(Or, how to prepare yourself for the weirdest culture of all: your own)
By Francesca Huemer Kelly
Originally published in AFSA‘s Foreign Service Journal.
Ian Haight was born in Kenya, spent the first decade of his life living in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and then moved with his family to Italy for middle school and high school. A self-proclaimed “Europeanized White African- American,” Ian found adjusting to Bowdoin College in small-town Maine a bit rocky.
“Culture shock hit me pretty hard. I realized that I wasn’t just here this time for a few months or relaxation; I was here to live and work in college. I felt really far away from home.”
Almost all college freshmen go through an adjustment period when they head off to school. But the Foreign Service or Third Culture Kid-someone who has spent most or all of his life living in at least one foreign country-gets hit with a double whammy.
“The particularly challenging aspect for this group is that they are so invisible,” says Anne P. Copeland, Ph.D., executive director of the Interchange Institute and co-author of Understanding American Schools: The Answers to Newcomers’ Most Frequently Asked Questions (Interchange Institute, 2001, 2005). “They look American, sound American, are American. And so, unlike their international student classmates, no one (including them, perhaps) expects them to be having culture shock, or to need cultural information. They are adding this to the normal stresses of moving away from family and encountering the academic and social demands of college, but these cultural issues are harder for being unexpected and invisible.”
If you’re a Foreign Service or Third Culture Kid who has lived most of your life overseas, what can you expect from your first few months at college in America ?
You may feel “different.”
Everyone comes to college feeling a bit insecure about how they’ll fit in, but for Third Culture Kids this feeling is likely to be compounded. “It was very easy to feel out of place as a freshman. You just assume that everyone else is more in tune – more American,” says Mark Mozur, a 2005 graduate of Harvard University who has lived in Eastern Europe and South America.
“During the first day of orientation, I listened to many other incoming freshmen bonding over their common New England backgrounds,” recalls Elisabeth Frost, a recent graduate of Bates College . “When people asked me where I was from, I felt like I was telling them my entire life story: Guinea, Mexico, Honduras, and Brazil, with only two elementary school years in the U.S. “
You may not know how things work-but you’ll learn quickly.
TCKs can face many of the same adjustment problems as international students. College of the Overwhelmed (Jossey-Bass, 2004) authors Richard Kadison and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo posit that international students are “thinking about every move. . How do I choose from two dozen different laundry detergents, and how do I turn on this washing machine? Conscious living gets very tiring.”
Some FS kids “can lack the basic skill of taking care of themselves, because they’ve always had a maid to tend to them,” observes Katia Miller, a sophomore at the College of William and Mary, who spent her high school years in Peru . There, as in most developing countries where labor is plentiful and salaries low, domestic help is the norm, even for middle-class families.
Yet TCKs also learn to be self-sufficient very quickly. Along with international students, they’re often left alone on campus for at least one holiday, and while other kids’ parents arrive at end-of-term with the minivan to help their kids pack up, TCKs are on their own, vacating their dorm rooms with ticket and passport in hand.
Other students may not know-literally-where you are coming from . “When I tell someone I went to high school in Austria and they say, ‘Oh, where the kangaroos are?’ it makes me think we may not have much in common,” admits Sarah Pettit, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis. Feeling different is not helped by the fact that other students might not know quite how to categorize TCKs. For one thing, they can’t relate to the TCKs’ life experiences.
“Whenever my friends talked about something, whether it was politics or cars or computer games, all I could add was ‘well, in Italy …’” says Ian Haight, now in his sophomore year at Bowdoin. “It got to the point where the conversation would die if I said anything.” Happily, Ian reports that his new friends soon “got used to me. And I got more in touch with American culture.”
“There is sometimes resentment from the U.S. kids because of the traveling you have done and the places you have lived,” says Steve Catt, a junior at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who arrived there from high school in Tokyo. “Just remember that your actions and words can play a big part in helping them understand. And you can always learn something from them, too.”
Chelsea Jensen, a freshman at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Calif., says, “I came back to the U.S. thinking that everyone would be uncultured. I’ve known countless FS kids who thought the same thing. But in fact there are many American kids who are not the stereotypical ‘proud to be an American because we’re better than everyone else.’”
“Be prepared for a lot of questions,” advises Emily Frost, a sophomore at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., who has lived in South and Central America as well as in Guinea . “But be watchful of talking too much about your international background as some people will think you’re showing off.” In fact, Steve Catt reports that several students did not believe him when he told them of his experiences abroad.
Alternatively, Foreign Service and Third Culture Kids may be perceived as more interesting than the average college student.
“Sometimes when I tell people I’ve lived overseas my whole life, they react as if I were a god,” says Ian Haight. “Sure, it’s unique, but it doesn’t mean I’m better than someone who’s lived in the same town his whole life. I’m just different.”
John Taylor, a junior at the University of California, Riverside, who lived for two years in Ankara, finds his international experiences are viewed as almost universally positive by his peers. “People are interested and even envious that I have had experiences people twice my age haven’t. I often find myself at the center of attention.”
You will not believe the food!
Depending on where they were living before they arrived, FS kids’ reactions to college food will be as varied as diets around the world. A student coming from the Third World may be astonished, even embarrassed, at how much food is offered at the college cafeteria-and how much is wasted. Conversely, a student coming from a country where cuisine is renowned may hate the repetitive daily fare in the dining hall. “Getting used to the processed food at school was a huge adjustment,” says Leah Speckhard, who attended James Madison University for two years before transferring. “It was funny to have all of the food that I only used to get on vacations, such as Tater Tots and Doritos, available to me all the time,” says Emily Frost.
You may be stupefied by things most Americans take for granted.
“It’s really weird to see my classmates driving!” my daughter, Annalisa Kelly, a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, exclaimed on her first phone call home from school. Like many TCKs, she was used to urban public transport, and had never learned to drive. Other things international students have mentioned as surreal are seemingly endless strings of shopping malls, gigantic meal portions and polite, orderly lines at checkout counters.
You may be frustrated by the legal drinking age-and by the college drinking culture.
Many students who have lived overseas as teens are used to a lower drinking age and have learned how to use alcohol moderately. “It’s difficult to be allowed to do something and then have that right taken away from you,” admits Sarah Pettit. Ian Haight adds, “American [students] look at drinking very differently. I don’t think they even see it as pleasurable, just ‘cool’ only because it’s illegal and everyone else is doing it.”
However, most students interviewed have found friends who do not abuse alcohol or drugs. “There are even substance-free floors in some dorms,” reports one student.
Diversity” might not mean “tolerance” or “integration.”
Sarah Pettit was surprised by a less diversified system than she expected. “I found people, especially minorities on campus, to be much more conscious of their differences and, as a result, more segregated. Black students tended to group together, Asians grouped together, and Hispanics grouped together. A lot of clubs of different minorities might detract from diversity more than promote it.”
“I feel I understand racial differences and cultures better than the average American,” acknowledges Katia Miller. “Everyone has his or her own belief, own tradition, and I’ve learned more about that overseas.”
You may end up hanging out with other TCKs and international students.
FS kids and TCKs often feel most comfortable with the kinds of people they went to high school with: international kids, for the most part. Mark Mozur says, “I found kids I could relate to through the International Club. I ended up hanging out mostly with Polish kids because Poland was where I had lived before coming to Harvard.”
“Search out the international kids,” advises Steve Catt. “Like us, they are also having some difficulty adjusting and will love that you reach out to them. You will find they are probably more compatible with you than other Americans.”
Ben Harburg, a senior at Tufts University who grew up in Spain and Switzerland, as well as in the States, reflects, “I’ve ended up feeling equally comfortable with both international and American students among my friends.” But he points out that there can be different subcultures of international kids: students from poor backgrounds/countries on full scholarship, as well as very wealthy international students whose parents have set them up with luxury cars and apartments, and “who are perceived to be snobby.”
“I made it a point to hang out with the American kids as well as the international kids,” says Ian Haight, “because I knew that being friends with them would help me adapt to my new life. Talking to my former high school classmates who had also just moved to the U.S. from overseas was important, too, because they were in exactly the same boat I was in.”
Your tolerance and resilience will help you in making friends and finding your niche.
Foreign Service kids have spent their lives moving to new countries and finding new friends. This adaptability and resilience is one of the many strengths they bring to being college freshmen. “One advantage to being a Foreign Service kid, when adjusting to college in America, is that I already had a lot of experience dealing with new situations, because of this past history with change, and thus made a smooth transition into college life,” says Janey Symington, a junior at Yale University, who arrived there from Niamey, Niger, West Africa, where there were only five students in the entire high school.
Ben Harburg says, “In many ways the adjustment to college was the easiest move I ever made, because everyone there is new and facing the same thing together, and because I was so well-prepared by our moving around so much during my childhood.”
Now that their adjustment to college life in America is behind them, what advice do these TCKs give to high school students who are now living overseas?
1.) In making your college choices, consider carefully the student body makeup and environment-and visit the campus if you can.
“A Third Culture Kid might feel completely alien in a rural, homogenous area,” says Ben Harburg. “I love the Boston area because it is so diverse.”
Your decision should also be based\ on what “just feels right.” My daughter was certain she’d end up in New York or Chicago, but she ultimately chose Wesleyan in rural Connecticut, partially because it reminded her of her overseas high school. Visiting the campus was what made the difference.
Says Leah Speckhard, who is now attending Vesalius University in Brussels, “I went to college in Virginia without ever having visited the campus, and I ended up transferring. Visiting first would have made a big difference.”
2.) Don’t pack too much stuff, unless it’s the green stuff.
Yes, you may get a shipment allowance, but, as Michelle Beaudry, a student at George Mason University, points out, “try not to pack absolutely everything, because you will be the one who has to move it all in and out of your dorm room.” (She also advises saving “lots of money” before college, because “it goes really fast.”)
3.) Get involved in something fun right away.
“Don’t be passive. Initiate. Join a club. Get out of the dorm,” urges Mark Mozur “I wish that I had gotten involved in more activities from the beginning,” admits Elisabeth Frost. “Think about what you like to do and try to pursue your interests in college. However, be prepared for those academic and extracurricular interests to change, and don’t be afraid to try new things.”
4.) Don’t think of this as “coming home.”
Yes, you’re returning to your native land, but you may set yourself up for disappointment if you don’t lower your expectations. Many Foreign Service kids only know America as ” Vacation Land .” So you might want to get in touch with at least some aspects of American popular culture before you head stateside. Read People magazine. Get someone to tape some American television shows for you. And even if it’s only during home leave, visiting America does help.
“Returning every summer to Missouri, where I was born, also helped lessen the culture shock that many Third Culture Kids feel when they return to their ‘native’ country,” remarks Janey Symington.
5.) Ask for help.
If you find that you are seriously overwhelmed with adjusting to both life in America and the stress of the college workload, do ask for help, whether it be from university counseling services, friends, family or religious community. Look for support groups.
And don’t feel that your issues always necessarily have to do with being a Foreign Service kid. Every college student, no matter what his or her background, goes through a rough patch. Sarah Pettit volunteers as a crisis counselor on campus: “If you are having trouble adjusting, don’t suffer in silence! Adjustment issues are very common, so take advantage of the resources available to help you.”
6.) Home is not as far away as it seems-or, home needn’t seem as far away as it is!
Third Culture families tend to be more close-knit than average; they “pull together” during every international move. “Through all the moves, my family was the main thing that remained constant-and this time I was moving all by myself,” reflects Emily Frost. “You are going to miss your family, so make use of the great technology available: instant messaging, emailing and video conferencing with a webcam.”
“It’s important to realize that you’re not all that far away from home,” says Ian Haight. “When I’m sitting at my desk with three papers to write and only four hours of sleep, and I’m sick, and my friends won’t stop making noise, I reassure myself that soon I will be sitting with my family on the balcony back in Rome .”
7.) Expect surprises.
“People will say, ‘Wow, your English is really good!’ even though I am an American,” laughs Sarah Pettit. Leah Speckhard claims she went to school with an open mind, and “didn’t expect to run into the stereotypical American . but I did.” Ian Haight’s “Carpe Diem” (Seize the Day) tattoo was similar to those of his Italian friends. “But when I showed it to my American friends, they looked at me like I was a biker or a prison inmate.” “Everyone around me spoke English!” exclaims Emily Frost. Here are some other comments that come up in discussions with Foreign Service college students. “Americans always seem to be in a rush.” “Everyone dresses the same way.” “People are obsessive about diet and weight.”
The point of these disparate stories is this: you may not, right now, have any idea what will surprise or even shock you, but you can pretty much count on the fact that something will.
8.) Accept that you may have several homes, and that each one may not be perfect.
Some students report that coming home for the holidays or for the summer feels just like old times, while others no longer feel as if they are the same person who left just a few months ago. Accept that you may feel like one person at home with your family, another person at school. In fact, you may have even more than two homes.
“When I graduated from high school in Ottawa, Canada, I went off to the University of Virginia and my family moved to Ethiopia,” reflects Jimmy Galindo, a senior at U. Va. “The reality of being separated from my family by the width of an ocean and a continent struck hard at times.”
If, like Jimmy’s family, your family moves while you are at college, you may return home for the holidays and realize that you don’t know anyone: all your friends from high school are back at your last post! Consider making special arrangements to visit your “old home” during part of your vacation if at all feasible.
9.) Don’t forget who you are.
“Follow up on and embrace your international background,” advises Jimmy Galindo. “Tutor a child from an immigrant family, take classes in international affairs, attend cultural events, study abroad, search out unique living experiences. (U. Va., for example, has an International Residential College where 300 students, about 100 of whom are foreign students, live together in a multicultural community.) All this will make you feel a little more at home.”
“Even if you have lived overseas your whole life, go abroad your junior year,” suggests Sarah Pettit. “It is a different experience to be in a foreign country on your own as opposed to with your parents.”
10.) Finally, remember your strengths.
You’ve adjusted to new situations all of your life. This is just another one. Chances are you will soon be embracing college life in America and all its wild and crazy roller-coaster turns.
“My advice is not to worry so much,” says Owen McMullen, who grew up in South Africa, Fiji and Burma . “I was concerned about not fitting in to Drake University in Des Moines, but have found it easier than I had feared.” Says Ian Haight, “At first the going was rough, but now I love it here. Bowdoin is an excellent college and has excellent people. I really feel like I belong here, and I don’t regret a single choice I made. It’s great.”
Melanie Kerber, Ed.D., an educational consultant, has found that FS teens and TCKs vary tremendously in their adjustment to college. “Some kids who have lived their entire lives overseas go off to an American college with little to no difficulty, whereas others struggle with not fitting in and do not relate to the campus activities: drinking parties, carousing, etc. The same can be said for kids who have lived their entire lives in America .
“I always give parents three pieces of advice. Number one is to stay connected with their country. It is important that the child always feel as though he or she has a home country. This is particularly true regarding news, culture and current trends. Second, expect at least one semester of turmoil where kids want to come home or transfer. I urge parents to handle it accordingly, not by bringing them home but helping them through it at a distance. It undercuts kids’ confidence to bring them home unless they are on the verge of suicide. “
Finally, parents can be influential in steering their kids’ college choices based on the type of child they have. For example, if the teen tended to be clingy as a child, he or she might revert back to that under the stress of college life, and it might be wise to select a college close to relatives or close family friends.”
Becky Grappo, education and youth officer for the Family Liaison Office, agrees.
“Don’t be surprised if you get mixed messages when your kids call home. The idea of college being ‘the best four years of your life’ is sometimes misleading, and kids expect it to be great all the time. So they might call one time loving it, and the next time bemoaning the fact that they don’t click with the other kids, it’s not the right place for them, they want to transfer, etc. Sometimes that might be true, but they need to be encouraged to give it time, make the effort to get involved, and realize that their feelings are shared by many others.”
She adds: “When selecting a college, Foreign Service kids sometimes have additional factors to consider other than those that are obvious. For example, if the parents are overseas, how easy is it to get to an airport? Where are other family members going to be who can offer help and support? Every student has a different comfort level with distance and their newly-found independence.
Francesca Huemer Kelly, a Foreign Service spouse presently based in Brussels, is a professional free-lance writer, published regularly in American and international magazines. She is a founder of Tales from a Small Planet, was the website’s editor-in-chief from 1999 to 2003, and currently serves in an advisory capacity. Also a trained concert singer, Ms. Kelly has lived in Milan, Leningrad, Moscow, Belgrade, Vienna, Ankara and Rome. She is the mother of four children.