When she started her sophomore year of high school, Kim Brenneman suddenly wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Her family had moved to northern India, and Brenneman – now a professor and chair of the EMU Psychology Department – spent the next two years attending the Woodstock School. It wasn’t a terribly long period to spend abroad, but timing is everything; spending half of high school halfway around the world leaves its marks.
“It was rough,” Brenneman recalls, of her family’s return to Hesston, Kansas in time for her senior year. “What was important when I came back was the car you drove and the clothes you wore. Those were not important at all when I was at Woodstock.”
Having that extended experience outside of her home culture while growing up makes Brenneman what’s known as a “third-culture kid,” or TCK. The “third-culture” label acknowledges the mixed cultural identity a TCK often develops, in which they can feel neither completely at home in the culture they were born into nor the one(s) in which they spent considerable amounts of time.
“I found that I identified more with kids who had had the same experience [of living overseas] after I returned home,” says Brenneman, one of about 20 current EMU faculty and staff who identify as TCKs. (Although the “TCK” label includes the word “kid,” the effects of growing up in more than one culture are often life-long.)
Brenneman’s background later inspired the direction of her academic career. After graduating from EMU with a degree in psychology, she went on to get a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh. She wrote her dissertation on the well-being and adjustment of American kids living in Korea.
Often, Brenneman says, the most challenging part of being a TCK is not living abroad – it’s adjusting to life after returning to their home culture.
“Part of the adjustment [for TCKs] is trying to figure out where they fit in. They [might be] American, but they don’t feel completely American,” says Brenneman. “It’s hard for people who haven’t been in that experience to understand it.”
A dozen TCKs on campus
That’s something first-year student Cela Hoefle knows well. When she was 11, Hoefle’s family moved to a city in northern Thailand, where she lived until she finished high school. She started at EMU in the fall of 2015. Hoefle is one of more than a dozen TCKs, including her older sister, enrolled in EMU’s traditional undergrad programs.
“When people first see me they expect me to just blend back in,” says Hoefle, who has been active in both the Third-culture Kids Club on campus (her sister, Nika, was co-president of the group before graduating this spring) and the International Student Organization.
A psychology major, Hoefle quickly connected with Brenneman as a fellow TCK. Before long, Hoefle began assisting Brenneman with an ongoing research project on the psychological impact of EMU’s required cross-cultural programs on students.
The goal, Brenneman says, is to understand and quantify what students mean when they say – as they often do – that their experiences on the university’s cross-cultural programs were “life-changing.” One of Hoefle’s roles in the project is helping with data collection by interviewing students after they return from studying abroad.
“As a TCK, I’m still just trying to figure out what that experience means to me,” Hoefle says. “Seeing [these changes] in other people helps me understand myself in some ways.”
‘Globally knowledgeable’ students help with transition for TCKs
Although EMU’s cross-cultural study programs give many students an often-profound first taste of life in unfamiliar parts of the world, it’s a far different experience from that of being a TCK.
One of the distinctions that Brenneman has observed between the groups is that TCKs tend to focus on the similarities between cultures, while students who experience life outside the United States for the first time through a cross-cultural tend to focus on differences.
Those tendencies aside, Brenneman says the prevalence of cross-cultural education throughout the curriculum, along with EMU’s emphasis on becoming more “globally knowledgeable and accepting,” help create a supportive atmosphere for TCKs at the university.
At the same time, she adds, the relatively large group of TCKs on campus contributes significantly to that same globally-aware environment that EMU prizes.
“TCKs bring strengths to the EMU community as a result of their experiences,” Brenneman says. “They help bring out the global emphasis that we have.”