are two keys for freshmen TCKs to feel safe, loved, and comfortable at university.
What are we aching for?
Before leaving for university, TCKs should pack some special items they can decorate their residence hall room with such as photos from favorite visited places, family, and pets. Additionally, bringing a throw pillow, or coasters, or a candle from home can all become important objects to create a sense of belonging and home in the residence hall. TCKs should take some time to consider what objects to select from their room now to bring to university. Having these can lessen the ache for what home smelled like, looked like, and felt like when they lived with their family in another country.
Sometimes TCKs are aching for a familiar sound or smell of home. Perhaps it’s the sound of street vendors selling produce or the smell of a local dish you would eat every weekend. Another practical idea for building a sense of home and belonging in your new area is to find the food that makes you feel safe or whole or whatever you are seeking to recreate the notion of home. For many TCKs, this is usually this is some kind of dessert, dumpling, or soup. If you have a kitchen in the residence hall, learn how to make it and invite people to join you! This is a wonderful way to make friends. If not, find the nearest restaurant that makes that comfort food for you. You can either go there or order in. Alternatively, if it’s not on their menu, but the owners/chefs are from the country that has the food you are craving, they might make it for you and perhaps even introduce you to the local community from that country.
How can we build a home as an individual?
Use those language skills! If you speak another language, use it as a means to establish new connections that have a point of reference for the place that feels like home. Similarly, you may just want to hear the language and language clubs that play movies or host sessions to talk might feel like a great way to recapture some of what was comfortable in the country you loved.
Decide to be a tourist in your new city. Consider exploring what this new home means for you. How do you define it? What do you love about the community, environment, and activities available for you to become involved in? Do some research about the history of the community and even country as you consider this new home. This can help you explore the community (and country!) in a new light or process some of your own perceptions and memories of this place.
Stay in touch with your loved ones in other homes. While some advocate for settling fully into university and trying to limit contact with people “back home,” you are probably a pro at managing multiple time zones and global friendships. While university offers a new opportunity to develop your local community in new ways, communication with home friends and family can help you remember that you aren’t alone. Just don’t be on FaceTime calls, WhatsApp, and DM platforms for hours on end. Establish healthy routines and connection points that don’t have you up at dawn or in the wee hours of the night every night keeping in touch with people all over the world. Finding people with experiences similar to you in your local community will also help.
Isolation and Loneliness
How do TCKs build relationships versus rooted Americans and what does that mean for finding and building a Community/Tribe on campus?
Meeting the huge number of new people freshman year through classes, residence hall gatherings, on-campus events, student-activities and clubs, and sororities/fraternities can be overwhelming. It can also feel like everyone already knows one another or is confident in meeting new people. Given TCK experiences of moving to new countries and adapting to new schools, TCKs are probably better at this than most. However, the conversations that TCKs want and are accustomed to (such as immediately connecting over international travel experiences and participating in global events) aren’t comparable to the ones that a typical mono-cultural/local university student might have. Typically in the U.S. most students will want to first connect on discovering a common interest like sports, movies, and music and use these connections as a means to “hang out” prior to sharing other information about themselves (like their opinion on politics or why they chose this institution to study at or what their favorite travel destination is).
There are on how friendships form, when, how many the human brain can handle, and what classes of friends we have. The bottom line is that it takes many hours to develop deep friendships, hours that you continue to invest in order to grow the relationship. While the first month or two of school will involve meeting new people and taking stock of them, only a handful will filter out due to common experience, likability, and common interests. That’s normal and okay and means that you can invest in those folks to develop a more stable support system. Know that the uncertainty and “testing out” friendships is normal in the first few months and usually settles down after four months.
What is the difference between feeling lonely versus isolated?
In short, loneliness can develop when you can’t seem to find that one person or friend group who to your core “gets you” whereas isolation can develop when you’ve resigned yourself to the belief that there isn’t one person on campus who “gets you” as a TCK. Believe us when we tell you 1) there is always at least one person (usually several people) who “get you” and your TCK story and 2) it will take a whole lot more initiative on your part to connect with those people.
The first initiative to take in finding your crew is to step foot in the international centers or international student lounge on campus. These are places specifically designed for globally-minded and globally-grown students to share their different perspectives and find commonality over some similar challenges they may be experiencing (like how do you use liquid laundry soap when your entire life you’ve used powder? And how do these laundry Tide tablets work? Do I put in 2 or 3 or 1? You get it… you can share how your international habits may have been different overseas compared to in the US). You may also find great language partners or explore the city partners amongst these communities.
Another great step is to find groups that are interested in your experiences, either cultural groups or even international studies/government majors/language studies/anthropologists/geographers, who might have comparable global experiences or touch points but have adjusted differently because they came back earlier. You can also find volunteer groups that work with the larger area, perhaps targeting specific communities of interest to you or with whom you have something to share such as refugee communities or new immigrants. Take a look at those hallway cork board announcements about these local meet ups and ask your residence hall assistant about other places to find these on campus gatherings.
Consider what activities and hobbies you identify with that might be within the orbit of people like you! Is there a food you care about – is there a group cooking that or visiting those restaurants? Is there a dance you cared about that you could find a group that competes in at your school? If not, is there enough interest to start one? Sometimes creating the avenue to pursue your own happiness allows others to find your orbit.
While the university campus events and student-led activities are important experiences and areas to be involved in, don’t limit yourself to just this community and cultural context. Consider the town, neighboring cities, and even bordering States to discover if there are additional venues to find your people! Depending on the size, diversity, international population, and public transportation options, you may find that your Saturday evening will be at the local diner, faith-building, or dance studio. There are often international clubs around university campuses that you can search for on Meetup or other similar applications to discover people with similar interests.
Activate your TCK curiosity skills and actively listen. So often we are caught up in wanting to express ourselves that we forget to give others room to do so as well. Pausing and listening (intently and truly without an intention to relate) can help others feel heard and encourage their own curiosity in your experiences.
Navigating New Systems (in other words: unexpected “Americanisms”)
My Passport Says I’m American but I don’t Understand What that Means. Help?!
You probably visited the place you’ve chosen to go to school prior to your arrival, maybe even spent some vacations nearby. These experiences, your local language skills, and growing up with a family from your passport country might make you feel like you’ll blend in fine and adapt to life in the new school with limited hiccups. Unfortunately, there are subtleties in language and norms that might have been hard to pick up during visits or with family. Navigating this can seem daunting and frustrating, especially as it relates to developing friends and identifying shared experiences. While there are some things to watch out for, practical tips like a quick google search for “Americanisms” (on Urban Dictionary for example) will get you deep into language. Know that mostly you will just have to suffer through a few examples.
Find safe people that will help you navigate the new language and cultural practices and know that America is a diverse and multicultural country, so jump to no conclusions about “this is how they do it/say it/believe”. I once asked a friend – with fabulous English skills but not from the U.S. – to take a look at something for our team with a fresh set of eyes. And she was like, “Where do you get new eyes from?” I had to explain that I needed someone new to look at the report with their perspective and lack of assumptions, not an actual new set of eyes. While TCKs local language skills are often quite good, idiomatic language is ever changing and cultural context certainly plays a role in which idioms you’ve been exposed to. In some cases, trying to navigate these idioms might help you find curious people who are interested in your experience. For similar challenges in reverse culture shock, including use of technology and finding a new normal you can check out Nextpat’s blog (www.nextpat.us/blog-1) or our article on how to use your expat experience to get over reverse culture shock.
What are some of the biggest shocks for TCKs coming to a U.S. University?
One that you’ll notice immediately on campus is the size of classes. If you grew up attending international schools there is every possibility you had a graduating class of 12, not the 1,200 that can be common in U.S. public high schools. These numbers don’t differ at your average university campus with class sizes in the thousands. Campus can seem cacophonous and overwhelming. Remember that research on friendships? You don’t have to know everyone or even most people. There are plenty of folks you will cross paths with freshman year first semester and then next semester will completely disappear.
Focus on what works for you in the classroom: do you need to sit closer to the front, or find a study group, or review lessons online? Figure out where the people who have similar learning styles are. Usually they will sit in approximately the same place or use a similar note taking method. Use these folks as your anchors in the large classes. Also, get to know your professors, through office hours or other means. They can certainly help you feel less overwhelmed as they are more permanent and if they are professors in your major, they will likely be fixtures in your college journey.
One shock you may have on campus or in the greater community the university is situated in is access to overwhelming choice. Choice and options and availability of both choices and options in the U.S. can be overwhelming. It is a consumerist society and shopping centers (where you can’t haggle for better prices by the way) including malls, outlets, and grocery stores can be a bit gigantic and overwhelming. Finding produce that is in season can require research since food is available year round in every variety: organic, local, non-organic and imported, etc.
On top of that you can choose how to fill your time, where to hang out with friends, and what classes to take next semester (let alone one of hundreds of majors). You can choose what extracurriculars you want to participate in and with whom you want to associate. It’s like moving to a new school times 10.
How can I navigate these choices?
First, you’ve got this – you’ve done it before, probably multiple times. However, the scale of this change is different. Give yourself the freedom to try things out for a few months until you find where you feel like you fit in or what works with your schedule is okay.
Second, find a mentor or peer mentor that can help you navigate the educational choices in particular. The student services advisor is a good place to start on campus.
Third, remember that friendships take time to develop, to form, and to norm… and you’re in this place for the next four years! So, settle in and if your new friends don’t want to share their political views with you after 2 hours, give it time! You’re used to not having the luxury of time as a TCK when building friendships because either you move or your friend moves. At university, your friend lives down the hall from you and next year, may live across campus. Either way, you’re both sticking around for a few years, so take the time to hang out and learn about the greater community together.
Lastly (or perhaps first), consider how you will affirm the people who have been instrumental in your life up to this point. It could be your immediate family, a high school instructor, a coach or friend. Who has written your recommendation letters? Edited your college app forms and essay? Asked you about what universities you’re applying to and why? These are the folks who are invested in you and your success. They will most likely continue to witness your journey through navigating adulthood and be there if you need a word of encouragement or piece of advice. Thank them for their support and remember to send them a photo of you with the university’s mascot or in a team uniform to showcase to them, “Hey, I’m here now and I’m building a home and life for me here.”
- Co-written by Megan Norton and Priya Jindal
- Priya Jindal is an adult TCK and CCK planning to raise her own TCK and CCKs in an intercultural and international marriage. She has spent time as a military brat, overseas volunteer, and foreign service officer. She’s taken these experiences along with coach training to become an entrepreneur and help families and individuals adapt to familiar cultural environments when their own perspective has changed through Nextpat (www.nextpat.us). She’s passionate about the environment, global equity, and dismantling systemic oppression through dialogue, mindfulness, and creating accessibility. She can be reached at [email protected]
- Megan Norton is an intercultural training consultant, facilitator, and researcher focused on supporting cross-cultural families. Her expertise as an intercultural trainer combined with her experience in international education enables her to design socio-emotional and educational programming tailored to globally mobile families and youth. Growing up as a U.S. diplomat dependent, she lived in 6 countries and has lived in 4 more as an Adult Third Culture Kid, in addition to 5 U.S. States. Megan is host and producer of “A Culture Story” – a podcast which focuses on cultural identity, belonging, and purpose. Her website is www.adultthirdculturekid.com Megan frequently writes and speaks on the ways parents, families, communities, international schools, and universities can aid TCKs as they transition from childhood to adulthood.