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‘Global Nomads’ Find a Home

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With its international focus and highly supportive community, Lewis & Clark provides a welcoming environment for third-culture kids.

Did you fly before you could walk? Did you have a passport before a driver’s license? Do you sigh when hearing the question, “So where are you from?” If so, you may be a TCK.

The acronym stands for “Third Culture Kid” and applies to young people–born either in the States or overseas–who have lived for an extended period outside their native countries. TCKs, also called “global nomads” by sociologists, are children who grow up in expatriate families. They include “biz kids” (those whose parents are employed by international businesses); “diplomatic kids” (those whose parents work for the foreign service); “army brats” (those whose parents serve abroad in the military); and “MKs,” “mish kids,” or “missionary kids” (those whose parents work abroad as missionaries).

Rachael Molitor CAS ’08 w09Rachael Molitor CAS ’08
Birthplace: Portland, Oregon
Citizenship: United States
Majors: Psychology, Spanish
Countries lived in: Ecuador, India,
Kenya, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka,
Sudan, United States
TCK-ness: “I always have to think twice about where I am from.”

Maddy Abulencia CAS ’09 w09

Maddy Abulencia CAS ’09
Birthplace: Mandaluyong, Philippines
Citizenship: Philippines
Majors: Economics, International Affairs
Countries lived in: Cambodia, China, United States
TCK-ness: “Adaptability! Culture! Interesting food!”

TCKs integrate aspects of their birth culture and the new culture where they live to create a unique third culture. Notable TCKs include president-elect Barack Obama, humanitarian Greg Mortensen, artist and singer Yoko Ono, journalist Christiane Amanpour, and author Carlos Fuentes.

At Lewis & Clark, more than 120 TCK students contribute their unique experiences and perspectives to campus diversity. But they also face challenges, such as rootlessness and social isolation, as they struggle with issues of identity.

“I can’t say that any single place I’ve lived is really home,” says Rachael Molitor, a senior who is double-majoring in Spanish and psychology. She was born in the United States but has lived most of her 21 years abroad–including stays in Sierra Leone, Sudan, India, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, and Kenya, where she finished high school at the International School of Kenya in Nairobi. “At the same time, I feel I make my own home–wherever that happens to be.”

Molitor’s father, a country director for CARE International, was reposted every few years throughout her youth. Although she was actually born in Portland, she didn’t live in the United States until college. She chose Lewis & Clark because of the school’s global focus: “I knew Lewis & Clark had an international mindset.”

Daniel Caplen CAS ’12 w09Daniel Caplen CAS ’12
Birthplace: Peterborough, England
Citizenship: Great Britain
Majors: Communication, Music
Countries lived in: Hong Kong,
United Kingdom, United States
TCK-ness: “I have a love for both dim sum and English tea
–but not at the same time.”

Alexis Frisbie CAS ’12 w09Alexis Frisbie CAS ’12
Birthplace: Estes Park, Colorado
Citizenship: United States
Majors: Political Science, Psychology
Countries lived in: Italy, United States
TCK-ness: “I know what good coffee tastes like.”

Molitor is accustomed to adapting to new places and friends, but the transition to campus life was still a culture shock. She felt out of touch with a lot of American pop culture that her peers took for granted–jokes and jargon sometimes sailed over her head. But Molitor has found a home in the TCK community. Although her fellow TCKs hail from every corner of the globe, they’ve forged a bond through their common experiences abroad.

“You don’t have to explain everything–how you grew up, how you moved around,” Molitor says of her TCK friends. “They already know, because they’ve been through it, too.”

Assets to Campus Diversity

Lewis & Clark has one of the most robust TCK programs in the United States. Over time, the college has been building a critical mass of TCKs, and it has experienced a 25 percent increase in their enrollment since 2001.

Unlike many schools, Lewis & Clark identifies TCKs as a distinct subgroup. “We recognize being a TCK,” says Greg Caldwell, associate dean of students and director of international students and scholars. “We celebrate it.”

The college actively recruits TCKs with special admissions brochures and tailored sessions at new student orientation. Members of a TCK Advisory Board and a TCK Club help organize social activities, including biweekly gatherings called “TCK Tuesdays” as well as outings to restaurants and movies.

Sara Standish CAS ’11 w09Sara Standish CAS ’11
Birthplace: Paris, France
Citizenship: France, United States
Major: Mathematics
Countries lived in: France, United States
TCK-ness: “Having to explain what a TCK is so many times.”

Kemiyondo Coutinho CAS ’12 w09Kemiyondo Coutinho CAS ’12
Birthplace: Kampala, Uganda
Citizenship: Uganda
Majors: Communication, Theatre
Countries lived in: Swaziland, Uganda, United States
TCK-ness: “I don’t have a distinct accent–or rather no one wants to claim it.”

“TCKs bring a unique worldview,” says Caldwell. “They are very open, very adaptable–as you might expect. They are bridge builders, mediators.”

At Lewis & Clark, about two-thirds of TCKs are American citizens who have lived abroad with their families; the remaining third are international students who have lived outside their native countries. Nearly all attended American-style international high schools, usually alongside other expatriates. The current roster of Lewis & Clark TCKs includes students with ties to every continent except Antarctica.

Members of the Lewis & Clark community view TCKs as an asset on campus because they contribute a distinctive international perspective. They are not only well-traveled and often multilingual, but they also tend to be highly attuned to international issues. Faculty enjoy having TCKs in their classrooms because they offer different, sometimes unexpected, points of view.

“Lewis & Clark is a place where multiculturalism is celebrated, and TCKs can help some of our students who may not have lived elsewhere to see the world in a different way,” says Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Julio de Paula, himself a TCK who was born in Brazil but moved to the United States as a teenager with his family.

“TCKs have so many experiences to offer,” says Linda Isako Angst, assistant professor of anthropology and a TCK who was born in Japan but lived in the United States and France. “They are much more open to cultural issues.”

Yan Chen CAS ’10 w09Yan Chen CAS ’10
Birthplace: Beijing, China
Citizenship: Canada
Majors: Foreign Languages, Psychology
Countries lived in: Canada, China, United States
TCK-ness: “I enjoy TCK Tuesdays at Lewis & Clark.”
William Watson CAS ’11 w09William Watson CAS ’11
Birthplace: Darien, Connecticut
Citizenship: United States
Major: Computer Science
Countries lived in: England, Hong Kong, United States
TCK-ness: “I’ve gained an appreciation for cheesecake!”

Angst recalls one of her classes in which a TCK student with Japanese ties helped her demonstrate how a Japanese telephone conversation differs from an American one. As they pretended to chat over the phone, the students in the class, most of whom did not speak Japanese, were able to pick up on the TCK’s distinctive voice, tone, and mannerisms. They noticed that, even on the phone, Japanese nod their heads and bow when speaking.

“We weren’t just reading about this in a textbook,” Angst says. “The students saw a peer share his own experience, and that was so much more powerful.”

Challenges for TCKs

Lewis & Clark’s success with TCKs is due, in part, to the college’s creation of a warm, supportive environment. “We have a reputation for going above and beyond when it comes to TCKs,” says Brian White, associate director of international students and scholars, who spreads the word about Lewis & Clark on recruitment trips abroad.

Those outside the institution agree.

Tomohiro Ueno CAS ’11 w09Tomohiro Ueno CAS ’11
Birthplace: Tokyo, Japan
Citizenship: Japan
Major: Economics
Countries lived in: Bangladesh, Indonesia, United States
TCK-ness: “I’m motivated to learn more about the countries I’ve lived in as well as other countries all over the world.”
Jessica Himelfarb CAS ’10 w09Jessica Himelfarb CAS ’10
Birthplace: Coupeville, Washington
Citizenship: United States
Major: Sociology/Anthropology
Countries lived in: Malawi, Somalia, South Africa, United States, Zimbabwe
TCK-ness: “I’m not from just one place; home is not just one place.”

“Lewis & Clark does a great job [with TCKs]–personal attention, true interest and concern for their well-being, and a welcoming atmosphere,” says Mark Gathercole, a guidance counselor at Indonesia’s Jakarta International School, which has sent several students to Lewis & Clark. He says the transition to college is tough for TCKs. “It’s not only that so many things are new to them,” explains Gathercole, “but also that they feel they don’t belong.”

The paradox of TCKs is that, while they are exceptionally adaptable to new environments–social “chameleons,” Greg Caldwell says–they can sometimes struggle to settle down. “The negatives are that they don’t always know how to fit in, they have identity issues, and they have trouble with long-term relationships,” Caldwell says. “That’s why we work so hard to validate their experiences as TCKs.”

Maddy Abulencia can relate. The daughter of a UNICEF employee and a senior double-majoring in international affairs and economics, she was born in the Philippines, grew up mostly in Cambodia and China, and attended international schools. Although she speaks English with an American accent, she is aware of her otherness in the United States. Yet when she visits home, she is sometimes regarded as “not Filipina enough,” she says.

Susan Su CAS ’11 w09Susan Su CAS ’11
Birthplace: Fuzhou, China
Citizenship: United States
Major: International Affairs
Countries lived in: China, United States
TCK-ness: “It’s easier for me to see things from other people’s points of view.”
Clarine Ovando-Lacroux CAS ’12 w09Clarine Ovando-Lacroux CAS ’12
Birthplace: Caen, France
Citizenship: France, Mexico
Major: Environmental Studies
Countries lived in: Burkina Faso, France, Kenya, Switzerland, United States
TCK-ness: “Openness of mind. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, was the best gift my mother gave me.”

“I’m pretty good at adapting,” Abulencia says. “But there are still times when I feel out of place, like I don’t really know where I belong.”

Even at Lewis & Clark, TCKs can struggle to adjust. When a new acquaintance asks them where they are from, “their wheels start spinning,” Brian White says. “They think, ‘OK. How am I going to answer that?’”

Melanie Rama, a junior math and economics double-major, has an answer–but it sometimes creates more questions. “I’ll tell people I’m from Switzerland, but they’ll ask me if I speak Swedish,” she says. Rama grew up in Zurich and moved to the United States during high school when her father, a vice president of financial planning for Zurich North America Insurance Company, relocated the family to Chicago. “I usually just laugh and tell them, ‘No, Sweden’s way up here, and Switzerland’s way down there.’ Sometimes I just tell people I’m from Chicago when I don’t feel like explaining.”

Some TCK students worry that talking about their experience abroad might come across as pretentious to peers who may have never traveled outside the United States. TCKs also frequently grow frustrated with other students’ lack of firsthand knowledge about the world beyond their own borders.

Nao Ohdera CAS ’12 w09Nao Ohdera CAS ’12
Birthplace: Tokyo, Japan
Citizenship: Japan, United States
Major: Environmental Studies
Countries lived in: Japan, Mauritania, United States
TCK-ness: “I’ve learned to appreciate all the different cultures around the world.”
Mari Tsubota CAS ’11 w09Mari Tsubota CAS ’11
Birthplace: Fukui, Japan
Citizenship: Japan
Major: International Affairs
Countries lived in: Holland, Japan, United States
TCK-ness: “I have the ability to use ‘Janglish,’ which is a combination of Japanese and English.”

Lewis & Clark’s TCK-focused activities are intended to help students adjust and have happy, productive college experiences.

At this fall’s new student orientation, Daniel Bae, a junior biochemistry major working as the 2008-09 TCK student intern, ran a get-acquainted chat with a half-dozen TCKs in a corner of the Trail Room in Templeton Campus Center.

“My job is to keep them connected,” says Bae, a South Korea native who grew up in South Africa after his father, a church minister, moved the family to Cape Town. Bae’s family moved to Portland during his high school years.

With Bae leading them, TCK first-year students from Ecuador, Norway, Singapore, China, and Japan shared their stories. They played party games in which they discussed the weirdest thing they’d ever had to eat or drink (habu sake–a Japanese drink bottled with a venomous viper–drew the strongest reaction) and shared experiences of living abroad (witnessing volcano eruptions, swimming with sharks, and so on).

Most, however, wanted to know things any first-year student would be curious about: What is the social scene like on campus? What are the best places to eat? Does it rain as much as people say?

Rosanne Wielemaker CAS ’11 w09Rosanne Wielemaker CAS ’11
Birthplace: San Jose, Costa Rica
Citizenship: Costa Rica, Netherlands
Major: Environmental Studies
Countries lived in: Costa Rica, United States
TCK-ness: “Compassion. Also, I had my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich this year.”
Benjamin Moseley CAS ’12 w09Benjamin Moseley CAS ’12
Birthplace: New Orleans, Louisiana
Citizenship: United States
Major: Undecided
Countries lived in: China, Singapore, United States
TCK-ness: “I’ve gained foreign language and communication skills. I’ve also experienced some great food.”

Bae lets them know about TCK Tuesdays at Maggie’s Cafe, encouraging them to check out the informal gatherings, which occasionally include guest speakers (de Paula has spoken to the group several times).

“We are here to help TCKs adapt,” Bae says. “Once you make friends, everything gets easier.”

Lifetime Learners–and Travelers

Despite the challenges they face, TCKs report the same level of satisfaction with their college experience and graduate at about the same rate as their non-TCK peers at Lewis & Clark. Reflecting their roots (or the lack thereof), they are also twice as likely to major in international affairs as their non-TCK peers.

Although students like Molitor, Abulencia, Rama, and Bae have thrived at Lewis & Clark–and can count plenty of non-TCKs among their closest friends–the TCK community keeps them grounded.

Daniel Bae CAS ’10 w09Daniel Bae CAS ’10
Birthplace: Incheon, South Korea
Citizenship: South Korea
Major: Biochemistry
Countries lived in: South Africa, South Korea, United States
TCK-ness: “Being a TCK is like having a bird’s-eye view of the world; it helps you to see things in a more holistic way.”
Melanie Rama CAS ’10 w09Melanie Rama CAS ’10
Birthplace: Zurich, Switzerland
Citizenship: Switzerland
Majors: Economics, Mathematics
Countries lived in: Switzerland, United States
TCK-ness: “Greater cultural sensitivity and interest in cross-cultural and international issues.”

Once they graduate, however, they tend to return to the road. While some TCK students are tired of constantly moving and prefer to settle down after graduation, most intend to continue their peripatetic ways. “I have never thought for a moment about doing something in one place,” says Molitor, who plans to pursue a career in international development.

She also looks forward to raising her own family of nomads. “When I’m traveling I’m always challenging myself, but more than that, I’m always learning new things. Maybe it’s the constant learning from the people and the environment around me that I enjoy.”

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.

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