For Third-Culture Kids, College Can Be Rife with Cultural Shock

Unlike most students, third-culture kids can find college too constricting.
January 28, 2019
8 mins read

Settling into a dorm room at the start of one’s college life can be difficult for just about everyone. For some, college life symbolizes the first time a young person leaves their hometown to embark on the bumpy path of carving a new niche in a college town.

On the other hand, for third-culture kids, this moment in their life represents the first time they have a permanent place to call “home.” While most college students might see campus life as a moment of too much change in a short period of time, third-culture kids are faced with the uncomfortable position of being stuck in one place for too long.

Home Is Where Terminal C Is

In this increasingly globalized world, third-culture kids are becoming a more common phenomenon. For the majority of their lives, third-culture kids grow up in foreign cultures around the world, usually because of the diplomatic nature of their parents’ jobs.

Children of military servicemembers, refugees, diplomats and even missionaries are often those who relate to the concept of the third-culture kid. As a result of living within different milieus, these children find that they don’t belong to one culture. Instead, their cultural identity is a culmination of the different cultures they have experienced throughout their youth.

The most classic example is that of the military child. If you visit a military base abroad, chances are that you’ll encounter kids who call dozens of different countries homes. One might have been born in a military hospital in Italy and have lived in Spain and Belgium. Nonetheless, they may also have Brazilian or Jamaican heritage.

To call themselves solely “American” becomes more challenging each time they are stationed in a new country and become engrossed with yet another fascinating culture. Even the thought of calling Italy their “home country” sounds like a preposterous proposal. Instead, most third-culture kids refer to their birthplace as their “passport country” in reference to how said country is what is officially written as their hometown in their passport.

Military children, as well as other variations of third-culture kids, often live a life full of cultural shocks and marked by instability. Changing schools, abandoning friends and departing from the memories left in certain buildings or landscapes remains a challenge for third-culture kids. No matter how often they move around, the shock of arriving to a new country never subsides for them.

Naturally, this life marked unpredictable, inconvenient changes can take a toll on a teenager. Depression and anxiety can easily creep up on third-culture kids in what experts often refer to as “third-culture kid grief.”

To overcome third-culture kid grief, children often come to terms with the fact that no home is truly permanent, embracing the life of being a nomad and the perks of visiting new cultures. Rather than search for a permanent home, they accept the fact that the constant moving and shuffling between airports is simply the life they have. At that point, the rush and hustle of the airport becomes the closest place that bears the same familiarity that an ordinary childhood-home ideally would.

The Child Nomad on Campus 

Four to five years of college may seem like simply a brief period of intensive studying. Yet, for third-culture kids, four to five years in the same place is an anomaly. Rather than waiting for their next move in two years, third-culture kids enrolled in college are left feeling unnerved from knowing this campus represents their home for a significant period of time. The only form of traveling they may experience now is visiting their parents on holidays. Yet, the new sedentary lifestyle that they are forced to adopt compels these modern nomads to feel a level of cultural and emotional discomfort.

Whereas many third-culture kids might have attended two or even three schools to complete their high school degree, the permanence of college life is entirely too unfamiliar for them. In high school, friendships usually faded away when one had to move to a new country and thus a new school. Forming long-term bonds with fellow classmates and high-school teachers simply wasn’t a possibility. Throughout their youth, life constantly reminded third-culture kids of their inability to integrate themselves into new schools and new social circles.

At the college level, however, third-culture kids residing in dorms or apartments finally do have a place to call home. The faces of their peers in their classrooms are now familiar and third-culture kids are now able to form professional relationships with their instructors. Suddenly, relationships are no longer ephemeral.

Surprisingly, instead of celebrating the new sense of permanence in their life, third-culture kids in college might feel trapped. College life strips from the third-culture kid the albeit unstable form of freedom that they once had in traveling the world and speaking new languages with international friends.

Unlike for most other students, the static, rigid lifestyle of college life for third-culture kids can become a suffocating feeling, especially if no other student in their classes can relate to the peculiar cultural experiences they’ve had as a third-culture kid. At least within military bases and international schools, there was a collective understanding about the struggles of moving and changing schools.

In a college-town in the U.S., that collective understanding isn’t as prominent. Class introductions, an inherently awkward ritual for college students on the first day of the academic term, become an even more challenging task for third-culture kids. They might suddenly go mute when prompted with the question of “What’s your hometown?” Most of the time, they’ll begrudgingly settle with choosing their passport country as their answer.

The Academic Silver Lining

Still, the experience of being a third-culture kid in a globalized world isn’t only filled with grief and cultural flux. There are also significant strengths that being a third-culture kid lends to a college student.

As global nomads, third-culture kids learn new languages, hidden histories and familiarity with foreign cultures. In short, being a third-culture kid allows young people to acquire a sense of cultural sensitivity that others might only later struggle to acquire as adults.

Without a doubt, language skills and cultural sensitivity are invaluable assets in a college student. Thus, third-culture kids will naturally flock to academic disciplines that look at the world from a more international scope, such as linguistics, political science or history.

Having seen through their own eyes the nature of other cultures throughout the globe, the study of other countries in these sorts of classes will come naturally throughout their four-year career as an undergraduate student.

When interacting with international students visiting their campus, third-culture kids could even potentially have a greater understanding of their foreign customs and values. In the long run, being a third-culture kid can bring many advantages that can improve a student’s grades, as well as their social life. Even interacting with students who might have never left their home country, third-culture kids can easily maintain the momentum of the conversation. Often, their peers are eager to hear the third-culture kid’s countless anecdotes about their global experiences.

While college life can full of spouts of homesickness for freshmen leaving home for the first time, third-culture kids might actually carry an advantage. In spite of the stress that comes with settling down permanently in a college campus, third-culture kids know that home is not necessarily a city or zip code.

Rather, third-culture kids carry with them the priceless cultural wisdom that comes with finding different homes throughout the globe. If they use this reality to their advantage, third-culture kids’ time as a college student can be a time of perhaps even more personal flourishing and cultural learning.

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