Third Culture Kids, College, and Culture Shock

by Rachel Pieh Jones on June 18, 2018

This year two of my three Third Culture Kids are graduating. Last year, we went on college tours in Minnesota and Wisconsin. We observed some, um, interesting cultural things. Our observations were specific to the Midwest and our perspective comes from 16 years in the Horn of Africa. But, they just might help you with your own college tours and if you’d like some tips on how to get through these trips with joy, check out these posts: Tips for TCKs Going on College Tours and Tips for Parents of TCKs Going on College Tours.

Girls wear sport shorts, tight and short sport shorts, or pajamas (dressed to impress?).

Minnesotans play a lot of hockey and broomball.

If you grow up in a country with no snow or ice, you don’t know what broomball is (it is okay to ask, get used to asking).

TCKs are the only seniors in a room who have to clarify the question, “Where are you from?” (do you mean where was I born? where my passport says I’m from? where I go to school? where I keep most of my belongings? where I stay every few years in the summer? where my parents pay taxes and will get in-state tuition? where I came from just this morning?).

There are a lot of white people in the Midwest, especially in rural areas (notice, my kids are also white, but they barely realize it. What this means is that the color of a person’s skin tells you very little of their actual history and story. Ask questions, listen, be slow to judge).

Parents and students respond with more excitement to the prospect of a Starbucks on campus (as opposed to all the way across the street) than they do to a $15 YEARLY membership at a club that provides bikes, kayaks, paddle boards, sports equipment, and intramural teams to join. Or than they do to pretty much every other thing mentioned on tour. Starbucks is very important.

They also care that much about Chipotle. As in, there were more comments and questions about Starbucks and Chipotle than about tuition or study abroad opportunities.

My kids are the only ones without their driver’s license.

In a room of 100 prospective students, the American coming from Kenya (or Djibouti, depending on how they answered the question “Where are you from?”) stands out.

Dorms are intriguing unless you’ve lived the last five years in a dorm.

TCKs don’t know what they don’t know about American culture and life. College will show them, real fast. Again, ask questions.

TCKs should probably start saying, “soccer” instead of “football.” Sorry.

Americans really, really, really love their pets. Like, really.

American parents tend to hold their kids back in Kindergarten, especially boys, but then they shove them out early through PSEO (post-secondary education) or AP (advanced placement) courses. Ostensibly, this is about opportunity for the kids. A large part of me wonders how much of this is also about boasting opportunities for the parents?

When you are going to college or you have kids going to college, it is like being pregnant. Meaning it is all you talk about. All the time. Every day. All the time. Like, always. All the times. TCKs might get tired of this and might enjoy talking about something else. Like the World Cup. Or international politics or the monkey that swiped their breakfast muffin. In other words, TCKs going to college, like all young adults going to college, are way more than college.

Parents are super nervous about sending their kids an hour away. Their adult kids. I recently heard a mom say that when her daughter didn’t answer the phone for one day, she drove to the campus and searched until she found her daughter and then made her promise to respond immediately to phone calls. Her adult daughter. Who went to school practically down the street. (Parents of TCKs, and myself, be slow to judge. We all need this reminder.)

College campuses are stunning. They are cleaner, more beautiful, and better equipped in terms of restaurants, entertainment, medical facilities, bathrooms, etc, than the country in which we live.

Yes, some people think Kenya is a city near Africa. Even college-bound people. And correct, no one knows what a Djibouti is. Again, sorry. And again, try not to judge. Remember how you didn’t know what broomball was?

Race and gender really are significant topics on college campuses and TCKs, who have grown up in very different racial or gender dynamics, can both offer a unique perspective and will benefit from a parent and also a peer who can help them navigate these topics. Everyone has a lot to learn and that’s a huge part of what college is for.

Enjoy your tours, make the most of them! Take notes on some of the cultural things you notice.

What are some things that helped you and your TCKs explore universities?

Here are a few more resources on college and TCKs:

Janneke Jellema’s essay in Finding Home for advice on transitioning to university as a TCK.

Marilyn Gardner’s book Passages Through Pakistan, especially the last chapter, for help in handling the emotional side of this major transition.

The Global Nomad’s Guide to University, by Tina L. Quick

Should TCKs Take their Parents to College, by Lauren Wells, in A Life Overseas

On Your High School Graduation, by Elizabeth Trotter

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.

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