“America’s Best” ~ Another Perspective

May 5, 2010

By Liz Perelstein

President,  School Choice International

The article entitled “America’s Best Prep Schools” that appeared in Forbes (April 30)  hurts kids.  The article relies on the flawed assumption that the best school for one child will suit another.  Anyone who understands children or child development is aware that not every child thrives in the same academic environment. Despite this obvious reality, impressionable but well intentioned parent readers of this article will feel, more than ever, that their child is being shortchanged by receiving inferior education.  Parents today already use every tool in their arsenal to “get their children in” to the schools that someone has identified as the “top” or the “best.”  The sad result has been revealed to me in countless conversations with private school admissions officers and psychologists: “getting in” isn’t enough. These are the children who fail, get counseled out or inevitably suffer low self-esteem when even daily tutoring can’t help them succeed in an incompatible environment. Is it responsible to foster the prep school frenzy – at the expense of children – by simplistically elevating a handful of prep-schools while effectively diminishing all others?

Moreover, using university admissions as the major criterion for rating schools is imperfect, at best.  While there is little doubt that small classes, individualized attention and access to faculty provide students with unparalleled opportunities, are these the key to Ivy League pipeline that these schools enjoy?  Might the large endowments boasted by this “top 20” (ironically another, and self-reinforcing, criterion for rating the schools) suggest that these prep school parents may be disproportionately represented among alumni and major contributors to these universities, a known factor in college admissions?

Parents need to learn to ask the right questions to assess whether these schools are right for their children.

Unfortunately, parents and students take these lists very literally; they reinforce the natural insecurity in human nature and encourage those seeking prep schools to focus exclusively on the name brand. Do children need – or even benefit from – country club like campuses?  Should parents be looking at access to facilities rather than facilities per se?  Who gets to play on the 15 tennis courts or the eight lane competition swimming pool or the golf course?  Will their child have that opportunity?  Do these schools use their lavish facilities to teach sportsmanship or to win?  Is the risk-taking behavior and self-confidence encouraged by favorable teacher/student ratios undercut by the exclusivity and competitive spirit that mark some of these schools?  Parents need to learn to ask the right questions to assess whether these schools are right for their children. Forbes has successfully promoted its magazine through this article.  Can it use its prominence to promote kids?

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A New Role for Boarding Schools

December 24, 2009

In the last decade, the role of boarding schools in America has been in transition.  Schools that began as  finishing schools for children of wealthy American families have become a vehicle for opportunity as enrollment of Asian students, in particular, has grown.  Now considered a conduit for overseas students interested in American universities, boarding school attendance in the USA during secondary school years ensures that students become proficient in English and possess the academic requirements to attend American colleges and universities.   Currently the percentage of international students in American boarding schools exceeds 15%, with numbers from South Korea, China and India significantly on the rise. 

For further information on attending boarding school in the United States from abroad, contact info@schoolchoiceintl.com.


Repatriation and Identity: William E. Cross

September 25, 2009

This is the last of a three part series on different theories related to Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and repatriation. Note that these are theories, not facts. As we will see, the theories all have their own merits, but they don’t always agree.

Click here for Part I

Click here for Part II

Part III

Last week we discussed Paul Pederson model, which describes five stages of culture shock. In review, Pederson suggests culture shock begins in the honeymoon phase, when a person has yet to experience culture shock, then a “cultural incident” causes disintegration or disorientation and confusion. During the reintegration stage, the individual begins to resolve the cultural dissonance. In the autonomy stage the person develops a greater awareness of herself and others, and finally reaches the interdependent stage, which consists of a new multicultural identity.

Though based on different populations, Pederson’s theory of culture shock is reminiscent of W. E. Cross’s* theory of Black identity development, called Nigrescence. The developmental theory consists of five stages:

  1. Pre-encounter
  2. Encounter
  3. Immersion
  4. Emersion
  5. Internalization

Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between the two theories.

Pederson’s honeymoon phase, when a person has yet to experience culture shock, correlates with the Cross’s pre-encounter stage, when an individual has yet to develop an afro-centric identity. The Pederson’s disintegration and Cross’s encounter stage both involve a sense of shock and displacement, except in Cross’s model, this encounter has a racial basis. Unlike Pederson’s model, Cross includes an immersion stage, where a person immerses herself in African American culture, attempting to “embrace” the new Black identity and destroy the older, ignorant identity. We will discuss the significance of this stage to TCKs in the next paragraph. During the emersion and internalization phase (the 4th and 5th stages), an individual learns new behaviors and adopts values characteristic with being a member of Black society but develops a sense of comfort with people from all different racial backgrounds. The emersion and internalization stages align well with Pederson’s reintegration, autonomy, and interdependent stages.

There are obvious similarities between these phases, and indeed the experiences of African American and TCK young adults, except for one key phase—the immersion stage. The omission of the immersion stage may be credited to the difficulty TCKs face in achieving immersion, since strong post-repatriation communities have not existed in the United States. (Note however, that these kinds of communities are emerging, such as Mu Kappa for Missionary Kids, Global Nomads in the Washington Area, websites such as TCKid.com and certain groups on Facebook). One could ask whether successful autonomy and interdependence (Pederson’s terms) or emersion and internalization (Cross’s terms) rely on an immersion of some sort? Does the lack of immersion opportunities make finding a balanced identity difficult for TCKs? Some in the TCK community have written about an immersion experience in an affinity group or community, for instance, joining the Asian students’ association at university.

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell

Let’s see how these stages might apply to Lisa’s (fictional) experience. This is the same story, with a few additions to fit the model.

Lisa, an American, Third Culture Kid, grows up in Egypt, Morocco and France. Her mother works for the American State Department. Like her mother, Lisa feels she represents the United States, and her mother often says, “You’re an ambassador as well!”

Lisa brings peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school and wears Old Navy jeans on the weekends; she plays softball on the school team and friends joke about her American accent. Lisa represents the United States of America abroad.

The pre-encounter stage, when an individual has yet to develop an afro-centric identity.

Lisa can’t wait to return to the United States. Finally she won’t be the foreigner anymore! Her love of peanut butter, Old Navy and softball will be the norm, rather than the exception. No one will even notice her accent. Finally, Lisa will feel like she belongs—just as everyone fits in at home.

The encounter stage involves a sense of shock and displacement.

On the first day of school, Lisa meets her classmates. One girl says, “oh, you have such a cute accent!” Lisa lets it slide. Lisa has to fill out health forms, so she tells the nurse she is 170 centimeters tall and the nurse gives her a look. Lisa turns red, but lets it slide. After a short conversation, a boy says, “you’re kind of like a foreigner!” Lisa fights back tears and wants to go back to France.

Cross includes an immersion stage, where a person immerses herself in African American culture, attempting to “embrace” the new Black identity and destroy the older, ignorant identity.

Lisa joins the French club and becomes close to international and exchange students. She spends a lot of time online, learning about what it means to be a TCK and a global nomad. She also develops especially critical views of America and Americans; whenever an opportunity presents itself, Lisa separates herself from America.

During the emersion and internalization phase, an individual learns new behaviors and adopts values characteristic with being a member of Black society but develops a sense of comfort with people from all different racial backgrounds.

Lisa often tells people she’s a Third Culture Kid, but she begins to understand that her international background does not make her any less American, but does make her different from some of her peers. Lisa realizes she has many friends from many different cliques, and begins to explore how she is similar and different to her peers. This process can be draining, but is important to Lisa.

As Lisa learns what to expect from her friends and teachers, she begins to feel connected to her school community. She understands, respects and even cherishes both her American heritage and international experiences and actively keeps connections to both worlds.

* Cross, W. E., Jr. (1991). Shades of black: Diversity in African-American identity. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.


Repatriation and Identity: Paul Pederson

September 18, 2009

For the next few weeks, we’ll explore three different theories related to Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and repatriation. Note that these are theories, not facts. As we will see, the theories all have their own merits, but they don’t always agree.

Click here for Part I

Part II

Last week we discussed Storti’s model, which describes three basic phases of adjustment after repatriation: the “expectation of the home culture,” a “cultural incident” and developing “culturally appropriate expectations.” Paul Pederson[i] expands Storti’s model by describing five stages of culture shock. (Most scholars call culture shock upon repatriation reverse culture shock, however the Pederson’s model still captures many of the nuances of the experience). According to Pederson, culture shock begins in the honeymoon phase, when a person has yet to experience culture shock, then a “cultural incident” causes disintegration or disorientation and confusion. During the reintegration stage, the individual begins to resolve the cultural dissonance (reminiscent of Storti’s “culturally appropriate expectations”). In the autonomy stage the person develops a greater awareness of herself and others, and finally reaches the interdependent stage, which consists of a new multicultural identity.

Girl at Mirror

Let’s see how these stages might apply to Lisa’s (fictional) experience. This is the same story, with a few additions to fit the model.

Lisa, an American, Third Culture Kid, grows up in Egypt, Morocco and France. Her mother works for the American State Department. Like her mother, Lisa feels she represents the United States, and her mother often says, “You’re an ambassador as well!”

Lisa brings peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school and wears Old Navy jeans on the weekends; she plays softball on the school team and friends joke about her American accent. Lisa represents the United States of America abroad.

Culture shock begins in the honeymoon phase, when a person has yet to experience culture shock.

Lisa can’t wait to return to the United States. Finally she won’t be the foreigner anymore! Her love of peanut butter, Old Navy and softball will be the norm, rather than the exception. No one will even notice her accent. Finally, Lisa will feel like she belongs—just as everyone fits in at home.

A “cultural incident” (much like Storti’s) causes disintegration or disorientation and confusion.

On the first day of school, Lisa meets her classmates. One girl says, “oh, you have such a cute accent!” Lisa lets it slide. Lisa has to fill out health forms, so she tells the nurse she is 170 centimeters tall and the nurse gives her a look. Lisa turns red, but lets it slide. After a short conversation, a boy says, “you’re kind of like a foreigner!” Lisa fights back tears and wants to go back to France.

During the reintegration stage, the individual begins to resolve the cultural dissonance (reminiscent of Storti’s “culturally appropriate expectations”).

Lisa learns to gage when her friends are interested in stories from her time abroad, and when she meets someone who doesn’t seem interested, she can usually engage them in a lively conversation about baseball.

In the autonomy stage the person develops a greater awareness of him or herself and others.

Lisa begins to understand that her international background does not make her any less American, but does make her different from some of her peers. Lisa realizes she has many friends from many different cliques, and begins to explore how she is similar and different to her peers. This process can be draining, but is important to Lisa.

Finally reaches the interdependent stage, which consists of a new multicultural identity.

As Lisa learns what to expect from her friends and teachers, she begins to feel connected to her school community. She understands, respects and even cherishes both her American heritage and international experiences and actively keeps connections to both worlds.

Next week we will explore W. E. Cross’s theory of Nigrescence.


[i] Pederson, P. (1995). The five stages of culture shock: Critical incidents around the world. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.


Repatriation and Identity: Craig Storti

September 11, 2009

For the next few weeks, we’ll explore three different theories related to Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and repatriation. Note that these are theories, not facts. As we will see, the theories all have their own merits, but they don’t always agree.

Part IThe Art of Crossing Cultures

Craig Storti[1] uses a model of adjustment to explain how Third Culture Kids (TCKs) reacculturate. Storti argue s that all TCKs have expectations of a culture, especially what they consider their “home culture.” However when a “cultural incident” disproves their beliefs, TCKs react in anger, fear or embarrassment, which causes withdrawal and/or analysis of the situation. Slowly, TCKs develop “culturally appropriate expectations” and approach situations with new insight.

Let’s apply this theory to a (fictional) story.

Lisa, an American Third Culture Kid, grows up in Egypt, Morocco and France. Her mother works for the American State Department. Like her mother, Lisa feels she represents the United States, and her mother often says, “You’re an ambassador as well!”

Lisa brings peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school and wears Old Navy jeans on the weekends; she plays softball on the school team and friends joke about her American accent. Lisa represents the United States of America abroad.

Storti argues that all TCKs have expectations of a culture, especially what they consider their “home culture.”

Lisa can’t wait to return to the United States. Finally she won’t be the foreigner anymore! Her love of peanut butter, Old Navy and softball will be the norm, rather than the exception. No one will even notice her accent. Finally, Lisa will feel like she belongs—just as everyone fits in at home.

Being measured at schoolHowever when a “cultural incident” disproves their beliefs, TCKs react in anger, fear or embarrassment, which causes withdrawal and/or analysis of the situation.

On the first day of school, Lisa meets her classmates. One girl says, “oh, you have such a cute accent!” Lisa lets it slide. Lisa has to fill out health forms, so she tells the nurse she is 170 centimeters tall and the nurse gives her a look. Lisa turns red, but lets it slide. After a short conversation, a boy says, “you’re kind of like a foreigner!” Lisa fights back tears and wants to go back to France.

Slowly, TCKs develop “culturally appropriate expectations” and approach situations with new insight.

Lisa learns to gauge when her friends are interested in stories from her time abroad, and when she meets someone who doesn’t seem interested, she can usually engage them in a lively conversation about baseball. As she learns what to expect from her friends and teachers, she begins to feel connected to her school community.

Next week, we’ll look at Paul Pederson’s five stages of culture shock.


[1] Storti, C. (1990). The art of crossing cultures. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.


Expat Life Down The Road, Pt. 2

September 3, 2009

Last week, in Part 1 of this article, I introduced four recent college graduates who lived abroad for part of their upbringing and went to college in the U.S. Now we’ll find out in what ways their time abroad shaped who they are today. I want to offer a big thank you to Alex, Andres, Brittany, and Jessie!

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the things that the four interviewees all blame on their time abroad was what Andres refers to as his “jet setter” traits (Brittany calls it “the traveler that’s still within me”). Jessie explains, “I think travel is a bug that infects early, and those who have the privilege to travel at a young age tend to dedicate much of the rest of their life to fitting in as much travel as possible.” Early travel exposes children to new sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and types of people. Alex says that he has “no qualms about getting around a new major city” and suggests that part of this is related to the fact that his eyes have been opened to various types of music, art, food, and the like (“I can order comfortably off of pretty much any kind of menu”).

Alex explains another thing that makes travel easier now: “Living abroad and going to an international school shrinks the world. I feel that I know at least someone in every major city in the world”. The fact is that the turnover rate for new students in international schools is incredibly quick. Andres points out that this has its downsides too, as it is hard to see friends leave. He acknowledges, however, that this contributes to an openness that students have and a willingness to make new friends quickly.

The recent graduates all spoke about issues of diversity, open-mindedness, racism, and the like. Brittany ties her open-mindedness to the people she met abroad: “You are forced to embrace others and yourself because the differences are so obvious, and at the same time trivial”. Alex seconds this notion: “I went to school with a very diverse group of students from all races and religions. I grew up truly color blind to the world, which puts me in a unique position”. Andres says that this definitely made him different from his American college classmates. He says that growing up, he wasn’t truly aware of racism. “I had never really thought about racism as an issue until the first week of [college] when we had a Cultural Diversity Workshop… It was just a completely different concept to me.”

Academically, too, these four found themselves to have had a different background during their time abroad. Brittany says that “in Jakarta, there was such an emphasis put on learning for the sake of learning, instead of learning for the sake of getting a good score on your SATs or getting into a good college”. They all mentioned the high quality of teachers during their time abroad—teachers who really were passionate about teaching. Jessie offers her reflections about one way that the French teachers and teaching system set them apart from those in America:

“[The American School in Paris] was one of the first places where I really learned to push myself academically: not to settle for adequate work (which, unfortunately, I noticed was very easy to do once I got stateside), but to strive for better. The French grading system is out of 20, but 12 or better is considered a score to be proud of. NO ONE gets a 20. 16 or 17 would be a phenomenal grade. Meanwhile I got back to America where you can earn a 107 on a test if you do extra credit—how is that pushing students? Obviously, this is something of a personal preference, but I really feel like instilling in students the idea that you can always do better is such a great way to encourage hard work (and then, of course, providing them with the resources and support necessary to realize that hard work).”


Handling Repatriation ~ Ideas for TCKs

August 28, 2009

Today, Boston College had an orientation specifically for Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Expatriate kids are finally getting the attention they deserve! I was delighted to give the key-note address. I presented some findings from my research on TCKs, which explores the factors that affect psychological well-being, but also some personal stories and some food for thought.

I’d like to share a few of the take-home points. These do not come from research or statistical analysis, but are ideas that I have been thinking about for a while.

Treat repatriation like an assignment ~ What would happen?Coming Home?

Third Culture Kids are great at adapting, except, it seems, when it comes to repatriation. Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists all suggest that the heavy expectations of going “home”—only to find a place does not feel like home—can make repatriation very hard. I’ve often wondered if TCKs would fare better if they treated repatriation more like an assignment, even if only as a mental tool to deal with difficult situations. Maybe it would be easier to use the adaptation skills they learned on previous assignments to deal with the move. If a TCK expects Americans to be “foreign,” would it be as difficult to make friends? Of course, all the issues would not disappear (i.e. people might still wonder why he or she is using “lift” instead of “elevator”), but maybe a TCK would not mind quite as much.

National and Communal Identity ~ A Matter of Perspective

There are two aspects of identity that I’d like to highlight: nationality (in the sense of national identity) and a sense of belonging (communal identity). Obviously the two concepts overlap; nationalistic people are probably more likely to feel a sense of belonging to their country. For instance, during the last election, I was proud to be an American and felt a strong sense of community with Americans living in Canada. However, national and communal identity CAN be mutually exclusive.

arra_pic

Third Culture Kids may have a strained relationship with their national identity; I’ve interviewed TCKs who express feeling especially American while abroad, only to feel completely foreign in the United States. Some continue to call themselves American and really believe so, while others only call themselves American only because “it’s the easiest answer that raises the fewest questions.” Sometimes it helps to take a different perspective on national identity—some of the interviewees refer to themselves as TCKs or Global Nomads, or simply say, “I’m nationally challenged… because Americans seem to like the ‘challenged.’” They have a positive view of their background that takes into account their international experiences. A TCK’s national identity may take time to develop, and that’s okay! Chances are, their sense of national identity will be a much deeper one than most.

Regardless of their national sense of identity, TCKs can still feel a sense of belonging in their community through their religious beliefs, leisure activities or sports clubs. In this high-tech age, courtesy of Facebook and DIY websites, there are even online TCK communities. (In the past, finding a TCK community was especially difficult; after repatriation, TCKs spread out and often become invisible, or “hidden immigrants”). Finding a community, a group of people with a shared interest, can help a TCK settle in and give them a support network. The point is not to connect with other Americans or non-Americans, but to connect. At the end of the day, we are all people.

Seeking help

TCKs might need extra support, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. By the time a TCK is 19, she or he will have had more than a lifetime of experiences to absorb and process. It’s not going to be easy. More and more, counselors and advisors are becoming aware of TCK issues. TCKs should not be afraid to use counseling services offered at universities and colleges to help deal with any issues they may face.

Every person takes a unique journey… You might as well enjoy yours!

TCKs have amazing opportunities to experience the world, traveling, understanding new cultures and gaining different viewpoints, but all that can be hard to remember during difficult times. Take time to remind yourself of the good times you’ve had abroad and the benefits you’ve reaped from living a global life.

~ A special thank you to Laura Saylor and Boston College for inviting me to speak! ~