Using Appreciative Advising to Optimize Interactions with Third Culture Kids

Alicia Plath
University of South Carolina

Volume: 11
Article first published online: February 18, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161492

Keywords:advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, appreciative advising, TCK, third culture kid

Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.


Amanda is tired and jet-lagged. She has been traveling on her own for twenty hours and awake for much longer. She realizes that for the next four years she will be living in a country she has only visited. It is strange to her that everyone around her is white and they all speak English. As she sits in her orientation group, Amanda knows she looks like every other American in the room, but she realizes her life experiences have been so different from those of her classmates. She stared down a cobra when she was 5 years old; she grew up speaking English at home but Swahili in school with her friends; she could hear the hyenas laughing at night. Around the room people are taking turns relating where they are from. A million questions flood Amanda's mind. Where am I from? Illinois, where my parents were raised? Kenya, where I have lived since I could crawl? If I say Illinois, then they will think I grew up here. If I say Kenya, will they look at me oddly? Amanda is a Third Culture Kid (TCK). TCKs have unique stories and struggles when returning “home” and attending a university in the United States. The purpose of this paper is to discuss Appreciative Advising as a method to help advisers connect with and advise their TCK students.

Who are TCKs?

“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture” (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001, p. 19). Typically the parents of TCKs hold military, missionary, diplomatic, and business jobs overseas. TCKs are influenced by three cultures. The first culture is that of the host country where their parents are employed. The second is the “home” culture (or parents' culture), representing the country that issued the family's passports. The third culture is the shared lifestyle and experiences of the expatriate community that is different from both the home and host cultures (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001). In Amanda's case, the first culture is that of Kenya, the second reflects the United States, and the third is the culture of the local expatriate community in Kenya.

One experience all TCKs share is feeling as though they are hidden immigrants within their “home” cultures. For the purpose of this paper, TCKs are children of U.S. families living outside of the country but attending college in the “home” culture. When TCKs enter college in the United States, they look like Americans, but they bring along very different experiences than do their peers. It would be easy for an academic adviser to assume a TCK student has had a typical American upbringing, and this can cause TCKs to feel marginalized and overlooked. In fact, many of these students have spent so little time in their “home” country that it is foreign to them.

TCKs are considered prototype citizens of the future. Globalization has increased and the world has become “flatter,” allowing interactions among the world's citizens to multiply dramatically. Universities feel pressure to produce graduates who are globally savvy and prepared to effectively work with people from different cultures. To this end, colleges are increasingly recruiting international students in the hope of diversifying their student population. They are also sending students to study abroad in record numbers. Since TCKs grow up in true international and intercultural environments, these students become masters of adaptability and cultural awareness. Therefore, TCKs' lives can serve as models for citizens and students to follow and help the world and universities alike become more international (Vetter, 2005). Thus, studying the strengths and challenges of TCKs will give appreciative advisers information about the TCK experience, help them understand the TCK point of view, and afford a model or preview of students in the future.

Strengths of TCKs

The strengths of TCKs include a significant interest in traveling, acceptance of other cultures, the ability to see situations from other points of view, high mobility, global experiences to share in the classroom, and adaptability. Third Culture Kids may be like Amanda, whose story is based on a real TCK who stared down a cobra at age 5 and grew up speaking a second language. Other TCKs might have experienced days off from school because of typhoons instead of snow. TCKs generally experience their host cultures differently than tourists do, because they grow up in the culture; they are a part of it. This fosters TCKs' interest in learning other languages and traveling and helps them become more culturally accepting (Gerner, Perry, Moselle, & Archbold as cited in Vetter, 2005) and less prejudiced (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001). Their diverse backgrounds also nurture an ability to work well with different people in different situations and develop a multifaceted world view (Schaetti & Ramsey, 1999). These abilities will prove to be very beneficial in diverse environments, including the university setting. TCKs likely will be able to work well in group settings, where the members are ethnically diverse and able to appreciate different points of view.

TCKs live highly mobile lifestyles. The expatriate community consistently changes as people come and go from the area. Many TCK families move frequently themselves. A businessperson may get a two-year contract job in China, move back to the States, and then move again to a new job assignment in Germany. The more a TCK moves, the more diverse and complex his or her life becomes. Constant change allows them to practice and master the skills of adaptability and helps them blend in because they feel comfortable in different cultures (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001). Again, these skills and experiences prove to be useful in the ever-changing university setting. First of all, Third Culture Kids likely will be able to adapt and blend in to their new home culture and new university. Secondly, when TCK students move, attend new classes every semester, or change majors, they will be predisposed to smoothly navigate the changes and quickly excel.

Challenges Facing TCKs

Some TCK strengths can also be challenges. While some TCKs can be less prejudiced, a few can be more prejudiced (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001). TCKs' parents and the expatriate community might be hostile toward the host culture, and some TCKs may inherit their parents' and expatriate community's prejudice.

TCKs can also face other challenges, including feelings of homelessness, ignorance of the home culture, and the continuous loss of friends. Although TCKs can blend in and adapt, they may feel a sense of rootlessness and homelessness, especially if their families and support systems are still in the host culture. On the surface, TCKs may appear to have adapted and look like they fit in, but feeling at home is found at a deeper level within the TCK. Remember Amanda when she struggled to answer the question about where she was from?

For some TCKs, “where is home?” is the hardest question of all. Home connotes an emotional place where one truly belongs. There simply is no real answer to that question for many TCKs. They have moved so many times, lived in so many different residences, and attended so many different schools that they never became attached to any (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001).

As stated above, when TCKs reenter their home cultures, they are hidden immigrants. They look like many others do but may not know anything about American culture. This is especially true regarding pop culture. When TCKs and their U.S. counterparts enter college, everyone is new and seems to be on the same playing field. However, U.S. students often start building friendships by discovering similarities with other students in types of music they like and favorite movies and TV shows. TCKs who are unfamiliar with this information have a hard time finding footholds to start making friends. The isolated feeling that may result can cause TCKs to have a negative college experience (Vetter, 2005).

Finally, one of the biggest challenges for TCKs is the constant loss of friends (Hoiseth as cited in Vetter, 2005). Since TCKs live highly mobile lifestyles, they must repeatedly deal with good-byes. These “frequent, painful good-byes make some TCKs unwilling to risk emotional involvement again” (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001, p. 139). This could have detrimental effects on the TCK's college experience. Understanding TCKs' experiences, their strengths, and challenges can prepare academic advisers to help their TCK students.

Appreciative Advising

There are many theories and models in the academic advising world. The scope of this paper includes a focus on an emerging advising model/technique called Appreciative Advising. “Appreciative Advising is the intentional collaborative practice of asking positive, open-ended questions that help their students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials” (Bloom, Hutson, & He, n.d.). The six phases of Appreciative Advising are: Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle.

Advisers use “positive, active, and attentive listening and questioning strategies to build rapport with students,” thus disarming them and making them more receptive and engaged in the advising process (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008, p. 11). First, advisers should familiarize themselves with TCKs' experiences, strengths, and struggles. This article is a good start, and there are additional resources available in the reference list below. First impressions happen within seconds of meeting, therefore, advisers should welcome the TCK student warmly and genuinely (Bloom et al., n.d.). Being truly excited to meet the student, interested in getting to know his or her story, and prepared to help them reflects in the way advisers greet their students. It is important for advisers to decorate their offices to be comfortable and inviting to students. An international decoration or a picture of the appreciative adviser when he or she was abroad will begin to disarm students and help them to appreciate that the adviser has traveled abroad. This decoration can be a conversation starter and allow the adviser to disclose an international or intercultural experience (Bloom et al., n.d.).

After sharing his or her own experience, the adviser can transition nicely into asking Third Culture Kids about their experiences abroad, thereby using a technique in the second phase of Appreciative Advising. In the Discover phase, advisers use positive, open-ended questions to draw out students' stories. It is imperative that the adviser takes time to actively listen, because TCKs constantly assert that others do not hear or understand them. Most people listen to their stories for a few minutes, realize they do not or cannot relate, and then move on. Active listening, coupled with questioning, will define for the adviser what these students enjoy and reveal their strengths and passions (Bloom et al., 2008).

It is important to note that many TCKs have “a bias towards the negative aspects of being a TCK” (Vetter, 2005, p. 15). This bias is especially true when TCKs reenter their home cultures, because they then face the challenges of being a TCK every day. These challenges are so salient that they may forget the benefits of being a TCK. Appreciative advisers can help their TCK advisees reframe their experiences by having them create a list of good memories they have of their host culture and another list of the positive aspects of being a TCK. From this positive platform, TCK advisees can rediscover their strengths and passions.

The next phase for TCK students is dreaming about what they want to become. Here advisers ask a series of questions to determine what the student's dreams are (Bloom et al., 2008). Advisers can ask TCKs if they see their international experiences playing a part in their future careers. TCKs have an added dimension in their dreams to figure out. Where do they want to live? Each student faces this question, but TCKs likely have an expanded list of options to consider. Do they want to live in the United States, back in their host culture, or in another culture? It is also important for the adviser to be supportive of the students' choices, even if they are undecided at this point.

The Design phase involves the adviser and advisee working together to set specific goals and a timeline to complete those goals (Bloom et al., 2008). Part of what advisers can share with TCKs during the Design phase is a list of resources that are available to support TCKs and prevent a relapse into a negative-thinking spiral, in which they dwell on the challenges of being a TCK. Advisers can jump-start their TCK advisees' positive journey by offering a list of resources:

Interaction International and Global Nomads are two organizations available to help all expatriates who move back home. They offer transition seminars specifically for TCKs in the summer before moving home and entering college. Finally, every three years, Interaction International holds a conference at which TCKs from all over the United States and the world come together to learn and discuss TCK issues.

From here, advisers continue as they would with any other student in the Deliver and Don't Settle phases. In the Deliver phase, both the adviser and advisee follow through on their responsibilities. The adviser is there for support if the student stumbles (Bloom et al., n.d.). Finally, in the Don't Settle phase, advisers challenge their TCK students to raise the bar of their self-expectations. They reaffirm that the student has done well, but they also ask what they could do better or ask what doing their best would look like (Bloom et al.).

The Appreciative Advising model complements the unique needs of Third Culture Kid students. It provides a safe space for TCKs to share their stories; provides an opportunity for advisers to connect with their TCK students, allows advisers to help TCKs reframe their challenges into strengths, and creates a structure in which advisers help their students realize and achieve their dreams.


Third Cultures Kids' lives are unique. They have grown up in international environments that provide them with unique strengths and challenges. The Appreciative Advising model is an ideal model to use with TCKs, because of its emphasis on understanding students' stories and strengths. By asking positive, open-ended questions of TCKs, appreciative advisers will be able to build rapport with these students. Appreciative Advising then provides a holistic structure in which advisers can help TCKs focus on the strengths of their international experiences and ultimately help TCKs achieve their goals.


Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (n.d.). How can you empower your students to optimize their educational opportunities? Appreciative Advising. Retrieved November 8, 2008, from

Pollock, D. C., & Van Reken, R. E. (2001). Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Schaetti, B. F., & Ramsey, S. J. (1999). The global nomad experience living in liminality. Retrieved October 18, 2008, from

TCKID. (2008). A home for third culture kids and adults. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from

Vetter, K. (2005). An inside look at third culture kids at U.S. universities: Challenges, benefits, and support structures. Unpublished master's thesis, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

About the Author(s)

Alicia Joy Plath is a graduate assistant for International Student Services at the University of South Carolina. She is also a graduate student in the university's Higher Education and Student Affairs program. She can be reached at