What is a Third Culture Kid?

“A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs.”... (more)

Third Culture Kids Book





TCKs Four Times More Likely to Earn Bachelor’s Degrees

(Article 2 in a series of 5)

This is the second of several reports on a study of adult Third Culture Kids (see January, 1993 NewsLinks). It is being completed by three sociologists/ anthropologists: Drs. John Useem and Ruth Hill Useem of Michigan State University, and Dr. Ann Baker Cottrell of San Diego University, and Dr. Kathleen A. Finn Jordan, a counselor in Washington, D.C.

In the fall of 1991 when we began asking adult Third Culture Kids to participate in our exploratory study of the long-term effects of having been TCKs, we hoped to get 100 people to fill in a lengthy questionnaire.

We must have tapped a largely unrecognized and unexamined sector of American life. We, and our computers, have been overwhelmed by the number of adult TCKs (680 to date) who have so graciously shared their lives and thoughts with us by filling in the long schedule. In addition, many have given us names to contact, some have sent alumni lists and newsletters, and a few have sent us books and articles they have written.

After we get the masses of quantitative and qualitative data on our new computers and learn the software to analyze them, we hope to have more sophisticated answers to the questions: What happens to TCKs when they grow up? What do they make happen? For now we will give you a few of our preliminary findings.

The nearly 700 people who returned the unconscionably long schedule range in age from 25 to 84. Seven percent were overseas only during the elementary grades, 11 percent had only a secondary school experience outside the U.S., and 82 percent lived abroad both as pre-teens and teenagers.

From previous research, we had concluded that the "sponsor," the organization for which their parents worked abroad, made a difference in the type of family life and schooling that the minor dependents experienced abroad. The third culture of the diplomatic community differs from that found on a military base. The third culture of business people abroad impinges differently on the daily lives of their children than that of missionaries. What we did not know was whether or not these somewhat different third culture experiences resulted in different trajectories in their adult lives.

To look at these dimensions, we included in our sample men and women whose parents were overseas with the military, the State Department, business enterprises, religious organizations, and a miscellany of other sponsors (e.g., university contracts, foundations, media reporters, etc...).

In most cases, the "primary" employee overseas is the father. Among church groups, however, both parents are often accredited missionaries.

What are some of our more striking findings to date? One characteristic of these adult TCKs which stands out is that the overwhelming majority of them are committed to continuing their education beyond high school graduation.

Only 21 percent of the American population (24 percent of men and 18 percent of women) have graduated from a four-year college. In sharp contrast, 81 percent of the adult TCKs have earned at least a bachelor's degree (87 percent of the men, 76 percent of the women). Half of this number have gone on to earn master's degrees and doctorates.

It would seem that their teachers and counselors in the overseas schools, as well as their parents, must have been doing a lot right over the last 50 years to have such unusual long-term results.

But these remarkable educational accomplishments are seldom attained in a straightforward manner. A considerable proportion of the young adult TCKs change colleges and/or majors two or three times. Others drop out, as they put it, to "take advantage of opportunities" that happen to come up.

Such detours on their road to obtaining a degree may range from taking a semester off to "bum around Africa--a place I haven't seen," to doing full-time translating for a professor outside of their major, which adds a year to the time required for "getting through," to dropping out to get married and start a family before returning. Occasionally they drop out because a course of study is beyond their capacity, but more often they feel their overseas schooling and experience put them ahead of their peers (and even their teachers). Thus they are often "out of synch" with their all-American-reared peers.

A second finding is that adult TCKs am also somewhat out of synch in aspects of their lives outside of education. Throughout their lifetimes there are subtle differences between them and the American generation that came into adulthood in the same historical period. Not being like their peers is usually of great import (and sometimes extremely painful) in the late teens and twenties, but it is of lessening centrality with increasing age.

How long does it take for TCKs to become adjusted to American life? The majority of our adult TCKs, including those over 65, report mild to severe difficulties with what has been called "re-entry problems" or "reverse culture shock."

This area is rich in literature and a number of reorientation programs have been established by overseas schools, the organizations which sponsor the parents abroad, and international centers of colleges and universities. The programs help the young people through the transition to living in the U.S.

The answer to the question of how long it takes them to adjust to American life is: they never adjust. They adapt, they find niches, they take risks, they fail and pick themselves up again. They succeed in jobs they have created to fit their particular talents, they locate friends with whom they can share some of their interests, but they resist being encapsulated. Their camouflaged exteriors and understated ways of presenting themselves hide the rich inner lives, remarkable talents, and often strongly held contradictory opinions on the world at large and the world at hand.

Two-thirds of our sample feel that it is important to them to have an international dimension to their lives, although they prefer to establish their homes in the U.S. Three-fourths of them feel different from people who have not had an overseas experience. As one woman put it, "I don't feel different, I AM different."

Two-thirds feel they have more transnational knowledge and skills than they have opportunity to use in their domestic lives.

Whether or not they have occupations or professions with an international dimension, in their daily lives they do reach out to foreigners, exchange students, and non-English-speaking minorities. As one adult TCK put it, "We know what it is like to be confused in a country where we cannot speak the language well."

Most of them keep up on the happenings outside the U.S., especially in the countries in which they lived as teenagers. When events concerning those countries are in the news, friends and acquaintances ask their opinions about the situation.

Occasionally they are called upon to give talks to churches, schools, and service organizations; some are interviewed on TV and radio programs; others write articles for newspapers.

As we summarize our questionnaires, begin our in-depth interviews of selected respondents, read biographies and autobiographies of adult TCKs, and scan the alumni newsletters of overseas schools, we are further convinced that this relatively small number of people, about two percent of the American population, has been a rich resource.

They relate Americans to the rest of the world and interpret the outside world to the immediate world in which they five. Significant proportions of them actually do this for a living.

We think adult TCKs are creative and innovative because they have robust educational experiences. The teachers and administrators of the overseas schools have made major contributions to the development of these unusual individuals.

This article was first published in NewsLinks -- the newspaper of International Schools Services; May, 1993; Vol. XII, No. 5; Princeton, NJ.

Published online April 11, 1999 by permission of the authors.
Copyright ©1993, 1999, by Ruth Hill Useem and Ann Baker Cottrell.
All rights reserved.

Continue to Article 3: TCKs Experience Prolonged Adolescence



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