Third culture kids: the blended identity of an international education

“International schools provide a comprehensive cross-cultural education that gives students access to a global, mobile community that is defined by its internationalism”

Emily Buchanan, a professional writer living in Norwich, UK, who’s passionate about education, the environment, and human rights, writes on the value of an international education and the ‘third culture’ identity of students at international schools.

For a young family which is given the opportunity to relocate abroad for a new job or promotion, there are going to be a number of things to consider. From accommodation to healthcare, planning before you go is paramount to a successful move. One of the most important things to come to terms with is education. As a newcomer, what can you expect from an international school and how will it change the way your child defines themselves?

International schools are ideal for expat families in that they cater to students who are not nationals of the host country. This can include children of international business owners, international organisations and companies, foreign embassies, NGOs, charities or missionary programs.

On first glance, this may concern some parents. After all, how will your child mix with their peers if their school is populated by students from other countries? However, many local children attend international schools to learn English and to obtain qualifications that they might not have access to in other schools – such as the International Baccalaureate, Edexcel or Cambridge International Examinations.

These certificates of education are highly regarded and for this reason, demand for an international education is high. The market has grown exponentially in recent years, with statistics from the International School Consultancy Group (ISC) predicting that by the end of the year, there will be 7,200 international schools teaching over 3.7 million students in English.

“Rather than identifying with any one country or culture, many internationally-educated children and adults will consider themselves global citizens”

This market growth can partially be attributed to the advance of globalisation but also to the growth of the middle classes in emerging markets. This new population of working, well-off families has meant that in some markets, 80% of enrolment demand is from local parents who want to prepare their children for foreign university degrees. When you consider that 20 years ago, most international schools were dominated by expat students, it just goes to show how well integrated international schools have become within their local communities.

International schools provide a rigorous and comprehensive cross-cultural education that immerses students in multiple languages and gives them access to a global, mobile community that is defined by its internationalism. Anyone who has been to international school or knows someone who has will appreciate the unique cultural identity this gives you.

Firstly, if you are always on the move, your children will have spent very little time in their country of origin. Therefore, rather than identifying with any one country or culture, many internationally-educated children and adults will consider themselves “global citizens” or “Third Culture Kids”.

At an international school, where you’re from is less about birthplace and more about cultural identity. “As an expat student your cultural identity ends up being difficult to categorise,” Hannah Smith, a 16-year-old British-Taiwanese student currently living in Beijing, writes in the Guardian. “This lack of definition means that I’ve ended up in a murky haze of different cultures, with bits and pieces from everywhere I’ve lived and everyone I’ve met.”

“International students’ culture can be spotted in their tell-tale ‘international school accent’ which is a kind of transatlantic timbre that’s difficult to place”

International students relate to each other through this hybrid identification process and eventually settle on a culture that is typified by their education. This can be spotted in their tell-tale “international school accent” which is a kind of transatlantic timbre that’s difficult to place. The result of an English-speaking education that encourages bilingual conversations and cross-cultural lessons, international school accents give their students a sense of belonging and a root in an otherwise culturally disparate environment.

One of the many great advantages of international school is that students are more open to people from all walks of life. In the very fabric of their education, students are exposed to a multitude of cultures, languages, religions and values. They learn how to adapt quickly to change and how to form and nourish fast friendships. This promotes a broad-minded spirit and a multicultural attitude of acceptance. Indeed, with multiculturalism and International Baccalaureate qualifications increasingly transforming state schools, international schools might not be traditional, but they certainly reflect the future of education in a truly globalised world.