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Helping Older TCKs Transition to College

Many third-culture kids (TCKs) return to their passport country to pursue higher education. Some do so due to language, some due to parents’ and schools’ familiarity with the process, and others to pursue opportunities or an experience that is a rite of passage within their home culture. Regardless of the reason, going to university is often one of the most challenging transitioning experiences for a TCK. University is often the first time TCKs are fully on their own and responsible for more than they may have been in the past: funding their education, feeding themselves, paying bills, holding themselves accountable to school work, paying bills, etc. This transition can be hard for anyone, but TCKs face particular challenges based on their international experience and potential distance from support networks. 

Homesickness - What and Where Is Home?

Homesickness is normal for all students at university. Being removed from home, family, community, and even familiar cooking can all be challenges for a freshman student who deeply misses those comforts. This is particularly the case when students fall ill and miss the support they are used to receiving from family and community during recovery. Most freshmen are struggling with these life transitions in different ways, and the people who get you through these transitions often end up being lifelong friends.

Establishing a “home” base in the residence hall and establishing a local community are two keys for freshmen TCKs to feel safe, loved, and comfortable at university.

“Home” might mean something a little different for TCKs than it does for other classmates. But university is also a great opportunity to define for themselves what and where is home and what grounds them to it. Having moved so many times, home for a TCK was most likely established by and with the nuclear family and was probably defined by a constant like family rather than a particular place. Establishing a “home” base in the residence hall and establishing a local community are two keys for freshmen TCKs to feel safe, loved, and comfortable at university.

Before leaving for university, TCKs should pack some special items they can decorate their residence hall room with, such as photos from favorite visited places, family, and pets. Additionally, bringing a throw pillow, coasters, or a mug from home can all become important objects for creating a sense of belonging and home in the residence hall. TCKs should take some time to consider what objects to select from their room now to bring to university. Having these when they move can lessen the ache for what home smelled like, looked like, and felt like when they lived with their family in another country.

Sometimes TCKs are aching for a familiar sound or smell of home. Perhaps it’s the sound of street vendors selling produce or the smell of a local dish they would eat every weekend. A practical idea for building a sense of home and belonging in the new area is to find the food that makes them feel safe or whole or whatever they are seeking to recreate the notion of home. For many TCKs, this is usually some kind of dessert, dumpling, or soup. If they have a kitchen in the residence hall, encourage them to learn how to make it and invite people to join! This is a wonderful way to make friends. If not, find the nearest restaurant that makes that comfort food. Alternatively, if it’s not on their menu but the owners/chefs are from the country that has the food they are craving, they might make it and perhaps even introduce local community members from that country to the TCK.

Sustaining and Building Community

Encourage TCKs to stay in touch with their loved ones in other homes. Some advocate for settling fully into university and trying to limit contact with people “back home,” but TCKs are pros at managing multiple time zones and global friendships. While university offers a new opportunity to develop relationships in the local community in new ways, communication with home friends and family can help TCKs remember that they aren’t alone. Encourage them not to be on FaceTime calls, WhatsApp, and DM platforms for hours on end and to establish healthy routines and connection points that don’t require being up at dawn or in the wee hours of the night. Finding people with experiences similar to TCKs in their local community can help them strike the right balance.

TCKs are pros at managing multiple time zones and global friendships.

While university campus events and student-led activities are important experiences and areas to be involved in, highlight that TCKs don’t have to limit themselves to just this community and cultural context. Consider the town, neighboring cities, and even bordering states to discover if there are additional venues to find community. Depending on the size, diversity, international population, and public transportation options, TCKs may end up spending their Saturday evening at the local diner, faith building, or dance studio. There are often international clubs around university campuses that TCKs can search for on Meetup or other similar applications to discover people with similar interests.

Work with TCKs to define what will make them feel ready to move on to university.

Consider TCK-Specific Needs and Skills

Changes in country, community, and cultural norms can spike anxiety, stress, and depression for TCKs who do not take the time to have closure with people they are connected to and with places they lived. Suggest that TCKs host and attend farewell parties, write thank-you letters to teachers and other significant community members who have been influential in their lives, and be intentional about revisiting important local landmarks.

Work with TCKs to define what will make them feel ready to move on to university. It’s important to approach the topic of mental health as a conversation rather than a lecture to start a dialogue about what concerns and stressors are present in academic, social, and cultural spheres. Model and practice that there is no shame in asking for and seeking help and support. Remind teens that their stress in transitions won’t last forever and that it is normal to feel anxious about upcoming life transitions. Reinforce the value of practicing self-care routines that make them feel better. Finally, openly discuss the possibility of talking with counselors and doctors as an additional way to manage anxiety, depression, and stress.

When it comes to building community, encourage TCKs to activate their curiosity skills and actively listen. Pausing and listening (intently and without an intention to relate) can help others feel heard and encourage their own curiosity in personal experiences. In general, teens can benefit from additional guidance and strategies on how to deal with time management, emotion management, and relationship management at university, so encourage them to connect with campus resources and organizations before arrival.


Megan Norton is an author, third culture kid (TCK) consultant, intercultural trainer, podcast host of A Culture Story, and writer at Growing up as a U.S. diplomat dependent, she lived in six countries (U.S., South Africa, South Korea, Germany, Japan, Israel) and has lived in four more countries (Austria, Greece, Hungary, Poland) and five U.S. states as an adult. Megan is an active member of Families in Global Transition and has served on the Board of Directors from 2018–2022. For the past five years, Megan has been the co-chair of the NAFSA Global Nomad/TCK Member Interest Group. Megan holds two master’s degrees: one in Intercultural Communication, and one in Strategic Communication. Megan’s writings and research are published in several magazines and online forums. Her book, Belonging Beyond Borders: How Adult Third Culture Kids Can Cultivate a Sense of Belonging, equips and empowers globally mobile youth to recognize their cultural competencies and apply them in various contexts.

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