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Posted on Nov 1, 2017

Firmly Rooted

Firmly Rooted

by Marlene Bylenga, SCSBC International Education Coordinator ◊

Coming to a new country, learning a new language, encountering a different school system and living in a new home environment are some of the challenges students from overseas experience. These changes and challenges can be both exciting and daunting for new students.

Schools with organized international student programs usually have staff to assist in English language instruction, help students as they adjust to a different education system and ensure that students are placed in caring home environments. However, enrolling international students is much more than having good homestay and ELL programs and providing opportunities for integration.

In addition to navigating the teen years, students need to navigate differing cultural values and behavioral expectations both at school and in their new families. In order to provide a safe environment, school staff need to be aware of these challenges. I believe it is prudent that in the interview process this topic is discussed. Parents desiring an overseas education for their children may not always be aware of the cultural differences and how they may affect their family. We need to be open and honest, sharing that a decision to send a family member overseas will deeply affect the family’s cultural heritage.

International students who are separated from their parents during adolescence may not have the same opportunity to challenge and test parental values and cultural norms as others do.

David Pollock, in his book Third Culture Kids, discusses the effects of cross-cultural transition during the developmental years.

“If establishing a personal sense of identity is a major task of adolescence, how do we do it? One critical way is by taking the cultural rules learned during our childhood and testing them out during adolescence. Often this involves the type of direct challenges teenagers’ parents around the world know only too well: Why do I have to be in by midnight? Who says I can’t wear my hair like this? After the testing is a period of integrating the cultural practices and values we decide (often unconsciously) to keep. We then use these to make decisions about how we will live as autonomous adults rather than continuing to live as children guided by external, parental rules along.

When the cultural rules are always changing, however, what happens to this process? This is, again, why the issues of cultural balance and mobility – and the age or ages when they occur – become very important. Often, at the very time TCK’s should be testing and internalizing the customs and values of whatever culture they’ve grown up in, that whole world, its family culture, and their relationship to it can change overnight with one plane ride. While peers in their new (and old) community are internalizing the rules of culture and beginning to move out with budding confidence, TCKs are still trying to figure out what the rules are. They aren’t free to explore their personal gifts and talents because they’re still preoccupied with what is or isn’t appropriate behavior. Children who have to learn to juggle many sets of cultural rules at the same time have a different developmental experience from children growing up in one basically permanent, dominant culture that they regard as their own.” (Pollock, 2001)1

Schools need to be intentional about including overseas parents as much as possible. This may involve International Student Program staff regularly sending updates through email or connecting with parents through social media sites. It is important to stress in the interview that even though they are many miles away, they are a vital part of the school community and are partners with the homestay families in raising their children.

In my experience, the students who make the best adjustment are those who are firmly rooted in both countries. These students generally have parents who are aware that their teens are being exposed to different cultural values and are willing to listen to and talk about the different perspectives. In addition, their parents are connected to the school community through the homestay family and have regular contact with International Program staff. This connectedness allows the student to grapple with the differences and become truly bicultural.

Perhaps a topic for discussion at a staff, board, or administration meeting could be how effective your program is at including parents and supporting international students as they navigate the challenges of transitioning into a new culture.


Pollock, D. C. (2001). Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc.

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