This is a preview to the Introduction from the book The Global Nomad's Guide to University Transition by Tina L. Quick.
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I asked her what she found to be so difficult about her re-entry. She recalled that she immediately sensed a “disconnect” between herself and her home-country peers. “It became more and more uncomfortable to try to relate to them. I finally decided there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t connect with anyone,” she recalled.
Tammy ended up spending most of her time alone. The isolation eventually spiraled into a deep depression. In the hope of finding help she reached out to her parents, who were an ocean away, and tried to explain to them what she was going through.
“I’m really depressed. I don’t feel like I can get my course work finished. I feel like I can’t even get out of bed,” were the words she used when she eventually plucked up the courage to call. Her parents tried to encourage her but didn’t recognize the fact that she needed professional help. Tammy explained that she eventually became so depressed that she formulated a plan to kill herself. One evening she was ready to go through with it. She had started running the water in the bath tub and got the razor out she would use to slit her wrists. She had even researched how to cut herself to make sure she would hit the arteries and not just the tendons and superficial veins.
I was choked with emotion as I contemplated how this beautiful, gifted, young woman could possibly fathom taking her own life. With tears in my eyes, I reached across the table, placed my hand on hers and asked, “What stopped you from going through with it?”
She sat there staring blankly out the window before finally answering, “Frankly, I was afraid I wouldn’t be successful and, if that happened, then people would think I was crazy. Then I would have been considered weird and crazy.”
Tammy eventually found a good mental health counselor who was able to help her. She continued to have many ups and downs after graduation, but today she is stable and recently married. She offered to share her story with the hope that it would help others avoid what she suffered.
“I wish there had been a book like this when I left for college,” she says. “They told me at my school that it was going to be difficult, but I didn’t believe it. After all, I was in an international school where we all spoke English. I didn’t expect there to be such a big difference back home. I wished I had paid more attention and taken it seriously.”
In the five years following my family’s re-entry to the U.S. and, as a result of living in Boston which has over 200 colleges and universities, I found I was coming into contact with more and more college students who had lived the expatriate life. I kept hearing familiar patterns to their stories, some far worse than others, but too many were stories of silent suffering, sadness, loneliness or, in extreme cases such as Tammy’s, severe depression. These were young adults who had spent incredibly rich childhoods in other countries and cultures. They spoke a variety of languages, understood that there are many ways of doing, living and believing that are not necessarily wrong but just different from their home-country norms. They sported hidden diversity that made them good bridge builders, ambassadors and communicators. But somehow upon returning to their “home” culture, they found themselves misunderstood, weird, strange, standing out as being different, misfits in the very place where they had always imagined they belonged. Their stories and experiences, together with my own family’s experiences, convinced me that this population of repatriates needed to benefit from what those who had gone before them had learned along their journey.
We first left the U.S. for Peshawar, Pakistan when my oldest daughter was three years old, my middle child 15 months old and the youngest was not yet conceived. We were prematurely forced out of Pakistan when President George Bush declared war in the Persian Gulf. All American families were evacuated back to the U.S. We then had the opportunity to go to Nairobi, Kenya, where we enjoyed four incredible years. But the place my daughters really call home is Geneva, Switzerland. Actually it was a combination of two countries because we lived in neighboring France. Our house was literally a stone’s throw from the border crossing.
After spending nearly ten years there, the opportunity presented itself for us to move back to the U.S. The timing was perfect in the sense that our oldest daughter, Janneke, was preparing to go off to college in the U.S. and it would be wonderful to be on the same side of the big pond together. Also my husband’s and my parents were beginning to need more care and attention and we were feeling the need to be closer to them. However, my middle daughter, Katrina, had two years left of high school and my youngest daughter, Kacie, would be re-entering in the last year of middle school. Yikes!
Upon hearing the news that my family was repatriating after having lived abroad for 15 years my psychologist friend, Michèle O’Donnell, offered to give me a re-entry tutorial. Michèle, a counselor to missionary families and hugely familiar with the issues associated with re-entry, took me through the work of Dave Pollock (Interaction International). She explained in detail the five stages of transition and how to “leave well in order to enter well.” I soaked up every word Michèle uttered, studied every diagram and chart she presented and started researching to find out more about what expatriates face when they return “home.” I put quotes around the word home because, although it was the country of the passport we carried, it did not feel like home to us because we had been away from it for so long. It certainly was not home to any of our girls at that point in their lives because none of the three had lived there since they were old enough to remember.
I was particularly interested in the effects the move would have on my children, global citizens who had never really lived in or gone to school in their passport country. During our time in Geneva, when my three daughters were still in primary school, I heard someone speak about “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs), but I never read or heard anything more about them after that and I forgot about the term. But during Michèle’s tutorial she kept bringing up the terms TCKs and global nomads (GNs) and I realized that this was a subject I was going to have to investigate. Living overseas for all or most of their lives had impacted my children in ways I needed to understand and, as it turns out, they needed to understand as well in order to be able to relate to their home-country peers without feeling like complete aliens.
Living abroad had given my children a wealth of languages, peoples, customs, traditions and places (exotic and not so exotic), but no sense of who they really were as Americans. They had become global citizens, internationals who crossed borders and cultures with as much comfort and ease as their home-country peers crossed town lines. Returning to live in a country they only knew from home leave visits every one to two years meant having to learn a whole new culture even though it was somewhat familiar to them. That turned out to be the tricky part. Because they were familiar with our home-country culture they were tricked into believing they would be able to settle right in and even relished the thought of living the American life. It didn’t take long, however, before reality set in. They were no longer Americans. They were international nomads, “belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
I knew the adjustment to our home country was going to be tough, but through Michèle’s tutelage and the subsequent research I had done, I acquired the necessary insight to help them through it. The result was that the road, although not completely smooth, contained fewer bumps and surprises, and we had the tools we needed for navigating the potholes.
The purpose in writing this book goes back to what Tammy and many other repatriating TCKs have said, “I wish someone had told me what I could expect...I wish there had been a book I could have taken to university with me…I wish someone had come to my classroom and told us about re-entry…” The bottom line is that students really do not think they need to be told how to re-enter or move on to another country they think they know. Experiences tell us otherwise. As the Billy Wilder quote goes, “Hindsight is always twenty-twenty.”
Institutions on the receiving end also need to take the global nomad’s transition into consideration. The terms ‘third culture kid’ and ‘global nomad’ are still relatively unknown on campuses around the world. University mental health counselors need to understand the TCK experience in order to understand the special issues of TCKs/GNs and the reasons for those issues. Global nomads don’t fit the typical labels and boxes many domestic student issues fall into.
Ideally students and parents will read this book well before departure, as it is full of information on how to leave well, but if denial wins out, the book can still go with the student to university and be there as a resource when the going gets tough. Some students will do all they can to prepare for leaving and others will have a wait-and-see attitude about it all. “I’ll read it if I need it,” they will say and that’s absolutely fine. Whichever the case may be, reading this book can mean all the difference between just surviving and actually thriving in the university transition.
It is important to note that everyone is different. Not everyone has the same experience, but those who do run into problems are frequently very surprised by it. Some global nomads will actually fare better in their adjustment than their home-country peers because their international background has helped them be resilient. They have come to expect change throughout their lives and have learned to deal with relocations and all the change that surrounds a move. The things I talk about in this book may or may not happen to you, but it is good to know what other TCKs have gone through to avoid unwanted surprises and to learn from their experiences.
While experts say the repatriation experience is just as, if not more, difficult than going abroad, armed with the knowledge of what happens during transition, knowing what to expect, and understanding that it is completely normal can prevent, or at the very least, mitigate the challenges students will face. Some students will seemingly breeze through the five stages of transition. Others will spend months or even years getting through them. This book is filled with the experiences of others who have taken the journey before you. Hopefully, their journeys will have helped pave the road of transition to be straighter and smoother for you.
Founder, International Family Transitions