Boarding School: Third Culture Kids’ Challenges

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Boarding School – Third Culture Kids’ Challenges

By Kathleen Gamble

Published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 14: September/October 2014

Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have unique challenges. They are usually living a privileged life jet-setting around the world, exposed to all kinds of interesting and exotic places. And it is true. They are lucky. But it isn’t always easy.

TCKs don’t have the luxury of taking time to get to know people, keeping the same friends year after year, or having consistent caretakers. Many have to learn new languages in order to survive or switch school systems. TCKs need to make friends quickly, assess new situations and adapt, catch up when curricula changes, and then do it all again the next move. At some point they usually end up in boarding school.

As a result, I did an informal poll of my friends and asked them what challenges they met at boarding school. This usually meant traveling to a different county and a different culture. Most of the people ended up in boarding school in order to get the best possible education. Everyone seemed to have an initial period of homesickness or adjustment, and some were worried about fitting in, but pretty much everybody agreed the number one most difficult thing about boarding school was saying goodbye to friends at the end of the school year. They would scatter across the globe and you wouldn’t know when, or if, you would see them again.

“I have left many places, but only cried for one.” — Carlos 

I also found, generally speaking, that there are two kinds of boarding schools. Ones that are strict and confining and the teacher is the dominant unreachable dictator, and others that are more relaxed, where there is mutual respect between student and teacher. Finding the right fit can be challenging.

Boarding school began at age 12 in the U.K. The first semester was the hardest. I was so miserably homesick that I pretended this was a horrible nightmare and when I woke up, I would be back at home. I just went about my life pretending this… until I became accustomed to the reality. I didn’t like boarding school in U.K. at all. But, when I arrived at my school in Switzerland for my senior year, I thought ‘hallelujah’ I have landed in heaven. Everything about Switzerland was great. The teachers respected me and my opinions, unlike my previous school. In the U.K. school I felt like an outsider, but in Switzerland I felt part of the cohesive group.” — Yvette

The first time I went to boarding school I was 13 years old. My parents were living in Mexico City and I went to Austin, Texas. I didn’t like it much. I switched from the British system to the American system, which actually lightened my load a bit, but most of the kids were from Texas and some were day students, so it was hard to relate. I knew nothing about U.S. pop culture. There was a rule for everything. All meals were mandatory; if you left campus for any reason you had to sign out; chapel was twice a week; ‘lights out at 10 p.m.’ was strictly enforced; and the teachers lived in separate apartments and were unapproachable for the most part.

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My parents moved to Lagos, Nigeria when I was 16 and, when my father went looking for a school for me to go to in Europe, he narrowed the selection down to three schools in Switzerland. Then he went and visited each one. He told me they were all impressive and made good presentations. But only one asked him about me. What are your daughter’s interests? What does she like to do? Do you think she would fit in here? Guess which school I went to.

Arriving at my new school, I found my roommate had traveled from Tanzania. Walking down the hall in my dorm there were people from Tokyo, Saudi Arabia, Germany and various U.S. cities. That, I could relate to.

It was much more relaxed. We were encouraged to strike out on our own and were not confined to sign-out sheets. We were forced to make our own decisions and act responsibly. We lived in the same houses with the teachers and ate all our meals with them if we wanted to. It was often an opportunity to have discussions about things we learned in class.

Being a TCK is difficult because you are always saying goodbye. You say goodbye each time you move; you say goodbye to family and friends when you go to boarding school; you say goodbye to friends when you leave school. All are sad and painful moments, but my experience as a teenager in Europe was one of the best times of my life.

The friends I made at boarding school became lifelong friends. I stayed closer to them than the people I went to college with or met since. We had a special bond. Now when we meet, we just pick up where we left off. As one friend says, we have no explaining to do. It’s like going ‘home’.

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