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





ATCKs maintain global dimensions throughout their lives

by Ann Baker Cottrell and Ruth Hill Useem
(Article 5 in a series of 5)

This is the fifth and final article in a series reporting findings of research on Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs). The research for this study is currently being conducted by the authors with Dr. John Useem, Dr. Kathleen Jordan, and the participation of 696 ATCKs living in the U.S. Earlier articles appeared in the January, May, September, and November 1993 issues.

Internationally mobile families, and those who work with these families (such as NewsLinks readers) are interested in the experiences and long-term implications of living outside the country of one's citizenship as a child; that is, being a Third Culture Kid (TCK). The available literature on adult TCKs emphasizes issues of adjustment and may give the impression that feelings of rootlessness and alienation, experienced most severely during reentry, may last a lifetime.

In our research we asked ATCKs how they are affected by having spent some, or all, of their child/teen years abroad. What kinds of world views and attitudes do they have, what kinds of life choices do they make?

In this article we look at the actual life choices made by 400 of these ATCKs to see what kinds of educational and career choices they make, the volunteer roles in which they contribute to their local or world communities, and with whom they share their adult lives.

Two underlying questions are: the extent to which their adult lives suggest rootlessness or alienation, and the extent to which they maintain an international dimension to their activities.

HIGHER EDUCATION: One of the most notable characteristics of ATCKs is their high achievement. Nearly 90 percent have some academic post-secondary education and over 40 percent have completed a graduate degree; others are near completion of such degrees. They are influenced by highly educated parents and the excellent education most report getting in overseas schools.

Third culture childhood experiences affected college choices and experiences; 43 percent say greatly, 27 percent say somewhat. Most commonly, this is influenced what they studied. Majors chosen by a quarter of this sample were obviously international (e.g., foreign language, anthropology, international relations). Many others were influenced by overseas experiences. For example: biologists captivated early by exposure to African wildlife; historians and artists influenced by exposure to European art and historical sites; pre-med, nursing, and economics majors who decided early to help peoples they knew in a less-developed nation.

Still others sought mainly to "get abroad again" and so majored in teaching, international relations, international business. In addition to studying many subjects connected to international interests, over a quarter have studied abroad since high school. For some, a study abroad program was a factor in choice of college.

The second most commonly mentioned effect of a TCK background or college experience was, indeed, the issue of adjustment. Many reported that they "just didn't fit in" with their parochial peers. A small number felt they fared better than other freshmen because new situations were "old hat" to them. Third, many of these ATCKs had to select a U.S. college sight unseen and attend while their families remained overseas. Accordingly, a number chose colleges their parents or friends had attended. "Missionary Kids," (MKs) often chose church-related schools which were tuition-free and where there would be other MKs. Others selected small universities like their international schools, large universities which would have foreign students, or colleges near grandparents.

Continuing a pattern of mobility and change, a significant proportion of ATCKs decided that their first college choice was not right for them, or that college was not right at that time. Over a third (38 percent) got no degree at the first college they attended; nearly half (45 percent) have attended three or more colleges (not including technical schools and institutes), and some have attended as many as nine different colleges or universities. A corollary of this academic mobility is the fact that nearly half of those who earned a bachelor's degree (44 percent) were out of synch with their age group, finishing after age 22.

OCCUPATION: ATCKs' career achievements reflect their high levels of education. The majority (over 80 percent) are professionals, semi-professionals, executives, or managers/officials. Only 6 percent, half students, half homemakers, report no job beyond part time/summer work in college.

Occupational choices reflect a continued love of learning, interest in helping, and desire for independence and flexibility. Fully one quarter work in educational institutions as teachers, professors, or administrators. The next largest number (17 percent) are in professional settings, such as medical or legal fields. An equal proportion are self-employed, one-third of these as presidents of their own companies. The self-employed, in particular, reflect the creative and risktaking streak found in so many TCKs.

One won't find many TCKs in large corporations. Nor are there many in government. Two-thirds of the small number (6 percent) in this sample who have government Jobs are in foreign service/AID or in branches such as the Bureau of Wildlife and Fisheries, or national parks.

Although they may have been influenced by their parents' work overseas, they have not followed in parental footsteps. Twenty percent of this sample were MKs, but only 2 percent have a career in the church. Likewise, 25 percent were military dependents, but only 6 percent are in the armed forces.

Most (56 percent) have incorporated an international dimension in some occupational role. For some, jobs have been highly international, such as working overseas or foreign student advising. Others weave an international dimension into their work; for example, a teacher enlivening her social studies class with tales and photos of her Brazilian childhood.

VOLUNTEERING: Reflecting, or perhaps explaining, the relative lack of alienation reported in the last article, most (over 75 percent) actively participate in their local community or in a broader network. For most, volunteer activity centers on their children (PTA, sports, scouts, etc.) and their church.

About half (47 percent) of those who report volunteer activities include an international dimension, such as: participating in organizations such as United Nations Association; hosting exchange students; or translating in courts, schools, or hospitals.

In addition to volunteering, many TCKs have supported advocacy/protest activities. Most common have been antiwar activities, primarily student protest against the Vietnam war. Not surprisingly, military TCKs are the least represented in anti-war protest.

CONTACTS: Whether in professional or volunteer roles, through friendship or family networks, the vast majority (92 percent) have at least yearly contact with people from other countries. Nearly a quarter associate with Internationals at least once a month, some daily. A majority also report some, though often infrequent, contact with people they knew as children abroad. Increasingly popular are school reunions which validate the third culture and TCK identity and maintain contacts.

A characteristic which truly distinguished ATCKs from most Americans is their ability in foreign languages. Fully 80 percent of these respondents use a language other than English at least occasionally. Twenty percent use another language regularly; some are bilingual and work daily in one or more foreign language. Half of those who communicate in a language other than English use two or more.

... respondents continue to feel rootless, alienated, and unable to make commitments ...

FAMILY AND COMMUNITY: A number of our respondents continue to feel rootless, alienated, and unable to make commitments to people or places. Most, however, marry (80 percent) and settle into their communities. Commitment is suggested by the fact that the divorce rate is lower than the national average; two out of three who marry do so only once. However, ATCKs tend to marry late--41 percent did not wed until after 25. While nearly all married Americans, most (60 percent) in this study married someone who had at least some international experience when they met; a number married other TCKs.

... ATCKs tend to marry late--41 percent did not wed until after 25.

Most of those who marry (80 percent) have children and typically report that their child-rearing is in some way influenced by having lived abroad. These answers are undoubtedly an important way TCKs differ from other globally mobile individuals such as immigrants. Rather than stress a national or ethnic identity, these ATCKs seek ways to introduce their offspring to the diversity of the world's people and cultures. Their message, overwhelmingly, is one of accepting, respecting, and treasuring differences.

A sense of fitting in, of finding a home, is indicated by the fact that 70 percent say it would be somewhat or very difficult to leave their present community. For some this is a matter of obligations, but for most it is because they are integrated into community or friendship groups, and, as a number pointed out, "I've lived here longer than any place in my life." While saying that they would hate to leave, the TCK background surfaces in many who added that they could move easily and would, in fact, enjoy meeting new people and new challenges.

This article was first published in NewsLinks -- the newspaper of International Schools Services; March, 1994; Vol. XIII, No. 4; Princeton, NJ.

Published online April 11, 1999 by permission of the authors.
Copyright ©1994, 1999, by Ruth Hill Useem and Ann Baker Cottrell.
All rights reserved.

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