FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: April 21, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Today is April 21, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I am interviewing Dr. Stephanie Sexton. So, Stephanie, tell me how long you’ve been an Eligible Family Member in the Foreign Service, the posts you’ve been at, and the ages of your kids when you were at each post.
SEXTON: We started off in the Foreign Service almost ten years ago. Our first posting was in Beijing, China, and our kids at that time were six and under. I have four boys, and they’re all about two years apart. So, we went to Beijing with a six-year-old, four-year-old, two-year-old and a six-month-old. We spent two and a half years in Beijing, and then we were posted to São Paulo, Brazil, where we spent another two and a half years followed by Pretoria, South Africa, where we had three years. And this past August, we came back to DC.
Q: So, when you were choosing your foreign posts, how did you keep the needs of your kids in mind, and what criteria were you considering? I understand that your husband could only have certain posts, so, obviously, that was in the forefront.
SEXTON: It was, and, thankfully, all of the posts that he is assigned to are typically big cities. Our primary concern when we were choosing postings was always schools. Would the schools be a good match for our children? How long would they be on the bus? Would they have to transition between elementary and middle school while we were at a post? So always, schools were at the forefront. Being in big cities, with the exception of Pretoria, South Africa, we always had several choices of schools to pick from.
Q: How did you prepare your children for their new home with all these moves?
SEXTON: It’s been a learning process, and each time, I think we hopefully get a little bit better with preparing them. But we always talk to them a lot. Usually at the dinner table or in the car, we’re having conversations, trying to include everybody’s questions and concerns. We just talk it through as a family. We always look at Google and take a look specifically at where on the map we’re going to be. And then we try to learn things about that region that are exciting or interesting and match our kids’ interests. And that often generates a lot of excitement, maybe a little bit of anxiety, certainly, as to be expected, but a lot of excitement. They’ve always, especially as they’ve gotten older, taken it upon themselves to find things that they’re going to want to explore. That’s probably been the biggest piece, talking about where we’re going and looking at what makes that region unique and exciting.
Q: And it sounds like you’re discussing what kinds of schools are available and what kinds of activities are available at every post. So, can you just talk about your kids’ greatest success in making the transition and maybe their greatest difficulty?
SEXTON: Well, especially with the last transition to DC, I have to say, with all of my kids, and with most of the Third Culture Kids that I’ve met, these kids are amazingly adaptable and resilient. They are globally minded, conscientious young people. My children have always looked for the best, most positive opportunities that they’re going to be headed to, and the successes are found within that. They approach most things with a positive attitude, looking forward to the future. The incredible flexibility that I see from them is really impressive.
Q: Okay, so what were the biggest challenges of all of these moves?
SEXTON: I think the biggest challenge is the transition: the actual picking up of your life, closing the chapter on it, and then opening a new story wherever you land. When I think about that from the perspective of an adult, I think it’s incredible that our kids do that, and that they are able to pick up and move and adapt and embrace so many different cultures and experiences. So, in my opinion, the biggest challenge is the actual transition and to leave a life behind and be open and ready to start over numerous times.
Q: So how did they manage leaving friends behind and maintaining friendships when they’re not in the same physical place?
I think that social media has made that a lot more accessible. My oldest son, who is fifteen now, has a phone. He has group chats with his friends from South Africa, with his friends from Brazil, and not so much from China because he wasn’t as connected then. The friendships of my younger kids, and our earlier posts, are mostly maintained through me or my husband. And whenever they reach out and say, “Oh, I wonder whatever happened to so-and-so from China,” we spend some time as a family trying to reconnect with them. That’s the amazing thing about the Foreign Service community, that these connections, even if they were left off six years ago, could almost be picked up without skipping a beat any time, which is so wonderful.
Q: Did your kids learn any of the foreign languages where you were?
SEXTON: Well, yes. When we went to China, my youngest son was six or seven months old, and we were able to have domestic help, which was the first time I had ever experienced that. We hired a woman who has become like family to us now. She is an incredibly intelligent, kind person. And she knew well enough that learning Chinese would be a huge benefit to our son, so she only spoke with him in Mandarin. Within that two and a half years, he was able to converse with anybody (as much as a two-year-old can). Now, the Mandarin is mostly gone. But I do think at some point, if he was immersed in Mandarin again, it might come back. And I also know, as an educator that what was happening in his brain when exposed to a second language was a scenario we could never replicate, and his brain developed uniquely as a result of exposure to multi-lingual contexts.
Then when we went to São Paulo, Brazil, we made the choice to send our kids to a local school. They were at a school that was instructed half of the day in Portuguese and the other half of the day in English. When they enrolled, they were the only native English speakers there, so they all became biliterate in Portuguese. There was one boy in my third son’s kindergarten class who had a grandparent that was living with them and spoke Chinese. When I went to the first day of school to talk to the teachers and find out how things went, she said, “You know, kids are amazing. He couldn’t communicate with any of them in Portuguese, but he did realize that this child spoke Chinese. So, they were out on the playground playing basketball, speaking Chinese.” Again, the experiences are just things we could never replicate.
Q: So. from your own experience and your children’s experience, or the research that you’ve done on educating children, do you have any advice about helping children with special needs as they move from one post to the next?
SEXTON: I absolutely do. As a special education teacher, I think the parents have to take on a role that they might be a little bit uncomfortable with. I know a parent is always their child’s best advocate, but as far as learning about support services in the Foreign Service, it’s critical that individualized education plans [IEPs] and individualized family support plans are written very specifically to the child’s needs. But also, we have to consider continuity of care when we’re transitioning from school to school to school, because not every school and not every country will implement services in the same way. So, my advice to parents of kids with special education needs is to find someone who can teach you advocacy, specific to the laws around special education, and really become your child’s loudest, fiercest advocate, because things can be lost in translation. I think the Department of State does a good job with the Child and Family Program. The Foreign Service Youth Foundation and our trailing spouse community are all wonderful resources. And whenever I’ve had a question about my own children’s special needs or school services while posted in different countries, the community has rallied around and provided very valuable insight into what I can expect in different programs.
Q: So, for special needs children, you mentioned a lot of resources. I’m going to widen that, because you had some really excellent connections. And if you could just add other resources or sources of support for any parent or any Third Culture Kid in making the transition, not necessarily special needs, but just any source of support, websites or groups or whatever.
SEXTON: Well, as I did my research for my dissertation, specifically on Third Culture Kids transitioning within this lifestyle, I found an incredible wealth of resources that aren’t well known. Many of them are tied with our states, agencies, and services, Foreign Service Youth Foundation, the Transition Center, and, again, our community. But one thing that was surprising that I found within my research was that schools internationally, worldwide don’t have comprehensive embedded programming to support populations of kids incoming and outgoing — so that means a lot of our Foreign Service population. One resource that I’ve been trying to work on is individual transition planning — putting information out there for parents about what the transition cycle looks like.
One thing that I think makes people uncomfortable sometimes is when you talk about transition, you have to talk about loss, and, as a result, grieving. Supporting our kids through the feelings of loss and the cycle of grief is so important, and I’ve heard other Foreign Service community members say that leaving well is such an important part of our lifestyle and learning how to leave well is critical. And the takeaways that I’ve heard and experienced when I’m trying to leave well are giving myself a lot of grace, my family a lot of grace, and also the people around me a lot of grace. Because while I’m the one wrapped up in leaving and making sure my family is okay, we’re also leaving behind a group of people, and they deserve to be taken care of also. So, I think for me, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the process of leaving and transition is probably the most profound element of this lifestyle that needs to be supported. Together as a community, we can come up with ways to support each other, and also to get the word out about what these support services are.
As far as Third Culture Kids, there are many small organizations that aren’t very well known that are trying to gain ground on being more well known. And I think Third Culture Kid groups are actually one thing that I’ve found that TCKs [Third Culture Kids] around the world sign up for, and they just share their stories. Within the State Department, Foreign Service Youth Foundation is an excellent resource, and they offer summer programs and support throughout the year. For Third Culture Kids transitioning to higher education, also within the Department is the Foreign Service Youth Foundation. And I think with social media being such an important piece of communication, the groups that kids create on their own, their high school friendship groups or middle school friendship groups on WhatsApp or Messenger are also vitally important to continuity and support. There are also several organizations outside of Foreign Service life that can offer valuable advice when living overseas. I have been very impressed with; Families in Global Transition (FIGT), Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN), and Special Education Network and Inclusion Association (SENIA), to name a few.
Q: You mentioned some of the difficulties of transitioning. What are some of the other challenges of Foreign Service life for kids, and does it matter what age they are?
SEXTON: I think age does matter. When I was doing my research for my dissertation, I identified two elements of the Foreign Service lifestyle that potentially altered the natural progression of identity development. Those two elements were high mobility and multiple culturally immersive experiences. And when you look at high mobility, there are very few, if any, studies specific to Third Culture Kids and high mobility. But what I did find were several studies about children within the United States and Norway that found, pretty conclusively, that moving when you’re younger is easier. You’re so focused on the family, but as the child develops, and their individualized identity becomes more and more prominent, and the “circle of influence” becomes wider, then changing that “circle of influence” is more problematic or can be more challenging. So, I do think age matters.
But having said that, with the twenty-six participants within the study I created to take a look at transition experiences, there wasn’t any one box answer. Each of these kids had their own amazing story. What was relevant to me was hearing their story, letting them tell their story, acknowledging it, and letting them share it within their context and how it was valuable to them, all of the different challenges and celebrations. One student kept bringing up that one of the greatest challenges in higher education was they just couldn’t understand why the United States still used the standard measurement system. I thought, “If that is the greatest challenge, amazing,” but also, she was so right! And that’s just such a hidden, nuanced challenge that wouldn’t be easily acknowledged. So, to bring that example to the forefront, share that with her community and friends, was really an important piece of her story and her struggle to try to explain how challenges might be completely hidden.
Q: You’ve talked about the challenges of transition and the challenges of living in different places. What are the advantages of Foreign Service life, and do ages matter on that?
SEXTON: I think the advantages, for some people, are immeasurable. I think this lifestyle, for sure, is not for everyone, not for the faint of heart. Someone said to me early on, “We are literally keeping our show on the road” as the trailing spouse, and that can be quite a challenge. For my husband and I, probably for our first three tours, this was a conversation we had every day. Were the challenges worth it to continue in this lifestyle? And ultimately, for us, they were, because we were creating situations for our children that could never be replicated. There was nothing that we could give them to substitute for living a life in a foreign country to experience the culture and the beauty of appreciating something different than your own.
In São Paulo, we had some friends visiting from America. My son was nine at the time, and the boy from America was nine also. He had never been out of America, and he wasn’t loving Brazil; he didn’t understand why there were people all over the streets and he didn’t like the cobblestone sidewalks. We were in a taxi and our friend was saying, “America is the best country,” because of this or that, but my nine-year-old son said, “Yeah, but Brazil is pretty cool, too. You know, every Saturday they have feijoada. And look at those people, they’re on the street, yeah, they’re selling something, but they’re dancing and they’re joyous.” And my husband and I looked at each other and we thought, “Okay, we’ve done the right thing,” the appreciation that seemed to be developing within our kids for other cultures was ultimately what we always hoped would happen for them.
Q: Yeah, just a wider perspective of the world and the more posts the wider it is. So, in my interviews with Foreign Service parents for ADST’s Partners in Diplomacy podcast series, it was suggested that it’s useful to try to bring kids back to the U.S. for vacation every summer to give them a sense of home and being American. Do you agree with that?
SEXTON: I think yes and no. I think it very much depends on the ages of the kids and the family. For us, we had heard that advice, and we did that. Our kids developed this love for America that was very strong, so I was pleased about that. But on the other hand, it was kind of a false representation of America. You know, on home leave it is a 12-week holiday. When we are posted in the U.S., we’re going to go to school, go to the doctor, go to the dentist, regular life, it wouldn’t be the extended vacation. So, I would certainly do it again; I would travel back because I think being American wasn’t as prominent for us, but the connections to family were, and to not give the kids the opportunity to know and have experience with their grandparents and their extended family and friends would have been the real drawback. I think our kids are American by passport and identify as American, there’s no doubting that, but they are also their own personalities that have evolved because of their experiences in other countries and cultures that give them a unique perspective towards the world.
Q: So, you had back-to-back postings for nine years, and then when your kids were teenagers and preteens, you moved back to Washington. How did that transition go? What were the good points, and what were the challenges of moving back to their own country after being abroad for so many years?
SEXTON: I think we’re still kind of settling into life in America, but it has been, for us, an incredibly seamless transition. Our priority, again, was schools. We picked a neighborhood where our kids could walk to school or access public transportation easily. And all four of them have not missed a beat; they have joined into their school community really seamlessly. I couldn’t ask for more. My middle school son probably struggled the most. But I always tell him that it’s middle school, that most people struggle no matter where in the world you are.
I was probably most worried about my son going into high school when transitioning to DC. But he researched charter programs on his own and applied, auditioned, and was accepted into a smaller charter school that has welcomed him in with open arms. I think his experience at the neighborhood public high school would have also been very good. But I have to credit him, he researched that too, and he found himself a summer bridge program, and he tried out for the soccer team. For him, it was important to have community before he entered into that school. I think that was a key for him to have this community established. When we lived overseas, you always step into your home that’s furnished, you have your sponsor, you have embassy activities. You have this built-in community that you don’t necessarily have when you move to a foreign state. That seemed important for my kids to establish and certainly seemed to help their transition back into U.S. culture.
Q: You had mentioned your research on Third Culture Kids who, like yours, had lived overseas for most of their career, but had come back not for high school but for college in America. So, they looked and sounded like American kids, but yet they didn’t have American cultural and school experiences. What did you find out about positive coping mechanisms that they used?
SEXTON: What I found out was this is and was an incredibly difficult transition. As you mentioned earlier, for all purposes, they are American. But having the supports like I just mentioned, the built-in community, often smaller schools, to come into these university programs and be just a part of the larger American community, I think, poses significant challenges because the connectivity just wasn’t there for many of the kids. When they start talking about their childhood in Africa, or Europe, or wherever, most college peers can’t relate. And their peers become disinterested. That was a challenge that I heard over and over and over again.
There’s very little research on TCKs [Third Culture Kids] specifically transitioning to higher education at all. But research suggests that kids who don’t connect within their first year of university are much more likely to go to another school or drop out. Academic performance is lower. It really is an important element to consider for our Foreign Service families when they’re preparing their young adults to go to higher education. And the biggest takeaway that I’ve shared is connectivity. Make sure your kids are connected to their past friends and international group communities at university because, of course, most universities probably don’t even know what a Third Culture Kid is. There are no specified support groups for them. But there are often international student groups where many of the kids I interviewed found some support and global-minded thinking.
Q: I’ve heard that from other parents as well, that these kids often gravitate toward international students, because, in some senses, they are international. So, my daughter had kind of the converse experience. She was in the U.S. for junior high and high school, and then went on to university in the U.S., but we left. So, we were seven time zones away, and that was difficult. Do you have any advice for parents facing that challenge?
SEXTON: That was definitely a piece of this experience that exacerbated the transition. For a third of the families of the young adults I interviewed, families coordinated to stay in the U.S. at least for the first two years. Those that couldn’t do that were adamant about finding family, trying to go to a university that had family contacts or friends close by. I see all the time on the Foreign Service platforms and websites that, “My son or daughter is going here________. Does anybody else have a son or daughter going here that we can connect them to?” Giving them that connection and support structure as much as we can supply them with is so important. Or, better yet, teach them how to supply themselves with that support structure when families and known connections are far away.
Q: So, when you were talking about the transition to college for these Third Culture Kids, what else have you found out from the kids themselves or their parents?
SEXTON: Well, one thing that I’ve seen and heard more and more of is that many families are considering higher education experiences outside of the United States. I hear two primary reasons for that. One is cost, and the second is that the family continues to live abroad. So, the young adult can still be attending higher education but potentially be closer to their family or on the same continent, at least. Going to schools outside of the U.S. was something we’ve considered and talked to our kids about, mostly because there’s four of them, and the cost is so daunting. But I was surprised to hear that there are many people within the Foreign Service considering and actually sending their kids to higher education outside of the U.S.
Q: Well, that’s an interesting option that those of us who grew up in America and went to school in America never considered, but the world is open for these Third Culture Kids.
SEXTON: It is, and the opportunity is incredible, and especially for the kids that have gone through high school with the International Baccalaureate program. They are ready to step into the European program, and I’ve seen a lot of kids do quite well in those circumstances.
Q: Okay, so can you give one small story about one or two of your kids about how they had any enriching experiences or opportunities overseas that they never would have had in the U.S.?
SEXTON: Sure, there are so many. I’ll pick one that was rooted in America, but our lifestyle definitely played into it. One summer four or five years ago, we decided to take our kids to Disney. That was just important to us to have this American experience, and we went all out. We went with another family whom we had befriended in China and was also living stateside. And on the second day of getting ready to go to the park, we were all having breakfast, and the kids started talking, and they were saying, “Is it okay if we don’t go into the park today?” And all of us parents looked at each other and said, “No, no, we’ve paid for this day; we’re going to the park.” And they started talking about their experiences: “Do you remember when we were sailing in Thailand, in Phuket? We were surfing, and our surfboard turned over and we got stuck.” And then that segued into, “Well, what about when we were canoeing in Mongolia, and our canoe overturned?” We had vacationed with this other family frequently. They were also talking about our experiences in China, when we went to a piece of the Great Wall that met the water, and they were able to go swimming on there, it was so fun to hear them retell these experiences.
I was so happy to hear that these experiences were really a part of their life and an important part of their childhood memories, and it made me take a step back and say, “Maybe I don’t have to create these American experiences for them.” And, of course, nothing against that; I loved Disney as a child, but they are living a very different experience. And celebrating their experience is so important to me. Sometimes I still can’t believe the experiences that they’ve had. When my son was fifteen, he wanted to go on safari while we were in South Africa. We did, and he ended up seeing lions, really there was a lion right behind him. These are experiences that we just couldn’t create for them other than living in these foreign countries.
Q: Different than Disney and different than Zoo Safari in the U.S. So, from your own experience, or from talking with other parents or Third Culture Kids, do you have any other advice to share with parents of Foreign Service children?
SEXTON: I think the most important thing that I would share with people and that people have told me is just to give yourself a lot of grace and to be gentle. Moving every three to four years is not easy. And I try to always be mindful of the present. For example, the house we’re living in now in DC needs a lot of work, and it really could be overwhelming. It’s going to be a process to get the work done. And throughout that process, I can’t be miserable because I’m going to miss these years of my life and my kids’ lives and these incredibly valuable experiences. It probably sounds very cliché, but I always try to remember to embrace the moment and the chaos and find the good within that.
Another piece of advice that someone gave me early on that I’ve always kept close and has been very meaningful is that when you are in the U.S., you have a figurative backpack where you can access services like police, fire, ambulance, services that work and are incredibly reliable. Sometimes when you go into some countries that are still developing, you take that backpack off. You have to learn other ways to cope and manage and figure out what you’re going to do in an emergency situation. In the U.S., you have this support structure that you can rely and depend upon. That was helpful to me to internalize and understand another layer of challenge when you live in a foreign country.
Q: Anything that I haven’t asked that you would like to comment on?
SEXTON: I’m so glad you’re doing this. And I love celebrating and meeting other Foreign Service and global citizens and just sharing and hearing about their experiences. So, I think that’s it.
Q: Well, I hope this project will connect you. You’ve shared your experience, and you’ll hear how it may be the same or different from other Third Culture Kids’ parents, so thank you so much for participating.
End of interview
Download a copy of Stephanie Sexton’s interview transcript below.