guide to college
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A Third Culture Kid’s Guide to College

Illustration for Denizen by Elaina Natario

Yeah, freshman year of college was tough. We remember it. We left our cushy expat bubble, moved to a foreign country that wasn’t supposed to be foreign, and figured out for the very first time that we were different.

We had to explain our backgrounds to folks who didn’t quite get it, adjust to cultural differences as an invisible immigrant and survive homesickness for a place that was too far to visit during Thanksgiving break.

And during all of this, we just wanted to know that we weren’t alone. We weren’t interested in sociological studies, or books, or research papers on how we were different. We didn’t care what the “textbook definition” of a TCK was. We just wanted to hear that we would be okay. That other people had done this before, and that they had words of advice for us.

So, here are our words of advice, the things we would’ve told our freshman year selves, if we could. It’s not dressed up, it’s not loaded with research. Honest thoughts, in our own words, from real Third Culture Kids. And we hope that it will make your transition just a little bit easier.

From all of us at the Denizen team, please, take a moment to share this collection of advice with your siblings, friends, friends of friends and acquaintances. We’d really appreciate it.

10 Things TCKs Should Do Before Leaving For College
by Valerie Wong
“It may seem obvious, but taking the time to say proper goodbyes is critical. People often subconsciously withdraw from relationships as they’re about to leave. So, instead of clocking out from your relationships early, make a point of letting friends and family know just how much you care.”

10 Things You’ll Love About the United States
by Alan Ryan Garcia
“‘OMG WHY WON’T (JUSTIN BIEBER) (KANYE WEST) COME TO (FIJI) (MOROCCO) (CHINA) ?!?’ We’ve all been there, but lo and behold, chances are your favorite artist or band will make a stop in your slice of the U.S. of A. No more pining to catch an act that’s close but not quite close enough.”

5 Things To Look For In Your College Hunt
by Steph Yiu
“I’m not pretending to be an expert, but for international students moving to the United States, there are many factors to consider that may be obvious to American students but not as clear to those coming from abroad.”

5 Tips for a Happy Freshman Year
by Adele Barlow
“You’re a freshman now; no obligations, no history – you have a blank slate in a new place. That is an incredible opportunity.”

5 Ways to Adjust to American Culture
by Alan Montecillo
“Force yourself to make small talk. It varies from place to place, but I’ve found that Americans are generally pretty friendly – at least, more so than the average Hong Kong stranger. It was a little off-putting at first, catching me completely off-guard.”

8 Dos and Don’ts For Introducing Your TCK Background
by Johnny Chuidian
“If you expect your newfound college friends to understand your unique TCK background and experiences, then you should also take the time to understand and appreciate their background, too.”

10 Tips for Avoiding Homesickness
by Laura Polk
“If you have the opportunity, focus the topic of a research project on your home country. Often, college classes will encourage you to do a research project on a topic of your choice. Writing a paper or doing a project on the country you lived in as a kid will often lead to seeing your home in a whole new light.”

Random Things To Know If You’re Moving to the U.S. For College
by Denizen writers
“People are all about their area code, as in ‘I’m from the 949 (Irvine/Orange County, California),’ or ‘Oh, you’re from the 925 (East Bay in Northern California), that’s hella far!’ Subsequently, saying your country code – as in ‘I was born in the +63 (Philippines) but lived in the +65 (Singapore)’ – will just give you puzzled looks.”

Other college-related articles from

Dealing with Depression as a TCK Student, by Carol Lin
“There will always be times when we feel out of place and alone but even in those times, know that someone in another time zone knows exactly how you’re feeling.”

TCK Goes to College, by Christiana Lilly
“I was 17 when I started college in Florida; just months away from being able to legally enter, but not drink at, a club or a bar. Because I had been living in Shanghai the last four years, I didn’t have a driver’s license – only a passport, and my American diplomat card. ‘Where’s your ID,’ the bouncer growled.”

Why My TCK Student Group Failed, by Alan Montecillo
“‘I’m giving it 10 more minutes. Then these cookies are mine,’ I thought to myself. I leaned back in my chair at the student center, desperately resisting the urge to eat the giant plate of cookies I had ordered. I was hoping that, within the next 10 minutes, someone would show up and have some of them.”

I’m a TCK and the President of a University, by Steph Yiu
“Celeste Schenck, the President of The American University of Paris, tells her students: ‘When you are so much of the world, you have a responsibility for the world.'”

5 Tech Tools to Stay in Touch, by Suzanne Leung
“My mom stalks me on Facebook, my dad talks to me on Skype, and I chat daily with my brother using WhatsApp for BlackBerry.”

The Weirdest Things TCKs have Shipped or Packed, by Rachel Aguiar
“When I lived in Singapore, one of my aunts shipped me a shoebox full of Heinz ketchup packets from the United States. Tomato sauce is not the same thing as ketchup!”

What TCKs Can Learn from ‘Mean Girls,’ by Adele Barlow
“On her first day of school in Illinois, Cady’s American parents are thoroughly unaware of how difficult the cultural transition could be for her. Walking up to the African-American students, Cady says ‘Jambo’ in Swahili.”

Want to hear more Third Culture Kid voices? Read first-person columns in our Experiences section, or get inspired by successful Third Culture Kids in our Careers section. Finally, if you’re interested in being part of the Denizen team, drop us a note.


  1. Oliver says

    Great resource for TCKs…
    To sum up most of these articles: Be friendly, and stop being a self absorbed prick about your background, thats all it takes!


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