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Living Abroad

Third Culture Kids

Growing Up Abroad Offers Advantages

Many parents who want to pursue an international career assignment or educational opportunity may feel that they cannot or should not because moving abroad may be detrimental to their children. However, research suggests that such fears are unfounded. In fact, international exposure at an early age appears to have an enduring impact that positively shapes both children and adults.

Emily Doherty, 23, was born and lived in the U.S. until she was 11 years old, at which time her family moved to a suburb of London. Doherty remembers an air of excitement when her family was preparing to move. “Even though it was hard not knowing anyone at first, and I know I went through culture shock, from the perspective of a child I couldn’t wait to see all the new and exciting things,” she said.

When people ask Dave Peters, a 29-year-old graduate student at the Univ. of Chicago, where he is from, he asks if they want the short or long version. Peters moved frequently as a child because of his parents’ careers in the Foreign Service. Born in Paraguay, by the time he was 18 he had lived in Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, and Virginia. He calls Virginia “home” because it was the family’s home base at the start and end of various international assignments.

Although their childhood experiences differ greatly, Doherty and Peters share a common belief that living overseas was a positive experience that continues to influence their lives as adults.

Children like Peters and Doherty are sometimes referred to as “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs), a term coined by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, Professor Emeritus at the Michigan State Univ. Institute for International Studies and a pioneer researcher in the experiences of internationally mobile children. The term TCK suggests that children who spend a portion of their childhood outside of their own country belong to a separate “third” culture distinct from that of their home or host countries. Instead, a TCK’s culture is an amalgam of many unique experiences.

Findings of a major study of American-based adult TCKs conducted in the early 1990s by Useem and others supports Doherty’s and Peters’ beliefs in the benefits of growing up among different countries and cultures.

One of the most notable areas in which adult TCKs differ significantly from their peers who have not lived abroad is their level of education. According to the study, which drew conclusions based on the self-reported comments of 696 respondents, people who spent at least one year of their childhood outside of their home country were four times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. Of the 81 percent of TCKs who completed a bachelor’s degree, half earned postgraduate degrees. Respondents credited their academic achievements to the high quality of overseas schools and to educated parents.

An internationally mobile childhood also influences choices regarding what to study. A quarter of respondents majored in areas with a clear international slant, such as foreign languages or international relations. A number also chose majors based on a potential to provide future opportunities to work abroad—usually as educators, businesspeople, or development professionals. More than a quarter acted upon this interest by studying abroad before graduation.

When Doherty graduated high school, she stayed in England for college, even though her parents moved back to the U.S. She attended Richmond, a private, liberal arts and sciences institution run on the American system. Richmond is truly international, with its roughly 1,200 students representing more than 100 countries.

After finishing high school at the International School of Islamabad, Peters returned to the U.S. to attend the College of William and Mary. He did not study abroad while there, but after graduation he again moved abroad, spending six months studying in Egypt followed by six months living in Sierra Leone, where his parents were working. He then enrolled in graduate school at the Univ. of Chicago. His study of Arabic and doctoral research brought him back to Egypt for three years.

Although the experiences of Doherty and Peters don’t reflect it, something cited as a negative trend is TCKs’ higher-than-average likelihood to change institutions while pursuing an undergraduate degree. (Nearly half the sample attended three or more colleges before graduation.) As a consequence, many took longer than four years to graduate.

Career choices also reflect a dedication to both education and international interests: 25 percent work in some form of educational institution; the next largest category are professionals and the self-employed. A third of TCKs established their own companies, a reflection of the tendency of the group to be independent, flexible, creative, risk-takers. Few worked in the corporate sector or government; those who did were likely to work in development, the Foreign Service, or other fields through which they drew upon their experiences overseas.

Perhaps the most significant findings are the indications that TCKs emerge as adults who are adept at solving problems and mediating conflicts. They are flexible and adaptable in ambiguous situations, able to relate to a variety of people, and are culturally aware. Many are active in international volunteer activities.

Adult TCKs also recall occasional feelings of painful isolation and adjustment, most frequently noted in the form of reverse culture shock upon re-entry into their home country. Not surprising, most of these memories were concentrated around the teenage years. “Most people in their early teen years don’t want to be different,” said Peters. “So feeling that you’re out of synch with other people your age can be really frustrating.”

Experts say that the best way to manage reverse culture shock in children is to prepare them for it by discussing their expectations for returning home.

Another drawback arises from the likelihood of TCKs to attend international schools catering to children like themselves. Their mobility, combined with that of the children whom they are likely to befriend, can produce frustration and difficulty in establishing and maintaining long-lasting relationships with peers.

However, international schools have many positives to offset the negatives. “Going to an international school exposes you to many different cultural values,” Peters said. “There you really begin to learn about cultural assumptions and values of the other children around you.”

Like Doherty and Peters, the majority of respondents to the researchers’ survey rejected statements that characterize living abroad as a negative experience.

Perhaps this assertion is most strongly reflected in the finding that regardless of whether they choose to live abroad again as adults, most respondents felt their childhood experiences had positive and lasting effects in their eventual roles as parents. Adult TCKs actively seek ways to expose their children to the world’s range of countries and cultures and purposely teach and model the valuable and enduring message that differences among people are cause for celebration, exploration, and respect.  

For More Info

www.tckworld.com, is a meeting place featuring numerous articles, stories, resources, interviews, and links of interest to anyone wishing to learn more about the experiences of various types of TCKs.

www.transition-dynamics.com is the site for a consultancy serving international companies and schools and individual expatriate families through cross-cultural training. It features articles and information on available services, including mail order publications and videos.

TCKs and Global Nomads Information (Lewis and Clark College)

Global Nomads

Editor's note: You might wish to read the following recently published books on the subject

Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World by Robin Pascoe
The Global Nomad's Guide to University Transition by Ruth van Reken