top of page
  • Writer's pictureAleka Bilan

NAFSA Global Nomad Special Interest Group

November Spotlight

  • Tell us how and why you identify as a TCK (third culture kid)/CCK (cross-culture kid) or Global Nomad. Or none of these "labels"... what is your global story?

Like many TCK’s, I didn’t realize there was a “label” for my identity until I was in my twenties! Looking back, I can say that I am an adult TCK, bi-cultural, with two passport countries. I was born in Brazil, the granddaughter of Argentine/Uruguayan expats living in Brazil and USAmerican expats living in Colombia. My father is also an adult TCK who grew up on three different continents. As a child, I spoke Portuguese and Spanish before I spoke English, and lived in several Latin American countries before I was six. It was then that I moved to the USA and entered a bilingual classroom. Although I was educated in the United States throughout my K-12 and then college years, I moved domestically and switched several schools throughout my middle school years.

At each new school, I realized I was slightly out of place. In my life, I have leaned into the “chameleon” aspect of the TCK profile, trying to blend into any new school or community culture as quickly as possible, even adopting regional accents. Once I became a teacher, I learned that working with other TCK/CCK students and their parents is where I have felt most at “home”. That is what led me to international school teaching and counseling for over 20 years. I am never tired of talking to TCKs and CCKs, their parents, and fellow ATCK staff, welcoming them to share their stories. Now as a parent of school-aged children, I embrace teachable moments about growing up as CCKs. I give them the language to identify their experiences and label their emotions through these tumultuous transitions. My sons were “stayers” for many years and now are “hidden immigrants” in the United States. We are not shirking from the struggle. In recent years, I’ve even started educating my father about the TCK profile and how these qualities exhibit themselves throughout our lives, in our relationships with our partners, and our interactions with others, particularly now that we all live in America.

  • How does your work support TCK/CCK families?

About a year ago, I left the comfort of international schools, where I had worked for over 25 years, and became an individual student coach. Instead of being an independent college counselor, I focus on preparing and supporting high school students for their transition to university (usually overseas). I also support TCK college students if they are looking to transfer institutions. Working individually with students (and their parents), I find that I can help them tell their cross-cultural stories, as well as identify potential obstacles and opportunities coming their way in their move away from their parents’ house. It’s important for them to be heard and seen for who they are.

In working in international high schools, I often found that most students didn’t realize their TCK identity until they moved away from the international space. It was then that alumni were hit hard in their transition. I’m embracing my own ability to bridge the gap between high school and college, to help young people with these realizations and transitions.

  • Share one resource relevant now for the Global Nomad community.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying listening to “The Global Chatter” podcast, conversations hosted by Amanda Bates, founder of “The Black Expat” and co-moderator (with Ellen Mahoney) of the previous #TCKchat on Twitter (now archived). “The Global Chatter” episodes are a prism of the cross-cultural experiences of BIPOC folks, so one can find oneself in many facets of each story. Plus, she is warm, engaging, honest and entertaining as a host!

I also can’t refrain from touting the Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN) monthly live gatherings called “The Nest.” SPAN is focused on helping international schools and organizations improve their transitions-care work for students, families and employees. “The Nest” provides a space for us to gather in these unprecedented times, to refresh ourselves, connect with others, and leave feeling equipped to continue this grief-laden work. To register for the next episode, please visit

  • What work needs to be improved on U.S. campuses to holistically support TCK/CCK student populations?

Where to begin? For decades, we in the counseling realm have been singing the praises of Lewis & Clark College and Clark University as fantastic destinations for Third Culture Kids. But, I continue to be amazed that we still largely only talk about these two institutions (and perhaps, smaller liberal arts colleges that have a long tradition of serving missionary kids). I’ll speak more specifically about colleges/universities in the United States, as that’s a country with hundreds of higher education institutions and the seat of NAFSA.

When I advocate to our colleagues in Admissions Offices in the United States, I explain my belief that TCK/CCK students share a lot of commonalities with first generation students, who are the first in their family to attend college or university. First Gen kids come from a wide range of backgrounds and childhood experiences, from inner city projects on the south side of Chicago to undocumented migrant farm workers living in rural California. However, their needs for support in order to be successful once they arrive on campus are similar: an understanding of their experience, support for the academic expectations they face, structured mentoring programs, and seeing themselves represented in their professors and peers. Similarly, TCK/CCKs come from a wide variety of life experiences and high schools. Some are applying from domestic US high schools, others from international schools overseas, yet other non-citizens have had a globally mobile life which differs from their home-country peers. Even so, TCK/CCKs need similar support structures in place on campus to help them thrive. These support networks are similar to those needed by first-gen students (even though their socioeconomic backgrounds may or may not be the same). In fact, for many F-1 visa students attending college in the US, they are the first in their family to go to the United States to study. So - US campuses need to take the structures they already have in place for first-generation students and international students and apply them to students coming from TCK/CCK backgrounds.

In order to do so, however, US campus officials need to be able to “tag and track” these students. Identifying who they are is an important first step because many TCK/CCK students in high school may not yet know how to identify themselves in this way, and advocate for their own stories to be heard. Most US colleges/universities are already collecting data that identifies those students who need or don’t need visa sponsorship. Therefore, most students are sorted by passport country, leading to F-1 status. This traditional sorting system leaves out all the other possible categories which may resonate with the TCK/CCK experience. A simple solution I advocate for is using a university's CRM or data management system to mine for the data that can identify these students. US universities are already collecting the high school CEEB code, home and postal addresses, and passports. They could code for finding the overlaps of these data fields. They could also add a couple of additional questions to their application to track educational history through grades K to 8, as well as the already-present high school moves question. And, they could add an “identify” question to the race/ethnicity and gender questions, such as: “Do you identify as a Third Culture Kid or Cross-Cultural Kid?” - with a link to Ruth van Reken’s summary definition. The solutions are simple to increase the catchment just a bit, to truly capture the lived experience of these students!

US higher education (before and after the Covid-19 pandemic) has focused on access and success. Once a student arrives on campus, they track retention and completion rates. In my thinking, if Admissions Offices could “tag” students at the application gate, then campuses would have much more refined data points to “track” students through their campus experience. For example: are TCK/CCKs transferring at higher rates than US domestic students? Do they study abroad at higher rates? What are they looking for in work/internship experiences? If colleges could hone in on the answers to these questions, then that would help with their recruitment funnel, as well. In virtual or on-campus visits to high schools, they could tout the number of study abroad opportunities, for example. Many colleges/universities are already doing this type of marketing outreach (Northeastern University comes to mind), but have not used data for tracking their success supporting TCK/CCK students specifically.

One example of an office that has done this recruitment through to completion very well is Trinity College (CT), under the leadership of Angel Perez. All aspects of access, retention, success and future planning fell under one roof, with considerable cooperation among the departments of Admissions/Financial Aid, International Student Life, and Career Services. I’m hopeful now that Angel Perez is CEO of NACAC, and one of his deputies, Lukman Arsalan, is Director of Admissions at Franklin & Marshall, that this model will be replicated at other universities. The next step, however, is scaling up from small, liberal arts colleges to larger public institutions.

  • Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Early in the pandemic, I was discouraged by the locking of national borders, the closing of visa offices globally, meaning students could not leave their home country to study internationally, and the seeming decrease in a pro-globalization era. I’m a strong believer in the power of interactions among young people of different cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds leading to a greater understanding of humanity. And, that this increased cooperation can solve the multi-headed challenges the world is facing today. With the pandemic exacerbating nationalist forces in many countries, I was afraid those global cross-cultural connections were withering.

However, I have seen that through technological adaptations (despite Zoom fatigue), global connectivity can increase. Admissions Officers can reach students and parents in far-flung locales where they didn’t have the time or resources to travel in person before. Students and their parents can learn much more virtually about the abundance of higher ed opportunities around the world. My hope is that access will increase, globalization will rebound, and US campuses will continue to spread their message that “all are welcome here.” Then, they can take up the challenge of supporting all TCK/CCK students to thrive.

Thank you so much for your time and interest, and in reading thus far in my ruminations. May you have a healthy and hopeful end of 2020!

9 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page