When Expectations Aren’t Reality: Supporting Your TCKs in the First Years of University

by Lauren Wells

I stood on a grassy hill hugging my parents tight as they prepared to drive away and head back to Africa, leaving me at university in Indiana. I had prepared for this transition. I had visited the school, had already made some friends, had earned my driver’s license on a previous home assignment, and felt ready and excited for this new chapter. It was going to be great.

A few days into the semester, I was required to go to an international student workshop. I was excited, thinking this was the part where I’d meet other TCKs. I was surprised to find that all of the other international students came from other passport countries for the purpose of university and that this was their first time living outside their home country.

I was equally surprised when our workshop consisted of teaching American currency (“This is a dollar. This is a penny, it’s worth one cent.”) and explaining how to dial 911. Having lived in the US until I was 13, I quickly realized I was the outsider in the international student group, so after I’d met the requirements, I never went back. 

As the semester went on, I tried to make friends. But it felt like every time I opened my mouth, the words I spoke didn’t get the reaction I was expecting. My attempts to be funny were met with awkward smiles. My attempts to deepen relationships by sharing about something a bit more vulnerable were met with comments that communicated a lack of ability to relate to my experiences and no invitation to continue the conversation.

I quickly felt like I didn’t belong with the monocultural crowd, but I told myself it didn’t matter. “I’ll only be here long enough to get my degree anyway, and it will be easier to leave if I never make close friends.” I knew what it felt like to leave close friends, so when my initial attempts to build relationship hadn’t worked, that seemed like a good excuse to stop trying.

I became the quiet one who walked through campus trying not to be noticed. I succeeded academically but have no memories of good social experiences. That first Christmas break, I remember feeling like a shell of myself, never having felt that level of emptiness and despair before, and I simultaneously decided that I just needed to toughen up and keep moving forward. 

School resumed, and I took on more classes than recommended, thinking that if I just poured myself into the academics, I could ignore the rest. But then, the grief started to creep in. Not just the grief of that year, but the grief that I had so skillfully pushed down for a long time before that. My Grief Tower was collapsing.

At TCK Training we work with TCKs on both sides of this story – educating families who are raising TCKs on how they can be intentional in caring for the unique needs of TCKs so that they can prevent adverse outcomes in adulthood and serving adult TCKs who reach out to us for support. 

In between the two parts of that story, we have found the need for preventive care and support. Sometimes universities have a wonderful TCK program, like MuKappa, that provides community and support for TCKs in their university years. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of resources available to university-age TCKs to guide them through that season. 

But there is good news! We can be intentional about supporting our university-age TCKs well, especially in those first couple of years. 

  • Set them up for emotional success by making sure they’ve had the opportunity to debrief and unstack their Grief Tower before university. The books The Grief Tower and Unstacking Your Grief Tower can guide you in doing that process in your own family. We recommend doing this at least 3 months before the transition to university so that the grief these conversations bring to the surface has time to begin to heal before they experience the major transition of starting university. 
  • Make sure they have avenues for connection and continued processing with safe people – family, friends, counselors. There will inevitably be difficulty in the transition, but they will not always want to share their hardships with you. Often this is because they won’t want to burden you on top of your international work or because they won’t want to disappoint you at their “failure” to thrive. Take away that shame by regularly asking them what has been hard. Ask them questions, and even when they don’t answer, let them know you don’t expect everything to be easy for them. For more on this, check out KC360’s workshop, “Indicators that University Transition is Going Well (or Not) with Dr. Rachel Cason” included in their free website membership
  • Help them develop a support network. There is potential for heavy, hard, or just unexpected circumstances to arise that require the help of a supportive adult. Asking for help can feel shameful, but that fear and shame can be reduced when the TCK has a list of people who have agreed to be a support to them. It is even more helpful when those people regularly check in with the TCK to see how they’re doing and what they need. Have your TCK help create a “supportive adult” list, and then ask the people on the list to regularly reach out to the TCK – both asking what they need and offering tangible ways they can help. For example, “Can I take you shopping for a winter coat? Can I come help pack up your dorm room for summer break?”
  • Teach them to celebrate wins. Adult TCKs often struggle to acknowledge their victories due to consistently feeling the need to adapt to fit the communities around them. The internal need to continue performing at ever higher levels leads to burnout. Celebrating victories, however, allows for rest, builds confidence and a sense of value, and strengthens their emotional bank to handle the difficult waves that come. 
  • Provide them transition support in their first year or two of university. An example of this is TCK Training’s Launch Pad program, which provides repatriating TCKs with a 10-month virtual cohort community, education, and support directly related to adult TCK experiences. There is space to process and grieve, along with regular checks-ins to celebrate victories and continue developing as an individual.
  • Familiarize yourself with Adult TCK resources so that you can support your Adult TCK by sending them relevant resources along the way. There is so much available now that simply wasn’t around only a few years ago! You can view all of TCK Training’s ATCK services, workshops, and resources at www.tcktraining.com/for-atcks 

The first couple years of university are notoriously the most difficult transition for TCKs. We believe, however, that with intentionality we can make these years not only healthy, but years that set them up for long-term emotional and relational health. 

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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