Reflections of a Third Culture Kid: The Ungradable Education
Updated: Nov 9
On the ferry ride from Gibraltar to Morocco
As education consultants, we spend much of our time talking to relocating families about their children’s formal education, topics such as ‘good fit’ schools, grade placement, examinations, and others.
However, as a Third Culture Kid (TCK), who had lived in five countries by the time she was 18, looking back at my education during that time, I realize that, in addition to the mathematics, and the English, and the science, I also gained a further education, one that was not graded and which took place outside the walls of the classroom, but which was equally important to my development.
This education came from my experiences navigating life in countries and cultures that were not my own and from the people whom I encountered and developed relationships with, who were often so different from me.
My parents, one of whom is also a TCK, realized the value of this education, and I attended local schools in every country we lived in. Integrating fully into each new community really made it feel like ‘home’ and not just some temporary landing place.
I was, therefore, often the different one. As a result, I became a very good listener and observer as I strove to understand and bridge differences and picked up on the nuances of my friends’ cultures, customs, and everyday lives. I also observed their struggles and challenges, and this opened my eyes to a world beyond my own, making me more understanding and empathetic. I had to constantly adapt while trying to maintain the parts of me that were unique. In other words, there was an awful lot of social and emotional growth and learning going on, both under the surface and in addition to what my teachers were teaching me.
I remember riding on my "amma’s" back to an open-air market in Hong Kong. I still remember the hustle and bustle, the excitement of getting some plastic clogs, and the click clicking sound they made. It made me excited about the world, and the locals taught me how to communicate without language through their smiles and their warm hands, reaching out to touch my blonde hair.
As a young child, eating palolo in Western Samoa made me curious, fearless, adventurous about trying new foods, and excited to expand my palate. It made me respectful and open-minded—eating these green worms was a great delicacy in Samoa.
On the ferry ride from Gibraltar to Morocco, walking quietly by groups of Moroccan men praying towards Mecca taught me respect for other people’s traditions and religions.
Looking out of my bedroom window in Gibraltar and seeing the Atlas Mountains in North Africa in the distance and Spain directly opposite me always sent a buzz of excitement through me, as I was reminded of how small, exciting, and accessible the world is.
I’ve carried these experiences and lessons that I’ve learned and applied them to my life repeatedly over the years, and I encourage families moving to a foreign country to try to integrate as much as possible into their new home, even if their children are in international schools and mostly surrounded by children with similar, transient lifestyles. Parents, who often feel guilty about uprooting their children yet again, should remind themselves of the unique and irreplaceable education that they are giving their children. It is truly a gift that they will thank you for.
Emma Hoffman is an experienced Bennett consultant who currently lives outside of Philadelphia. She is a true TCK (Third Culture Kid) and has lived all over the world. Her experiences as a student in many different countries, an educator, and a parent bring a great deal of empathy and knowledge to each family she works with.
Emma also has a fantastic sense of humor, which is always helpful when working with families and students!
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Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.