“How are you feeling about going to college?” My parents asked me in a crowded McDonalds in the Asian metropolis of Macau. Tears welled up in my eyes, the goodbyes after graduation from my international high school in Taiwan still stinging. It was hard to imagine starting all over again, in my “home” state of Alabama, but with my parents and younger brothers living half a world away.
“I don’t want to start over again,” I remember answering. I was exhausted, and I hadn’t even moved yet.
The transition from high school to college can be difficult for many young adults and their families, not just ones who have been living overseas. But the unique situation of being in separate countries for months at a time can add different stressors to this season.
This article will primarily focus on TCKs moving to a university in North America, but many of the suggestions would apply to other post-high school scenarios (online learning, working, trade schools, etc.) as well.
1. Help your TCK be mobile in their new home
For most TCKs going to college in North America, having access to a car they know how to drive will be essential to travel off campus. Getting an American (or Canadian) driver’s license is one of the best ways you can prepare your TCK for life in the U.S. While some larger U.S. cities do have bus systems, taxis and Uber/Lyft options, a car is necessary to get around town in most places.
Once your TCK is old enough to drive, ask yourself: Do they know how to drive and understand the road rules in their passport country? Do they have a driver’s license and car insurance? Do they know what to do if they get into a wreck, or if a police officer pulls them over? Do they have a reliable car they can drive in their passport country? Do they know how to renew their license tag? Even if they don’t own a car, the first step of getting a driver’s license is helpful for providing a valid I.D. for travel, job applications, and banking.
2. Help them set up healthcare
Help your TCK find a primary care physician, dentist and eye doctor (if needed) close by who accept their insurance. Many specialists will not accept new patients without a Primary Care Physician’s referral, so be sure to get in with a PCP first. If your TCK can get an appointment while you’re still with them, you can help them understand the paperwork, insurance coverage, and what to do when they get a healthcare bill. Check out the route to the closest hospital in case of an emergency, and save it as a location in their phone.
It’s also a good idea to have references for mental health professionals and counselors whom your TCK can contact if needed. Many universities offer mental health care for free, but you can also explore other options in the area or online.
3. Explore your TCK’s college town and learn the culture
For parents who grew up in America, it can be easy to think you understand American culture even if you’ve lived overseas for years. But it can be a fun and beneficial adventure to treat your TCK’s new town like you would when moving to a new country. Research places to visit, cultural norms, history, generational trends, and the unique culture to their state/city/school. For example, a large state college in the South, a community college in the Midwest, and a private Christian university in the North will have very different cultures from one another, so learn as much as you can about this new place where your TCK may study and live for several years.
Look for an international grocery store that may have some of your TCK’s favorite foods, and try out restaurants that serve food your TCK may miss from their overseas home. I loved introducing my American friends to Taiwanese bubble tea when I found a place to buy it near my college!
4. Make a plan for school breaks
Look at the university calendar together to note the dates when your TCK will need to move out of the dorms (if they live on campus) and help them make a plan for where to go. They probably won’t want to decide on spring break plans in the fall before they’ve even made new friends, but it can be good to have an idea of people they could stay with for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or long weekends. For one spring break, I took a road trip with two of my closest TCK friends, and it was a great way to re-connect with them and explore a new part of the U.S. together.
5. Talk about emergency situations
Think through some of the possible emergencies your TCK may face, and talk about what to do in their new place. Your TCK may know exactly how to handle an earthquake or tsunami warning but not understand the difference between a tornado watch and warning. Talk them through what to do if their car breaks down, and teach them how to change a flat tire. Decide who their emergency contacts will be, since many forms will require a name, number, and address of an emergency contact.
6. Banking, budgeting, and buying what they need
If your TCK doesn’t already have a banking account in country, help them set one up. Credit card companies often target college students, so talk with them about using credit cards, sticking to a budget, and making other financial decisions. Learn about digital banking apps like Venmo and CashApp if you’re unfamiliar with them. Think through the fastest way to give your TCK money in case of an emergency.
Help them buy what they’ll need for either a dorm room or apartment. If they’re living in an apartment, look over the rental agreement together. Help them set up their living space and make it feel like home. Facebook Marketplace can be a great way to find used furniture, and local churches may know of people willing to donate furniture to your TCK. It’s also a good idea to do grocery shop together if they’re not used to shopping in their passport country.
7. Look for local connections
Remember your TCK is likely starting over without knowing many people, which is true of most incoming college freshmen. But American freshmen typically have a hometown they can return to, high school friends they can easily see, and parents to visit on breaks. If you have friends or family in the area where your TCK will be living, visit them together before you leave the country.
If you can, visit churches in the area and see ways the local church can welcome your TCK. (Tomorrow, A Life Overseas will publish my follow-up article on 8 ways churches can help TCKs in their community.) If possible, plan your trip so your TCK can attend their university’s orientation week and start meeting fellow students, roommates, and professors.
8. Plan ways to stay in touch
As your family prepares for this new season of life, talk about ways you can stay in touch. It can be very helpful before saying goodbye to have a date set for when you’ll see each other again, whether at a Christmas break or in the summertime. You can also talk about your hopes for staying in touch over the phone or Facetime, video apps like Marco Polo, and texts. My family came for a six-month home assignment halfway through my freshman year of college, so knowing it would be just a semester before I’d see them again was helpful as we said goodbye.
Looking back now, I’m so thankful my parents and brothers were able to come with me to the U.S. for several weeks as I prepared to start college. I had many advantages in my adjustment: close relatives within an hour’s drive, a car, a driver’s license, and several years of experience in American culture, but the first year of college was still a tough transition.
While many third-culture kids have unique advantages from growing up overseas, it’s helpful to think of the things they haven’t yet learned or had to do in the country where they’re becoming adults. TCKs can be very resilient, adaptive, and creative, but it’s still helpful to give them as many tools as possible for this transition into adulthood.
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.