For many high school students, moving away for college can feel exciting as they take their first big step into adulthood. But for some third culture kids (TCKs) or missionary kids who have grown up overseas, moving to their passport country for college may feel more daunting than exciting. Local churches have a unique opportunity to serve returning TCKs and their families by welcoming them, caring for them in tangible ways, and helping them adjust to a new culture.
Merriam-Webster defines a third culture kid as a “child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up.” The term can include missionary kids, cross-cultural kids, children of diplomats, children of immigrants, and military kids. While your church may primarily know about missionary kids, you may be able to find other third culture kids in your community.
It’s helpful to understand that many TCKs have a different idea of home, identity, and belonging than their peers or even their parents. And of course, like anyone, no two TCKs are exactly alike. What feels like home to them may not be the place they were born; they may or may not feel an intense desire to return to the places where they grew up; and their closest friends and family members may be scattered across several continents.
But there is one thing that remains the same for every young adult: the need for a good support system.
As you and your church family think through ways to help these newly arrived TCKs and missionary kids, here are some helpful ideas to consider.
1. Give them a car
Seriously, a car! One of the biggest expenses many missionary families face is helping their young adult children buy a reliable car during their college years. Giving money toward a car, buying a reliable used car, or giving a TCK access to a car they can drive (and be fully insured as a driver) gives them mobility. If needed, you can also offer driving lessons or rides until they get their local driver’s license.
Some TCKs may already know how to drive a scooter or moped or know how to drive on the left side of the road, but they may need help learning how to drive on American interstates. Find out what the needs for transportation and driving proficiency are, and look for ways your church can help.
2. Cover the cost of a trip to wherever the TCK calls “home”
Airline tickets are another major expense, and many decisions about how often parents can visit their college-age children are based on airfare prices. Covering the cost of a TCK’s flight back to their overseas home can be a great way to support the whole family.
Olivianna Calmes, a Gen Z TCK who grew up in Taiwan and the U.S., said that her parents helped her return to their home in Taiwan during college. “It’s not always cheap to travel back to your home country, but in my opinion it is essential to slowly get used to your new home as well,” Calmes said. Return trips can be a refreshing break from the newness of life in their passport country and can help a TCK’s overall transition as they adapt to both worlds.
3. Offer options to stay for school breaks
Think about who in your church could host a TCK for a long weekend, Thanksgiving, or another school break, and offer to introduce them. Many TCKs will need a place to go when their dorms close or school is out for a break. Having a comfortable and free place to stay can be a great blessing.
4. Provide free housing for parents when they visit
Some churches have missionary houses specifically for missionary families when they visit. Let missionary families know when a house in your area may be available, or help them find free housing in their TCK’s college town for a visit. If someone in your congregation has a vacation home, you could also ask them if they would donate time at it for the missionary family to enjoy during a visit.
5. Money for new clothes and school supplies
Sponsor a shopping trip for your missionary family and their TCK to buy what they’ll need for life in their passport country. Depending on where your missionary family has lived overseas, some TCKs may not own a winter coat, which is essential if they’ll be in a cold climate during college.
Gift cards can be a practical way to encourage and support the TCK living in your community. Calmes said that some of the churches she was a part of in college would give gift cards to both international students and TCKs around the holidays to help them feel festive and cared for.
6. Connect them to peers and families
Many TCKs are starting all over relationally in a new place. Keep in mind that while some TCKs may have had years of experience living in their passport country, others may have only visited a few times. Offer ways a TCK can meet other college students at your church, introduce them to families who want to welcome them in, and give them chances to build their relational networks in a new place.
7. Ask good questions, and listen to their needs
Be intentional to ask thoughtful questions of the TCK you know. Have them over for dinner or coffee and be ready to listen. No two TCKs are alike, and overseas experiences can widely vary among missionaries, so it’s important not to make assumptions.
Calmes suggested church members “facilitate more in-person connection and networking and let them know it is OK to talk to someone if they are not feeling understood or comfortable.” For a list of great questions to start asking, check out Taylor Murray’s article 10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love to be Asked.
8. Offer career advice and internships
Many American college students hear of internships, part time jobs, and full time job opportunities through personal connections from their families or older adults. TCKs living on their own for the first time likely don’t have as many of those connections, so people in the church can help meet that need. Ask what the TCK is studying, what kind of job they may like, and if they need part time work. Connect them with older adults who can offer job advice, internships, and shadowing opportunities.
Many churches celebrate sending missionaries out from their congregations and faithfully support them during their time overseas. It’s just as important to warmly welcome those missionaries and their children as they return to their passport countries. Giving financial, emotional, and social support to returning TCKs is a great way local churches can continue to encourage and support the missionary community worldwide.
Melynda Schauer is an adult TCK who grew up in Alabama, Macau, and Taiwan. She now lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband and three children. She keeps her international side alive by meeting international students in her city and finding the best bubble tea wherever she goes! You can read more of her writing here.