Painting Pictures: Transitioning Globally to University

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Painting Pictures: Transitioning Globally to University

painting pictures1Today’s Painting Pictures is brought to you by Janneke Jellema, one of my favorite twitter peeps. Come to think of it, we met on Twitter, I think(?). I read this and wanted to post it right away, found myself impatiently waiting for Tuesday when I could hit the ‘publish’ button and share it with you. She is full of wisdom, great links, and a supportive and encouraging spirit. This piece is filled with practical advice as well as the ups and downs of being a TCK. I know you will find it as helpful as I do.

Transitioning Globally to University

My life changed drastically when I took an aeroplane from Harare, Zimbabwe to Schiphol international airport, Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I left my parents, brothers and sister behind. All that was familiar: my friends, my bicycle, my youth in Africa and lots more. The destination was known. My whole life while I grew up as blond girl with blue eyes in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, being “different” was the name of the game. On my ID card in Zimbabwe it said “alien”. That’s really great when you are a teenager! We were taught that we were Dutch, it’s the language we spoke at home, the Netherlands was the country we went to on leave. I was proud of my clogs and I loved the Dutch tulips. So I thought I knew the country I was to go to university in. I thought I knew the country of destination.

I was totally unprepared for the (reverse) culture shock that I would have. Totally unprepared for the loneliness, feeling out of place, not knowing the rules and norms, and the depression that set in. Did my fellow students or my lecturers notice the above? Did they see the loneliness? No they did not. Many times they did not understand my stories about my African youth so I stopped telling these stories. I just did not talk about it anymore.

I silenced the “African” part of me. Even now when I talk to my Dutch friends who knew me at university they say we did not know that you were depressed and that you felt so lonely. Did I cover it up? Did I keep it a secret? I do not know. It was just a time of survival. Now “survival” was the name of the game. When I transitioned to university, there were actually serveral transitions all at once:

  • a different school system: Zimbabwean system changed into the Dutch school system
  • a transition from secondary school to university
  • culture change: moving from Zimbabwe to the Netherlands
  • language change: moving from predominately English speaking environment to a predominately Dutch speaking environment.
  • from living at home to living on my own. A major step in independence.


I am  glad  I survived all these transitions. It was very challenging and stressful at the time. My desire is that other teenagers making these international transitions have more knowledge, preparation and help than I did years ago. I had never even heard of the term third culture kid. It was only when I read the book Third Culture Kids Growing Up Among Worlds by D.Pollock and R.van Reken years later that I discovered it. What a relief that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was not wierd but that I had all these feelings because of my global childhood. I was not the only one with these feelings but there were more people with the same experiences. Amazing!
Recently I found an interesting article online: “Identity, mobility and marginality: counseling third culture kids in college” (2012) by Dana Leigh Downey, University of Texas at Austin. The article mentions that it is estimated that over 4 million Americans live abroad, with over 37,000 matriculating into U.S. universities each year. Our societies are becoming more and more global. Third culture kids “experience a collision of cultures and form hybrid identities in the course of their development”.
Gaw* (2007) says that re-entry is often more challenging and unsettling than initial culture shock, affecting academic, social and psychological functioning. As with other non majority groups TCKs are less likely to seek support services on campus. “The non-linear background of the TCK does not fit the mold of the average intake form.” There’s a good idea here: Downey suggests that counseling centres may consider adding questions to their surveys or intake forms: before the age of 18 I lived in more than one country/culture. A question like this would help identify third culture kids. It is only worth identifying TCKs if there are people who are equipped to help them. According to Downey, in order to assist third culture kids experiencing re-entry culture shock, counselors must extend:
  • support
  • validation
  • encouragement
  • along with cultural compentence
  • and intercultural understanding
That sounds too good to be true.

Soon colleges and universities will start their academic year and over 37,000 TCKs will return to America to further their education. An unknown number of TCKs will re-enter the Netherlands and many other countries. What will their experience be like? Will it be different to mine years ago? Will they be identified? Will they be helped by well-equipped counselors, and mental health practitioners that have experience working with third culture kids?

What was your experience when you went to college or university? Do you have advice?

*Gaw, K.F. (2007) Mobility, Multiculturalism and Marginality: Counseling Third Culture Students. Special Populations in College Counseling: A Handbook for Mental Health Practitioners(63-76).


My 10 Tips for transitioning well to university (for parents and TCKs):

  1. Choose a college or university that is internationally minded, with international programs or international students. The international character will help you feel more “at home”, you will fit in more easily.
  2. If possible visit the college or university before hand, to see what it is like and to be able to compare it to other colleges or universities.
  3. Parents: prepare your TCK before they leave. Talk about the practical stuff: where can they spend the weekend? Where will they spend Christmas? When will you see each other again? How often will you skype?
  4. Parents: teach your kids and teenagers about what a TCK is. Even if they are not interested in it at this moment, it will help them in the future.
  5. Read the posts on DenizenMag: A TCK’s Guide to College. There’s great advice there.
  6. Read and give your TCK a copy of Tina Quick’s book The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition. It is a very useful and practical book.
  7. Consider using the online mentoring services by Sea Change Mentoring, they help the teenagers handle the international transitions succesfully.
  8. If possible have the TCK do a re-enty course at the moment of transition, with a follow up a couple of months later.
  9. Stay in contact with other TCKs, they can support you during all the changes. You can join to meet other TCKs online. Or start a TCK group at your university.
  10. Ask for help, seek professional help or counselling if needed (preferably with a professional who has experience working with international students or TCKs).
Janneke Jellema is an adult TCK who grew up in Africa. She writes about “kids growing up in other cultures” on her DrieCulturen blog. You can follow her on twitter @DrieCulturen.


  1. LANA July 23, 2013 at 4:54 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this post. I did not grow up oversees, so I cannot feel the struggle you had, but I have experience tremendous reverse culture shock. For me it gets worse, not better. I think people need to become more aware of our struggles. If a mother has postpartum depression, we may not be able to feel their pain, but its acknowledged. When I was depressed from reverse culture shock, no one acknowledged it. Even when I said I could not handle malls, people still tried to push me in it. It’s super hard.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones July 24, 2013 at 5:46 am - Reply

      Sometimes it seems people react to culture shock with a ‘get over it’ attitude when someone is struggling. Or, ‘just give it time and you’ll get used to it.’ But you have good words about the need for empathy.

  2. Janneke @DrieCulturen July 23, 2013 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    Hi Lana, sorry to hear that you experienced a serious reverse culture shock. Did you know anything about reverse culture shock? I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of products in the shops. If possible I just did not buy a product because the there was so much choice, too much for me to handle….
    I hope you have some supportive people around you.

  3. Ute Limacher July 24, 2013 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    Thank you Janneke for this excellent post! I didn’t experience reverse culture shock but I did experience the sense of being lonely and not finding anyone to share my experiences with. I also went through the transition phases several times. This feeling of being different will never stop and I’m still trying to adapt to several new groups. – You are so right: the most important thing is to find supportive people who can help, not only in situations where we experience reverse culture shock like Lana (and yourself) but also when we experience culture shock.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones July 26, 2013 at 4:29 pm - Reply

      My best tip with culture shock has been to have 1-3 people that I can tell everything to. One friend, sometimes in the early days back in the US, I just show up at her house, she opens the door, I start crying…she has the most amazing listening ear and ability to encourage me, even though she hasn’t spent years as an expat. I also find myself hoping that people have someone like that when they are transitioning.

  4. Warwick Third Culture Society July 26, 2013 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    Insightful post! I’m the VP of the Third Culture Society at the University of Warwick (UK) and the society helps with all these aspects of transitioning to a new environment. University can be challenging at first; often TCKs find it difficult as you mentioned, but these tips really help, and joining societies is great also. We try to provide a support network, aid networking and spread the word about TCKs. In fact, if approached openly, university can be the best place to meet so many interesting people from all over the world, who are just like you. Thanks for the great read 🙂

    • Rachel Pieh Jones July 26, 2013 at 4:27 pm - Reply

      Great to hear from you, sounds like an amazing group.

      • Janneke @DrieCulturen July 29, 2013 at 6:36 pm - Reply

        Good to read that there are special societies welcoming and providing a support network for TCKs. I wish all universities had a society like you have at the University of Warwick!

        @Ute thanks for your compliment, nice to see you here!

  5. Janneke @DrieCulturen August 4, 2013 at 12:09 pm - Reply

    By the way I have just discovered that a new book has been published: “The Stress-free guide to Studying in the States” by Toni Summers Hargis. It looks like a practical book and could be very helpful for those heading off to the States to study. Check

  6. BethTarcza September 24, 2013 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    Loved Janneke’s blog.
    I am a TCK with a daughter leaving for college soon & I still feel like a zebra in a herd of horses w/ most of my typical US female friends.
    For the most part I try to wear my “stripes” on the inside.

    I feel the best connected when with other TCK’s and ex-pats.

  7. […] Now that I am going to an average community college, with other average people like me, it’s significantly harder to fit in (the way that MK’s fit in-which isn’t really fitting in at all.) When I enter a classroom no one knows that I’m different than him or her. (I don’t mean that in a snobby way.)  Nobody knows that I grew up in a insanely poor county, and this isn’t really home to me.  I look like I belong here, after all. […]

  8. […] read: transitioning globally to university […]

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