What Constitutes Being a Third-Culture Kid?

A look into my semester long story regarding how global nomads discover the University of Wisconsin-Madison from every end of the world. 



This common question is great to spark small talk, especially when entering a new situation such as college. I’m sure you can think of a time when you met someone from your area that you hadn’t before. Do you remember that sense of comfort? For many people, asking them, “Where are you from?” is presented with a simple answer but for global nomads, otherwise known as “third-culture kids,” the answer is not as simple. Sophomore Jamal Moussa and other third-culture kids rarely experience that sense of comfort upon being asked where they are from.

Two planes in the sky


Jamal Moussa’s answers that he is from Beirut, Lebanon, yet left at a young age and returns to visit his father’s small village. He has lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Kuwait; Abu Dhabi, UAE and now Madison, Wisconsin. When he returns the question and is just as dumbfounded by his neighbors’ answers of Waukesha, Muskego and Delavan. Just as they are floored by his cultural experience, he feels that their homes are just as foreign. Explaining his upbringing to his neighbors in Sellery was first met with a lack of understanding and a sense of fear which he did not realize existed before living in the US for the first time. He is one of many kids who live their whole life calling multiple countries home, identifying themselves as expatriates, global nomads, global citizens and third culture kids. How do these people find Madison?

In the BBC article, “Third Culture Kids: Citizens of everywhere and nowhere,” Kate Mayberry discusses the origin of these global nomads. She says third culture kids are “children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland.” Global nomads enter university as international students but have a unique identity. The typical idea of an international student is that each student originates from one country yet this demographic of students have a more specific global identity as they call multiple countries home.

Cow in a field

Jamal’s experience changed as he spent more time in Wisconsin. When asked where he was from, he responds, “Oh, this is my favorite question. People are always shocked and I love to teach them about the world.” Graduating from the American Community School, a high school in Abu Dhabi, he entered the states thinking he knew much about Americans but realized there was much more to learn. He says that his whole life he connected with his peers because when asking “Where are you from?” he could almost always find something in common. When coming to Wisconsin, that wasn’t necessarily the case.


He said at first it was hard to connect with people because he was unfamiliar with places like Waukesha, Wisconsin and at first it feels like there’s nothing in common. With time, he feels that he has found deeper connections with people at UW Madison than people he has known his whole life because of the kind culture. He lives with two other students who went to school in the Middle East and have similar upbringings to him, living around the world and having a broad perspective on global topics. He continued to discuss one of his most eye-opening lessons is learning about Jewish culture and having Jewish friends after predominantly living in the Middle East and after having no exposure to Judaism. He emphasized that he is so lucky to have this exposure and it is not something he would have gotten if he did not step out of his comfort zone.

Freshman Victória Campagnaro Franceschetto was born in Brazil, moved to Oman, then to Dubai, then spent three months in Florence, Italy before making her way to UW Madison. She carries an Italian passport as each of her parents are originally from Italy. Victoria giggled because she only speaks a tiny bit of Italian from living there for a few months and when entering customs she’s often asked to speak it, but cannot. This can often be a topic of conversation amongst third culture kids because they recognize that there are distinct differences between the places they grow up, what their culture is, and where their passport is from. Within the communities of international schools, ties to multiple countries is readily understood whereas on the UW Campus it is harder to grasp. If you did grow up in one place, did you go to school with the same crowd for over 10 years? Third culture kids seldom have the same path as someone else and rarely feel those strong roots to one place.


Regarding the Wisconsin Experience, each of the students I interviewed discussed how their experiences differ from the people they graduated with because they feel that the majority of their classmates go to school in cities on the coasts such as New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Those cities differ much from Madison and they each discuss how the people they graduated with cling to other third culture kids and struggle to break out of their shell and meet kids who have solely grown up in the US.

On another end of the spectrum, Professor Min Li discusses her children’s upbringing as she is Chinese, her husband is German and her kids are American. They too experience a more global outlook than their peers yet they differ from the global nomad because they have a singular home in Madison. From both her studies and personal experiences She finds herself socializing amongst fellow internationals and welcomes international students in her classroom because she understands their experience. The students bring a new perspective to the classroom, making each international business lesson more powerful. The people in Wisconsin are what keep her and her family in Madison. Regarding her experience on the UW Madison campus, Professor Li considers this place to be great. “I ask them why [they stay] and they’re like we just love it here and I love it here too.” She credits her love to the genuine, friendly and helpful people.

The importance of recognizing this small sector of people on this great campus is to understand the opportunity to learn. Each of these global nomads brings experiences from around the world to this campus and is yearning to both share them and find a unique experience on an American campus. Despite the initial difficulty of adjusting, Professor Li says, “the first cut is the deepest… and later on the roads [are] much smoother.” It is important to highlight the presence of these people on campus and understand that with the increase in globalization, expatriation will become increasingly popular and there will be more global nomads on campus each year. Everyone has a different Wisconsin Experience but they all leave with the same identity as a Badger.

To dive deeper into this story, click here

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