Saturday 11 August 2012

Counselors: be curious about their upbringing...third culture kids

Once again I found an interesting article online: "Identity, mobility and marginality: counseling third culture kids in college" by Dana Leigh Downey, University of Texas at Austin. The article mentions that it is estimated that over 4 million Americans live abroad, with over 37,000 matriculating into U.S. universities each year. Our societies are becoming more and more global. Third culture kids "experience a collision of cultures and form hybrid identities in the course of their development".

I am really interested in getting to know how many Dutch third culture kids transition from abroad to Dutch universities. Can anyone help me out? Do you know the figures? Years ago I was a third culture kid moving from Zimbabwe to the Netherlands to study. I had not heard of the term "third culture kid", I had no idea what challenges I would face, I did not know that I was a "hidden immigrant". There was no extra help from the university, no extra language help, no extra support. I was not even identified as coming from abroad.

Gaw* (2007) says that re-entry is often more challenging and unsettling than initial culture shock, affecting academic, social and psychological functioning. As with other non majority groups TCKs are less likely to seek support services on campus. "The non-linear background of the TCK does not fit the mold of the average intake form." There's a good idea here: Downey suggests that counseling centres may consider adding questions to their surveys or intake forms: before the age of 18 I lived in more than one country/culture. A question like this would help identify third culture kids. It is only worth identifying TCKs if there are people who are equipped to help them. According to Downey counselors must extend:
  • support
  • validation
  • encouragement
  • along with cultural compentence
  • and intercultural understanding
in order to assist third culture kids experiencing re-entry culture shock. That sounds too good to be true.

Gaw cautions mental health practitioners to be aware of possible misdiagnosis or incorrect clinical procedures that may result from:
  1. misunderstanding this population
  2. not accepting or validating this population
  3. assuming the TCK experience is transitory and something to grow out of
  4. assuming the assessment tools and constructs normed with the majority population will be applicable.
Nina Sichel co-editor of the collections Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011) and Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global (2004) recently wrote an article called "The Trouble with Third Culture Kids"  on Children's Mental Health Network. "So when she(the TCK) comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her. Ask her where she’s lived. Ask her what she’s left behind. Open doors. And just listen. Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn. She has a story -- many stories. And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole."

Soon colleges and universities will start their academic year and over 37,000 TCKs will return to America to further their education. An unknown number of TCKs will re-enter the Netherlands and many other countries. What will their experience be like? Will it be different to mine years ago? Will they be identified? Will they be helped by well-equipped counselors, and mental health practitioners that have experience working with third culture kids? What was your experience like when you went to college or university?

By the way there is a new useful book to help you prepare for your transition to university. It's the book "A Global Nomad's Guide to University Transition" by Tina Quick.

*Gaw, K.F. (2007) Mobility, Multiculturalism and Marginality: Counseling Third Culture Students. Special Populations in College Counseling: A Handbook for Mental Health Practitioners(63-76).

Related posts:


  1. Let's hope they will be identified and supported now! Thanks for drawing my attention to such an important topic.

  2. To be honest, Dutch TCKs will never be prioritized by universities. They are only interested in cutting costs. They get so many international students yearly who don't even speak the language at all, so they are not going to be putting any effort into kids who already speak (a certain level of) Dutch and have some sort of family network in Holland already. International students from Europe don't even get much, if any, support. So Dutch TCKs are going to have to organize their own system of support for these students if they are to get any support outside of family. It would help just to meet with other TCKs, so you don't feel so alone, as everyone else is not really interested in hearing your story and has no way of understanding what it's like anyway.
    Once I did have a woman who said to me "So you don't really feel Dutch then", and I said "Wow, no one else has ever had the insight to say something in that" - but I found out she, of course, was a TCK herself :)

  3. @Tallulah Thanks for your comment. I hopped over to your blog and had a fun read. You're really having a language adventure together! Greetings Janneke

  4. @Anonymous Thanks for stopping by and sharing your vision. I like your suggestion of organizing our own opportunities to meet each other. I know that looking back, something like that would have helped me. It does seem true that most people are not waiting to hear our story. Wow, that must have been a nice conversation with the other TCK :). I have noticed that I feel at home in international environments, so becoming a member of an international students group might help a little too?

  5. Thanks for writing this. I do think the sort of support you wrote about is really important. Another way to help TCK's is to provide them with a mentor. I run Sea Change Mentoring, which is an online mentoring program for expat teens. As anonymous pointed out, it is so nice to talk with people that actually understand what you are going through. All of our mentors are TCK's that have gone through the process of adjust back home. If you are interested, you can learn about us at

  6. Hello Ellen. Thank you for telling us about your online mentoring program for expat teens, I had not heard of it yet. It sounds really interesting! Thank you for sharing the link too. Anonymous suggested it too and so did someone on twitter the other day. I would love to hear more about the program.

  7. Very interesting and informative to read as a guidance counselor and TCK. Thank you for sharing, and I linked it to my blog!

  8. Hi Elfie, thanks for stopping by and linking this article on your blog. What you write is so true too, it would help TCKs who seek help if the therapists would know more about TCKs and about the challenges we face and have faced.

  9. As an international school counselor I talk to students quite a bit about TCK issues and give them a heads up to what they might expect in their transition. We give them the skills to do so academically, equally important is the emotional transition. I know Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR have a specific program for TCKs not just international students; I'd love to see more (maybe there are more out there and I've just not heard of them?)