In an increasingly globalised society, people from different cultures have more opportunities to interact, collaborate, and create unique cultural identities. This phenomenon has led to American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coining the term ‘Third Culture Kids’ in the 1950s. But what does being a third culture kid actually mean? And what does it mean if you’re a third culture kid heading to university? Find out the definition of a third culture kid, as well as what it’s like to be one. And, importantly, how does being a third culture kid impact being a university student?

What does a third culture kid mean? Definition

What does being a third culture kid mean

A Third Culture Kid is a person who has spent a significant portion of their youth in a culture different from their parents’ (or the culture of their passport country). The term “third culture” comes from the fusion of the child’s original culture (the first culture) and the new culture of where they spent their childhood (the second culture). This unique blend creates an entirely new and separate third culture, which people like Ruth Hill Useem argue becomes the child’s true cultural identity.

Third Culture Kids often come from families working in international organisations, diplomacy, military, or multinational corporations, where they move between countries frequently. As a result, they develop a global perspective, multicultural understanding, and a high level of adaptability. However, there are also some challenges many Third Culture Kids report.

Challenges Faced by Third Culture Kids

What does being a third culture kid mean

Third Culture Kids sometime face a unique challenges, including an identity crisis or lack of sense of belonging. This can make it difficult to have lasting friendships and connections, and may make you feel lonely at times.  There’s also the challenge of fitting in to one of the cultures, where Third Culture Kids often have to juggle being part of one or the other (e.g. their parents’ culture or where they live). Furthermore, when Third Culture Kids return to their passport or parents’ country, they may encounter reverse culture shock as they struggle to readjust to their home country’s customs, language, and social norms. It’s important to note that not all Third Culture Kids experience these challenges, and some may enjoy their unique upbringing.

Strengths of Third Culture Kids

What does being a third culture kid mean

From multilingualism to open-mindedness, being raised with multiple cultures can be beneficial. These skills can be highly advantageous for future careers too. Third Culture Kids usually have great cultural intelligence that enables them to navigate complex social situations and interact effectively with people from diverse backgrounds. Their adaptability, developed from living in different cultures and adjusting to new environments, makes them highly flexible and resilient, skilled at managing change and finding solutions to problems.

Moreover, their multilingualism, acquired at a young age, not only enhances their communication skills but also expands their educational and career opportunities. TCKs also develop a global mindset, which allows them to view the world from multiple perspectives, understand the interconnectedness of societies, think critically, approach problems creatively, and appreciate the value of diversity.

What’s it like to be a Third Culture Kid at university?

What is it like to be a third culture kid at university?

University is usually an exciting time. It’s the chance to live independently while doing something enjoyable for your future career. However, some Third Culture Kids might struggle with some parts of going to uni. After a childhood filled with cultural relocations, Third Culture Kids sometimes find it difficult adjusting to university life, such as culture shock and the need to adapt emotionally and practically to a new academic and cultural environment. As many as 40% of Third Culture Kid students drop out in the first year (Ender, 2000). Another study also found that a lot of Third Culture Kids struggle when it comes to forming friendships, due to years of moving around. Another study from an undergraduate at University of Edinburgh found that Third Culture Kids often feel socially isolated from the university’s monocultural social network, partly due to their dislike of alcohol culture.

Despite these challenges, the university environment can a chance for Third Culture Kids to find a new space to be. They are likely to be surrounded by people from all different backgrounds, with different life experiences. Their inherent adaptability may also help them to thrive in such diverse settings, engaging in meaningful conversations, collaborating on group projects, and forming connections with individuals from all walks of life.

If you’re a Third Culture Kid and worried about heading to uni, it’s a good idea to seek out support networks, engage in cultural clubs and organisations, and embrace their diverse backgrounds. By doing so, you can create a sense of community and foster an inclusive atmosphere where they can thrive both academically and socially. We have some tips on joining a student society to start you off.