By Laura Billings Coleman
illustrations by Eili-Kaija Kuusniemi
How Macalester helps its global citizens cope with the move to college.
Where are you from?
It’s a simple conversation starter heard daily in dorm rooms, classrooms, and cafeteria lines. But for Esther Biesse ’13 the answer is complicated.
“Well, I was born in Paris,” says the psychology major. “But I have an American passport, which I use unless I’m traveling in the EU, and then it’s just easier to use that passport.” She goes on to list a series of previous known addresses, from New Dehli to Tunisia to Morocco, where her mother and father, a water treatment engineer for developing countries, now live.
“But we don’t own a house there,” she adds. “In fact, my mother is actually from North Minneapolis.” Her traveling papers are so well stamped that when an unsuspecting classmate asks Biesse where she’s from, “People who know me well just start to laugh,” she says.
International students now make up about 12 percent of the student body at Macalester College, which has been flying a United Nations flag on campus since 1950. But that demographic doesn’t include the growing number of students like Biesse and her sisterRachel Biesse ’12, who look like “domestic” students on paper, but who have passports that tell how truly global our economy—and their lives—have become. With families and relatives spread across continents, dual citizenship, and parents with jobs that range from international aid to mission work, each student’s story is entirely her own. Yet each also shares a label you may be hearing more about in years to come—Third Culture Kid.
“Third Culture Kids are typically defined as anyone who has lived in two distinctly different cultures before age 18,” says Mary Beth Lamb, a Minneapolis–based consultant who specializes in intercultural relations. The term was first coined by the late Michigan State University sociologist Ruth Useem, who studied how children of missionaries in India integrated aspects of their passport culture with that of their adopted homes, picking and choosing from the core values of both cultures to create a unique “third culture” of their own.
Though the experience of living abroad was once confined to “missionary kids,” “military brats,” and diplomatic elites, the advent of mass air travel and an increasingly global economy mean that as many as 20 million Americans now fit the description of “Third Culture Kid” or TCK for short. The sheer numbers may explain why there’s been a sudden rise in support groups, social networks, and self-help books for these so-called “global nomads.” Another factor: President Barack Obama—perhaps the most famous Third Culture Kid in recent history—has appointed several more TCKs to his administration, including advisor Valerie Jarrett, security advisor James L. Jones, and treasury secretary Timothy Geithner
“Third Culture Kids tend to be most comfortable with other TCKs because they share many similarities, no matter where they’ve lived,” says Lamb. “They tend to have high levels of personal autonomy, openness, and resilience, and they’re okay with being confronted with different viewpoints. They have high levels of empathy, they’re curious about the world, and they’ve got the ability to get things done. They are the 21st century citizens we all need to be.”
Despite their strengths, these young global nomads can find college a particularly challenging time, as they deal with the culture shock of “coming home” to a country that feels unfamiliar or try to find common ground with classmates whose frames of reference may be quite different from their own. “Going to college in your parents’ home country can be like starting all over again,” Lamb explains, one reason TCKs are at higher risk for depression, academic melt-downs, and dropping out.
That’s why Macalester and other colleges that welcome these well-traveled students are beginning to consider the Third Culture Kid experience more closely, offering an extra level of support so that these four years are not the end of a Third Culture student’s journeys—but just the start.
Lost in translation
Though his cell phone number comes from Austin, Texas, where his parents now live,Jan Walsh ’13 spent his formative years in France, where his mother settled after leaving Poland. Fluent in English from years of bilingual education, Walsh’s understanding of American urban design was understandably limited when he came to Macalester.
On a shopping trip to a Roseville Target store—itself a source of wonder for many international students—he and some friends decided to catch a movie at the AMC Roseville, about a mile away. “In Paris, you’d just walk there, but it doesn’t work like that in the states,” says Walsh, who recalls how the group crossed the highway, climbed fences, and forged fields of snow to get to their destination. The experience was both “ridiculous” and a little disorienting for Walsh. “Even though I’m an American, I guess there are still some things about American culture that I don’t entirely embrace,” urban sprawl and lack of public transit being high on his list.
Navigating this unfamiliar terrain can be a challenge for many TCKs, which is why Macalester now encourages these students to take part in the Pre-orientation for International Students at the start of the school year. This two-day immersion session covers everything from how to avoid
international cell phone charges, to understanding Minnesota’s underage drinking laws, to knowing what health insurance covers in the United States. Group discussions also explore the peculiar and profound cultural differences students must contend with if they’ve come from other parts of the world.
“Probably the strangest thing for me is how differently students treat their teachers,” saysCynthia Kunakom ’13, a biology and Japanese major. Born in the United States to Thai parents, she attended a British school in Thailand before returning to the U.S. for her final year of high school. Though she found the behavior of many of her high school classmates “rude,” she has grown to like how students can develop friendships with their professors here in America.
Public transportation was a surprise to Biesse, who spent most of her teenage years in Morocco: “The existence of buses that are not full just blew my mind,” she recalls. “The fact that I could travel by bus and be safe was a completely new experience.”
Understanding idiomatic English is another challenge for TCKs, who may not understand that “How are you?” is usually a rhetorical question, and “See you later” is not a promise. “One challenge is that while Americans are very open, the way they communicate can be superficial,” says Walsh. “You know, everyone you meet is ‘awesome.’”
Equally disorienting is the American obsession with sports, saysNolin Deloison-Baum ’12, a French-American who moves between both countries. “In France, they have soccer,” he says. “But here we’ve got six different sports you’re expected to be competent in.” In this new world, it’s no wonder some TCKs will try to blend in, “wearing the big Nike swoosh all over their clothes—overcompensating,” Deloison-Baum jokes.
Following the curve
Although many of the orientation topics are all in good fun (a class called “Sarcasm 101” is a particular favorite), Aaron Colhapp, director of the International Student Program, also tries to prepare international and returning domestic students for the pitfalls they can expect as they transition to college—a journey some students refer to as “The Curve.”
“In many ways it’s the same trajectory that American students go through, just more extreme,” says Colhapp. For instance, the euphoria of arriving on campus is often followed by the sudden shock that everything around you is unfamiliar. “I remember being so overwhelmed that I went to Super America, bought two bags of chips and a bottle of Coke and stayed in my room for three days,” recallsShahar Eberzhon ’12, a Davis Scholar from Israel who attended high school in Italy. “I was completely overwhelmed.”
Once the daily academic demands set in and the early bonding with roommates wears off, students may notice a common set of symptoms—among them, a quickness to anger, an obsession with cleanliness, feelings of loneliness, and frequent use of four-letter words. While these students may long to spend time with other people from their home country, they may also feel ashamed to be feeling down. “I think everybody hears Aaron talk about that curve and you think, ‘That’s not going to happen to me,’” says Deloison-Baum. “But then it happens to you.”
“One of the issues for TCKs is that they’re often more sophisticated than their counterparts, and have had some really rich cultural experiences” that their peers, fresh from American high schools, probably haven’t had, says Lamb. “At the same time, TCKs can be less emotionally mature than their peers, and may have been more sheltered growing up…they may have been more removed from pop culture, drugs, movies,” and American rites of passage such as slumber parties and prom.
“But the biggest issue for anyone who has lived and worked in another culture is that it challenges your identity and sense of self,” says Lamb. “As a child, so much of who you are in the world is built around the cultural framework you were taught, but if you live in a different culture, you discover that the norms are different. The question becomes, which rules are the right ones? Which ones are you going to live by?”
Feeling keenly aware of the differences between cultures, yet not fluent in any of them, is a common theme for TCKs, several of whom declined to be interviewed for this story. “I think what happens is that you find out you’re not part of any culture really,” says one student, who was seeking counseling on the subject and asked that his name not be used. “Where I grew up, I always felt like an outsider as an American, and now being in America, I feel like an outsider again.” Though he wouldn’t trade his cross-cultural experience, feeling foreign in his home country, he says, is a condition that “has made it really hard to connect. You don’t know where ‘home’ is.”
“Coming to Macalester was a relief. It was awesome to be around people who had lived abroad themselves and didn’t make me feel like such an outsider.”
—Shannon McDonald ’05
Finding a balance
Shannon McDonald ’05 remembers that feeling well. Though she spent most of her childhood in Egypt, and traveled widely in the Middle East, the hardest move she ever made was to International Falls, Minnesota, where her family returned for her high school years. “Coming to Macalester was a relief,” she says. “It was awesome to be around people who [had lived abroad themselves and] didn’t make me feel like such an outsider.”
“There are parts of my own culture in Thailand and U.S. culture that I don’t like that much, so I try to kind of balance between the two. I see how multiculturalism is an advantage for me.”
— Cynthia Kunakom ’13
In fact, Macalester’s student body is so diverse that geography professor Bill Moseley no longer starts the first class of the year with the “where are you from?” ice-breaker he used to employ. “Now I say, tell me about the place you consider to be ‘home,’ because the fact is, many of students have lived in a variety of places,” Moseley says. “That’s just the nature of our economy.”
Anthropology professor Dianna Shandy says having Third Culture students in a classroom often helps expand the worldview of students who haven’t traveled as widely—and vice versa. “What I particularly appreciate is the chemistry between the student who grew up in rural Minnesota and the one who grew up in Brussels, Beirut, or Boston. There is a wonderful, productive intellectual tension that stems from a natural curiosity in terms of how the other sees the world,” she says. “In many cases, I think the rural Minnesota student wishes he’d grown up with that globetrotting dimension to his life; on the other hand, I think some of those Third Culture Kids are working through where to call ‘home,’ and seeing the world through a rural Minnesotan’s eyes helps in that quest to understand the self. Having these diverse perspectives on whatever topic we’re grappling with is a tremendous boon for a professor.”
Sharing these diverse perspectives is also the goal of a new campus group facilitated by the International Student Program dubbed “The Ametrica Project “ (a collision of America and the rest of the world, whose people understand the metric system). The program brings together domestic and international students to promote intercultural sensitivity with mediated group discussions about everything from family and politics to religion and race. Initiated last year, the project attracted 45 students to regular sessions. This year, the group is aiming to expand its membership and to cover more topics suggested by participants, such as humor, irony, and even mental health care.
Kunakom says discussions like this, in classrooms or with friends from similar backgrounds, have helped her to reconcile some of the conflicts she feels as she considers her future. Though she believes she’ll have more career opportunities in the United States, her parents tell her, “Remember, you’re from Thailand.” “Actually, there are parts of my own culture in Thailand and U.S. culture that I don’t like that much, so I try to kind of balance between the two,” she says. “I see how multiculturalism is an advantage for me.”
Other students say that spanning cultures helps them notice qualities in each that natives might take for granted. For instance, Deloison-Baum recalls how his French counterparts found the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s “hilarious,” yet, as a citizen of both cultures, he wondered if there was something instructive about the American outcry. “Is there something I should learn about the American response—should I be concerned when a politician is dishonest?” he says.
This capacity to consider two viewpoints without rejecting either is one of the defining qualities of the Third Culture Kid. “It’s the reason TCKs can have jobs for life,” says Lamb. “They make some of the best international businesspeople because they’re great boundary spanners. If they get the support they need to make a successful transition through college, they have some of the greatest opportunities in the world.”
Fresh from earning a master’s degree in Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo, McDonald is living in St. Paul with her aunt Margaret Kelberer ’77, herself a Third Culture Kid who spent most of her childhood in Beirut. When Kelberer came to Macalester “there was no talk of TCKs. I remember being very jealous of an international student friend who was assigned a host family. I wanted one, too!”
Kelberer and her niece often talk about how the excitement of living abroad can contribute to a lifelong sense of restlessness. “I’ve lived in the same house for 15 years and I still haven’t unpacked some of my bags, because I’m never sure I’m staying,” jokes Kelberer, a librarian and teacher at St. Paul Academy.
Watching the events of the Arab spring unfold, McDonald was surprised to find she felt homesick for Cairo as well as afraid of “missing out” on history being made. “Being a TCK definitely trains you to want to be where the action is,” she says. Now working for AmeriCorp’s Minnesota Reading Corp as a literacy tutor, McDonald says she’s happy to call St. Paul home. For now.
The lesson she’s learned as a Third Culture Kid: “You can feel at home in a lot of places.”