Few high school students move halfway across the world and start a new life in a foreign country, but this was reality for Elon University senior Ingrid Frahm.

Frahm’s father accepted a job in Switzerland and uprooted the family from their Texas home.

Though the family originally planned on living in Switzerland for two years, their stay was extended for another two years. As a result, Frahm spent all of high school attending an international school in Switzerland.

Naturally, the family encountered culture shock upon arriving.

“It was a really crazy experience. When we first got there we were frazzled and not sure how to do anything,” said Frahm, who works for The Edge. “Just getting acclimated to the culture was kind of shocking, so we definitely all experienced some kind of culture shock.”

Though Frahm may not have had the “typical” high school experience, she is not the only one at Elon who grew up abroad. In fact, there are a handful of these students attending Elon, which was recently nominated as one of the “Top 10 Most Globally Minded” colleges by the Christian Science Monitor. Students like Frahm identify as “third culture kids,” ones who grow up in a different country than their own. 

As globalization continues, the number of third culture kids is increasing. Now more than ever it is more common for U.S. citizens to work abroad, meaning more children from the United States are growing up abroad. According to the U.S. Census, approximately 4 million people from the United States live outside the country.

David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, authors of “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds,” claim these kids typically fall into one of four categories: military brats, Foreign Service kids, corporate brats and missionary kids.

Reverse culture shock

Every teenager experiences a period of transition as they figure out who they are, but for those who identify as “third culture kids,” this process can be more complicated.

According to Anita Smith, counselor at Elon’s Counseling Services, feeling out of place in one’s “own” culture is completely normal and expected after living overseas during formative years. As a result, third culture kids may struggle as their own individual identity develops.

“Personal identity is strongly tied to having a secure sense of belonging to a particular group or community,” Smith said. “A person who grows up in multiple countries would likely feel connected to many places but not necessarily a sense of belonging to any particular place.”

Smith said many third culture kids experience frustration because “home” is not a specific place.

Some students, like Frahm, struggle to even identify where they are from. She admitted she dreads it when people ask her for her hometown.

This is typical.

“Students may feel that they are from everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” Smith said.

When third culture kids do return to the United States, it can be difficult readjusting to an environment that was once familiar, but has changed. Additionally, an individual’s level of connection to people and places are often altered because of distance, Smith said.

“It may feel frustrating to return home and become aware that so much has changed or to feel that nothing has changed at all when the student feels they have grown and changed so much through their away experience,” Smith said. “The students’ interests and values may have developed over their time away and no longer align nicely to those of close friends or family.”

Still, it’s a smooth transition for some. For senior Kelly Fawcett, who grew up in Egypt, Virginia, Zambia, El Salvador and Ethiopia, staying connected to the United States helped ease the transition.

“I think because I come back to the United States every summer I kind of knew what the United States was like, but interacting with U.S. Americans that were my own age for the first time — I think it was that might have been the most shocking thing,” Fawcett said. “I don’t think I have as much culture shock as many international students do.”

Resources at Elon

Incoming Elon students who may identify as third culture kids are given the option to attend international student orientation. According to Bill Burress, associate director of study abroad at the Global Education Center, students can decide whether they would like to identify as an “international” student during their college career.

They have this choice because national identity is multifaceted and cannot be limited to a singular definition, Burress said.

“National identity is not defined strictly by a passport, but also by a student’s experiences. Elon has plenty of students who don’t fit neatly into a category,” Burress said. “We have U.S. citizens who have never lived here, so to say that such a student is not ‘international’ is false.”

According to Elon’s registrar, 55 students identified as “overseas Americans” during the 2014–2015 academic year. They are included in the 6 percent of students who identify as “international.”

Though these Elon students may share orientation together, international students and third culture kids intentionally are integrated into “regular” Elon 101 courses. While Burress acknowledged there may be valued support in grouping these students together for Elon 101, it could create a barrier and inhibit students’ ability to integrate fully into the Elon community.

“We hope that students will begin to form relationships during international student orientation that can act as that support group and hope that we can help facilitate those relationships by offering programming during the year,” Burress said.

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