Going off to college is a big step, and whether going far or staying close to home, most kids will experience homesickness and adjustment anxiety at some point in the process some more than others for sure, but I think it’s safe to say that no one really escapes it. It’s easy to imagine that someone who has grown up a third culture child in an expat family would adjust easily to the new world that college presents. After all, these are children who are used to figuring out how to fit in and smoothly adjusting to new cultures.

But it may not be quite that simple. It turns out that third culture children may struggle as much, or even more, as their local counterparts. Consider that for a third culture child who has lived most of her or his life abroad, even the home country culture can seem foreign. So while the global cultural competency is high, there may be a lack of feeling grounded. For a young, newly independent adult this may be disorienting, especially in combination with trying to figure out the college world itself with its maze of new relationships, academic requirements and just living on your own for the first time.

As parents of these college bound children we have our own hopes and fears tied to their college experience. For global citizens in particular, the question of where the kids go to college is a big one. I have friends who deliberately moved back home for their kids’ high school years so that they would have a firm ground to stand on for college in their home country. Now that both their kids are in college, the parents are once again living the expat life in far corners of the world. They go home to see their children over breaks and travel together when opportunities present themselves.

Other friends of mine had a different strategy and let the “chips fall where they may” and ended up having one child staying for college while the rest of the family moved back home after their expat assignment was over. Both families seem to feel that their choices have worked out well.

When my son went to college overseas he didn’t expect to feel as disoriented as he did. He was moving from the US to the UK, two English speaking countries, similar in many ways. He was pretty confident when he left that it was going to be easy, at least from a cultural adaptation point of view. Yet the first semester was a real struggle. He felt out of place and lost. It was not that he didn’t have friends or didn’t enjoy his classes, he simply felt foreign; he couldn’t really put his finger on it. Going back to the UK after spending Christmas at home, he felt more at ease. He knew how to navigate life better and had grown accustomed to some of the things that threw him off when he first arrived.

My daughter, who now has a few years of college life under her belt, stayed home the first two years and opted for a local junior college for all her basic courses. She did not feel quite ready to leave home, and wanted the comfort of having family around to help navigate the first couple of years of college. It was the right choice for her and when she transferred to a four-year school far away from home, she was ready.

I guess my point is that there are many ways to tackle the college decision and all kids and families are different; it really is a matter of finding the right fit for your particular circumstances. As for your newly minted college child, they will find their footing, it just may take a little longer and require a little more work than initially expected.

Check out the following books and articles:

Global nomad’s guide to university transition

10 tips for raising a global child

Helping expat kids transition to university

By: Felicia Shermis

Continuing education as an adult
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