On Your High School Graduation: A Letter to My Third Culture Kids

by Elizabeth Trotter on April 30, 2014

I’ve been watching parents in the international community say goodbye to their graduating seniors for a while now. I’ve been watching the seniors themselves say goodbye to their friends – fellow third culture kids like themselves.

Watching these parental goodbyes feels like a knife in my chest. I have to stop myself from thinking about it just so I can breathe again. Because I know that will be me, someday, saying goodbye to you.

“Goodbye.” We get a lot of practice saying it. We’ve said goodbye to short-term workers. They never planned to stay, but we welcomed them into our lives anyway. We’ve said goodbye to others — longer term workers whose time in this country, for a variety of reasons, has also come to a close.

And then, every year, I watch the graduating high school seniors. The ones who leave their families behind and travel to their passport country for their university years – and beyond.


As I write this, all four of you are more than eight years away from entering your college years. Still, someday I will say goodbye to each of you in turn. My oldest son first, then a couple years later, my youngest son. A couple years after that, I will be saying goodbye to my oldest daughter. The next goodbye will be my last. My youngest daughter will leave too.

I must say goodbye to you like this, no matter where in the world I live. And when you do leave, there are things I want to tell you. Things like. . .

You are my child. You are now an adult, and I’m proud of who you are, but you will always be part of my family. Our home can always be your home.  No matter where we live, we will always welcome you into it.

We have endeavored to give you as stable a home life as possible in the ever-shifting international community in which we live. I am sorry for the consistent, repeated, prolonged, never-ending goodbyes you have endured. So say goodbye well. For many of your high school friends, the goodbye may be forever. You might return to Cambodia; you might not. And your friends may not. Even if they do, it most likely wouldn’t be at the same time as you. So honor your friends with good goodbyes.

Keep in touch with your TCK friends if you can. After my military upbringing, I finally found a small group of friends in high school. They were Christians. They buoyed my life and my faith at the time, and I regret not keeping in touch with them. Even with Facebook, I’ve only been able to find a couple of them, and I wish I could find more. So stay in touch. You won’t regret it. This journey has already separated you from many friends, so strive to keep the ones that still remain.

There won’t be any weekend trips home for you, as I had. You’ll live more than just a few hours away. So you’ll have to say goodbye to this place, not just the people. Again, make sure you say goodbye well. Write these places, and their memories, on your heart forever.

I was lonely and depressed my first year at college. My roommate was never around, and my hourly venture to the water fountain was the most exciting thing I did while I studied. Don’t do that; don’t be like me. I sequestered myself in my room. More time at a park probably would have lifted my low spirits, so for goodness sakes, go to a park every once in a while.

I did find friends in a campus ministry. So whatever you do, find a good campus ministry. A community of your peers following hard after God. Form deep friendships there, deep enough to last your whole life long. My campus ministry friends still inspire me to love Jesus more, and to serve Him in both the little things and the big things.

Find a good church. A church that loves, a church that lives and breathes and teaches both Grace and Truth. Churches are flawed because the people are flawed. But if the Grace is there, it will cover over the flaws. Hopefully these people will feed you and lend you their laundry rooms, and maybe even sometimes, when you really need it, their cars. They will be there to catch you when you fall to loneliness and depression and temptation. They will be people with whom you can worship every Sunday. Your studying will exhaust you, and you won’t feel like getting up on Sunday mornings, but if you show up, you will find God there.

Try to live your life in real time, with real people. Don’t waste your time getting drunk, playing video games, or looking at trashy pictures on the internet. That stuff doesn’t satisfy. But even if you do turn to those things, your Papa and I will always welcome you with open arms. We are always your family. Our hearts are open, our home is open. Possibly more importantly right now, though, is that our inboxes are always open.

And whatever happens, you must know that your Heavenly Father will always welcome you Home. He is always there for you. He will forgive anything. And should you ever stray from Him, don’t stay away forever out of fear that He doesn’t want you. He wants you. Believe it.

All my love, Mom


To international parents who have already graduated a senior, I’d love to hear from you. I have never done what you have done. And in fact, I don’t really know what I’m talking about when it comes to TCK’s. I only wrote this in honest reflection of my past, and in painful anticipation of my future. So I’m curious — what things were helpful for both you and your teenager as you said goodbye??

From trotters41.com, February 2014

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com and on Facebook at trotters41.
  • Richelle Wright

    well… i’m very much a newbie at this so these are observations – not advice or recommendations. 🙂

    we graduated our first last year and it hasn’t been anything like what i anticipated when i was at your stage. so first of all, i’d say expect changes. much of what i expected to be agonizingly painful hasn’t been… and what has hurt has surprised me (like the first goodbye was, for me, actually the easiest because i was so excited for the opportunities and world opening before my boy). but this is all in the midst of a huge transition for the entire family, so it is hard to separate or compartmentalize.

    i think your post expresses a good balance between encouraging those tcks (and all of us, really) to hold on to and treasure what has been without idolizing it so much that we can’t move into the futures and new paths God has gifted us joyful anticipation… to grieve because we recognize the precious value of what is now behind us yet not wallow in that so much so that we celebrate with exuberance and joy the delights of today or hope with great confidence and trust for what God will bring tomorrow.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks for sharing that, Richelle. It was interesting to read about how what you expected to be painful, wasn’t, but what was painful, surprised you. I read somewhere recently (can’t remember where??) that we can’t truly get rid of our expectations. That we can try to expect the unexpected, but all that really means is we know something unexpected will happen, but we know that it will still take us by surprise when it happens. So . . . I think this means I should expect to feel differently when my kids are older 🙂 Blessings on all your new adventures! How far away are you from your college student now?

      • Richelle Wright

        he’s only about 600 miles away and i go get him in just over a week and bring him home for the summer and to finish his driving hours so he can get his license.

        • Elizabeth Trotter

          Have a great summer with him then! It may be on the same continent, but that’s still three times farther from home than I was in college.

  • Michelle Milam

    Elizabeth – Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I was an MK, but not until my first year of college. I moved to college and my family moved overseas. It was a very hard transition the first year. Now as an M myself, I am preparing to send my fisrtborn back to the States for college. I know it will not be easy, but I know that the Father knows best. Thank you again for your insights.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Wow, Michelle, that transition to college sounds like it was hard for you, all those years ago. I’m sorry I didn’t see this comment until just now, but I pray God will be with both you and your graduate through the upcoming separation, and especially with your child during re-entry. I really do believe God is enough, even when it doesn’t feel like it, and I know you feel that way too. Sending love <3

  • Karen

    Elizabeth – I have just been through this wrenching experience for the third time. (Last week, we traveled from our place of ministry to another country to watch our daughter graduate from a mission boarding school.) I too was an MK, so I have experienced this both as as an 18 yr old and as the mother of MK’s. Although one knows basically what to expect, it does not necessarily get easier.

    The first time, our whole family attended graduation; and then we all traveled together to put our son in college and stayed for a 6 month furlough, so at least it was a gradual separation. The second time, our older daughter chose to return “home” with us for a couple weeks before my husband accompanied her to the US for college. There is something about sending a daughter off to the unknown…… I really felt the knife of grief twisting that time!
    This time, I had only about 2 days with our younger daughter at her school before we went our separate ways (since the expenses, family & ministry needs meant our family had to split up.) Yes, that knife is still very sharp! I expect it will be the same in 4 years time when our younger son graduates from the same mission boarding school.
    Each time I grieve for my loss; but each time, but I’ve come to realize that grief is not all bad, because it drives me to the God of all comfort. Emotions must be felt & acknowledged, but the healing grace of God will come to each of us; and we will adjust as a family once again. Knowing how the Lord has provided in so many ways for each of the older two children (jobs to pay for education, godly friends & mentors, homes away from home) gives me hope and assurance that He will not let us down this time. They have become amazing young adults! I would not change the process which a loving God has ordained to make them into His servants.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      You have a lot of experience saying these kinds of goodbyes, Karen. For yourself, and your own kids. I do dread these goodbyes, but I’m glad to know there are parents who have gone ahead of me and done this before!
      I love your dependence on the God of all comfort. And it’s very encouraging to hear how God has provided for your children, even in a spiritual sense, when they’re so far from home. Such a good and hopeful thing for you to share here, so THANK YOU.

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