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We thank Tina Quick , cross-cultural trainer specialized in TCKs, for this amazing article on transition to universities for our expat children.


According to the March 2008 issue of “Inside Flyer,” a magazine dedicated solely to frequent flyers, “It’s not unusual these days for children to get a frequent flyer card before they get their social security card.” Many children with globally mobile lifestyles will tell you they flew before they could walk. Thanks to the nature of my husband’s work my own children where familiar with the flight attendant speech before they were even born.

Thanks to the work of David Pollock, Ruth Van Reken, Norma McCaig, and Ruth Useem, there is actual language for children who spend a significant part of their developmental years in cultures other than that of their parents. These expatriate children are commonly referred to as ‘third culture kids’ (TCKs) or ‘global nomads’ and they amass unique skills and gifts from their cross-cultural and highly mobile lifestyles.

Besides the obvious gifts of learning new languages, developing social and cultural skills and becoming adaptable, TCKs gain the innate ability to get along with others of differing backgrounds. They understand that friendship and respect have nothing to do with nationality or skin color. They have developed a broad world view. They understand that there are many different ways of doing things and not just one ‘right’ way. That’s why they often make successful bridge builders, negotiators and mediators. Possibilities for bright futures abound.

As with anything, there is also a flip side to moving across cultures during those critical developmental years. TCKs face common challenges once they step out of the ‘third culture’ or the ‘expatriate culture’ where they enjoyed a sense of belonging with others of shared living experience. I witnessed this first-hand when my own family, after having lived 15 years abroad, repatriated to Boston in the U.S. With over 200 colleges and universities in the area, I began running into TCKs I had known from all the different places we had lived. And I began hearing the same, familiar but sad stories over and over again – stories of not fitting in, feeling alienated, lonely and depressed.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It has been my experience that global nomads who have been prepared for the college/university transition have a much smoother adjustment. If they understand how their life experiences are very different from most of the people they will be surrounded by on their university campuses, they can come to understand their unique challenges and how to deal with them. There are four main insights every TCK needs to understand to light the path and keep him or her from stumbling while on this journey:

TCK Identity Development

transition to universitiesDr. Barbara Schaetti’s work on TCK identity development clearly explains what happens to many global nomads when leaving their host country and the expatriate culture. Because they carry passports with their nationality stamped on the front and they have been back ‘home’ for long visits over the school holidays, they expect to fit right in. But what often happens is feeling like a fish out of water, alienated, isolated and depressed.

Dr. Schaetti calls this the “encounter stage”– when the TCK has an experience that wakes him up to the fact that he is different from others. Typically he doesn’t take into account that it is his international experiences that make him different. All he knows is that he doesn’t fit in and doesn’t belong. If he is moved to explore why he feels so different and comes to the realization that his life experiences have been very different from most of the people he is surrounded by on his college campus, he will move into the ‘integration stage” and can learn to be comfortable with who he is.1

Transition Cycle

Anyone going through any type of major life transition goes through five very predictable stages. Understanding what takes place in each of these stages not only prepares us but helps us to appreciate that it is normal and temporary. Every first-year college student is going to go through these same five stages, but global nomads and foreign students have the cultural adjustment to make as well.

Involvement Stage – this is life as the TCK knows it. She is involved in the community, has friends, roles, responsibilities, and feels comfortable and affirmed.

Leaving Stage – begins the moment she is aware of an upcoming change. For the college-bound TCK this could be from the time she is making college visits to  application time or to the decision time. There is a separating and distancing from roles, responsibilities and relationships. There are mixed emotions – celebrations mixed with farewells.

Transition Stage – starts the moment TCKs arrive in their new environs. This stage is characterized by utter chaos. Everything is new and different. Culture shock or reverse culture shock takes place in this stage. At first everything is fun and exciting, but eventually things begin to grate on their nerves. They begin to resist adjustment. They may feel like they made the wrong choice in schools and begin to think of transferring.

Entering Stage – begins the moment the TCK either consciously or unconsciously decides he is going to settle in and become a part of this new place. Feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and ambiguity may still be hanging on from the transition stage, but he is committed to sticking it out and making it work.

Re-Involvement – when the TCK realizes, usually after a long school break, that this new place feels more like home. He once again has relationships, roles, and responsibilities. He knows more than the newcomer and feels affirmed once again.


The high mobility lifestyle of a global nomad means there is a lot of separation and loss. David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken say in their book, Third Culture Kids: Growing up among worlds, “For most TCKs the collection of significant losses and separations before the end of adolescence is often more than most people experience in a lifetime.”

When we lose people, things and places that are important to us we need to grieve over them. For multiple reasons TCKs often do not have the opportunity to grieve their losses, many of which are invisible. Instead grief is unresolved, swept under the carpet to deal with later but never is until it creeps back later in life in dysfunctional expressions of grief such as anger, depression or rebellion.

transition to universitiesAllowing 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. Parents can help the grieving process by helping their children name their losses, especially the ‘hidden’ losses, i.e. the taste of certain foods, sounds, smells, status, lifestyle and more.

Homesickness in the university student is grief. Every first-year student is going to experience some degree of homesickness, but for the global nomad, it can be profound. It can also be lonely, particularly if his family is an ocean away or lives in a time zone that makes it impossible to talk except on the weekend. If the family has decided to repatriate or transition to another host country at the same time that the TCK leaves for school, then he or she has lost everything all at once. The TCK needs to know it’s alright to give in to homesickness. Find an opportune time to crawl under the covers, put on his favorite music, pull out his yearbook and just spend time with the grief.


The most common complaint of TCKs at college is feeling like they don’t belong, don’t fit in, can’t connect with their peers. There are many reasons for the disconnects but for starters, TCKs need to remind themselves that they are different from their domestic peers – not they as human beings, of course, but their life experiences are very different from someone who grows up in a stable, traditional, non-mobile community.

Global nomads also build their relationships differently from someone who grows up in one place all his life. Domestic peers typically have time to watch and wait to see if a relationship will develop. They tend to spend a good deal of time in the safe but superficial levels of conversation to see if they can trust the other person to share something deeper and more intimate.

The TCK, on the other hand, historically does not have time to watch and wait to see if a relationship will develop. So he will immediately throw something out on a much deeper level to see if the other person will equally share something back. If he does and there is a connection, a relationship is sparked.

When the global nomad tries making relationships this way in a more traditional setting it can come off as inappropriate and the sharing of too much information. Hence the alienation and distancing from others begins. TCKs need to understand that relationships take time and need to be cultivated slowly.

They also need to keep in mind that their domestic peers have no point of reference for the lifestyle TCKs have lived. Global nomads may be seen as boasting when simply trying to share their life stories. The domestic peer doesn’t realize that these seemingly extravagant stories are the only ones TCKs have to share. TCKs need to learn to slowly unravel their stories and they need to ask questions of their peers. The peers will ask questions back and then the stories can begin to come out.

Not every TCK is going to have a difficult time making the adjustment 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.


1Suggested reading on TCK identity development can be found in Raising Global Nomads, by Robin Pascoe.
transition to universitiesThis article has been adapted from its original publication in Global Living Magazine, Issue 2, August/September, 2012.

Tina Quick, author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition is a cross-cultural trainer, writer and international speaker. She is a well-seasoned traveler and mother of three college-aged daughters. She is an adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) and has raised her own TCKs across four 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. She is a member of the Overseas Association of College Admissions Counseling. Tina works closely with colleges and universities, domestic and international schools.

The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition is the first and only book written to and for students who have been living outside their “passport” countries but are either returning “home” or transitioning on to another host country for college/university. The traditional ‘foreign student’ will also benefit from understanding the psycho-social issues of entering a new culture and the practical advice on university life presented in these pages. Parents will appreciate the chapter dedicated to helping them come alongside their students to prepare and support them throughout their journey.

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