Third Culture Kids
Understanding the experience of individuals with highly mobile childhoods
We are currently finishing up the research phase of this project, guided by the following question: "How might we support Third Culture Kids during repatriation back to the U.S. for college?"
Over the course of the past three months, our team has been busy creating and executing a research plan focused on Third Culture Kids (TCKs).
Third Culture Kids are individuals who have grown up outside of their parent's culture or passport country for a significant part of their developmental years.
Traditionally, TCK has referred to groups such as children of diplomats, military kids or missionary kids. Neither fully belonging to the culture of their passport or host countries, they live in an in-between space: the third culture. Today it is becoming more common for people to live cross-cultural lives, such as second generation immigrants or children of refugees, and their experiences are in some ways very similar to that of "traditional" TCKs.
Our specific area of focus has been on American TCKs and their repatriation to the U.S. for college, a familiar place that may not always feel quite like home.
What We've Done So Far
- Secondary Research
- Expert Interviews
- Competitive Analysis
- Primary Research
- Analysis and Synthesis of Data
We are keeping a process blog to track our work! You can find more details about our findings there.
A semi-structured interview with the participant about their experiences with their highly mobile childhood and the transition back to the U.S. for college. With the interview, we aimed to build empathy with TCKs by hearing personal stories and examples of their repatriation experience. We also gathered data on problem areas and existing forms of support, found trends in the TCK experience and determined how TCK experiences can vary.
Allowed participant to get water or use the restroom, and used this time as a team to touch base and set up next activity.
30 – 45 minutes
In this activity, we asked the participant to tell us a specific story relating to their TCK background and the college transition. We asked the participant for three stories: a positive experience, a negative experience and a “wildcard” in which they could choose any particular story that particularly resonated with them. As the participant told the story, one of the note-takers mapped their story on a diagram that captured the people, places and feelings of the story. The goal of this activity was to gain a better understanding of the repatriation process in the participant’s own words and see how they viewed their own experiences.
We recruited participants by using an online screener (which also served as a survey) shared in various places online. We posted to our personal Facebook profiles, an expat student group on UW’s campus, expat and TCK Reddit forums and various international school pages. We received over 100 responses on the survey and reached out to 15 eligible participants for in-person sessions. In the end, we were able to recruit 9 participants for the study. Since we received so many responses, this survey data also informed our insights.
The participants were living in different parts of the country and the world, so many sessions were held over Skype. We were also lucky enough to recruit quite a few participants from the area for some in-person interviews.
We used affinity diagramming to make sense of our expert interview data and our participant data. We diagrammed experts and participants separately, outlining themes. We also coded data from our survey and storytelling activities. Using these themes we then came up with seven insights.
Lack of Preparation
TCKs choose colleges based on logistical factors, but tend to gloss over cultural factors (e.g., the realities of a small town life), which end up being crucial to adjustment.
Lack of Awareness
Despite the fact that large numbers of American TCKs repatriate to the U.S. for college, they are unrecognized by American universities and therefore lack the support provided to other groups such as international students.
TCKs struggle to talk about their experiences with non-TCK peers, and frequently edit their story to make social interactions easier.
Skewed View of America
Because TCKs experience foreign cultures, they pride themselves on being empathetic and open minded. However, they fail to apply this perspective to American culture upon repatriation, making it difficult to adjust.
Young adult TCKs develop behaviors and attitudes from moving frequently (i.e., keeping friends at arm’s length and embracing a high-mobility lifestyle) and hold onto them as identity markers. However, these can turn into coping mechanisms lasting into adulthood.
Relationships as Stability
Interpersonal relationships provide a sense of stability and emotional support, which is especially crucial in a life otherwise characterized by frequent change (culture, schools, locations).
During her first year of college, Participant 3 Skyped with her sister (who had gone to the same school for college) a lot, which helped her “figure it out.”
Participant 7 and 9 had U.S. peers that helped them understand American culture.
For TCKs, the struggle with identity formation during college is compounded by conflicting cultural norms that surface during repatriation.
Our current inclination is towards designing a service to support TCKs, with a digital product embedded within the experience. Over the next few weeks we're looking forward to doing the following:
- Consuming all the literature we can on service design
- Conducting further secondary research, with a stronger focus on current campus offerings for incoming students, international students and TCKs
- Ideation and concept generation
- Evaluating our solution!