I recently presented a research paper at a conference on diversity in the academy. The title “Wher’s Waldo:” Facilitating dialogue about education adaptation for hidden diversity students, caused major headaches in the program editing process, as well-meaning editors “corrected” the spelling of the first word. Which sort of made my point for me. Education in America is making it tough for internationally educated students to survive, much less thrive. Essentially, the paper presented a case study about a group of adult children of military, missionary, diplomat, and business parents (Third Culture Kids – TCKs). I had facilitated (not participated in) a day-long structured dialogue with a group of these folks to hear from them three things: what challenges TCKs face during their high school and college experiences; what are desirable characteristics of an educational institution; and what could be done to improve TCKs high school and college experiences. Of the many insights I took away from this intense day, I’d like to highlight three that might jog something for you. 1. Try new approaches – when you want to learn more about the cultural values of a group, you have to be willing to encounter them on their own terms. The dialogue began with participants making their own name table-tents, using a variety of markers – the first participant drew two flags and his first name. The second drew one massive flag with his name incorporated into it. Another drew a massive flag without even including his name. Others drew savannas, soccer pitches, and cultural symbols, but each chose a non-verbal, visual element as their primary means of self-introduction. Pre-printed name tags would have stolen these important expressions and fostered conformity. Participants chose to sit on the ground in a loose circle, changed some of the “guidelines” I had set to allow a format they could use. They told stories, more than straight answers. They made statements that only made sense in context, and they didn’t mock, but rather encouraged misspelled words to remain unchanged – a mutual appreciation for the challenges of learning grammar, punctuation, and, especially, spelling, in multiple countries and educational systems. Pre-printed surveys or less-creative brainstorming techniques would not have allowed the variety of ideas, the honesty and the interpersonal connections that a new approach fostered. For this group their post-research responses highlighted the importance of adapting environment, structure, consensus decision making and the role of storytelling to the specific needs of the group. 2. People know what they need – When asked open and substantial questions, people can figure out what is holding them back and offer simple solutions to the challenges. In just a few hours, one group of adult TCKs were able to identify and narrow down five top priorities that would make education easier on TCKs.
- An active TCK network or club
- An advocate within administration
- Education for faculty about TCKs, and for TCKs about faculty expectations
- Seminars before and after “reentry” to assist with acclimation
- Opportunities to use their cultural understandings as experts/resources, for example in planning missions trips or study abroad programs.
3. Shutting up is tough – I had a lot of research I wanted to tell them about, I had good stories, fun punch-lines and witty jokes. I wanted to be part of the group because, in reality, these are my people! But pulling back completely to a very limited “facilitator” role allowed this group to bond without a formal leader, contribute with freedom, and contribute in directions that would have been cut off by my “semi-expert” voice. And when I finally relaxed into my role (yes, it was toward the very end), I was able to see the synergistic, chaotic creativity that would ebb and flow as each built on each other’s ideas. A whirling, vortex of beauty. Seeing them from outside made me adore this culture and reingnited my passion to see more TCKs (and their kin) experience the joy, freedom, and creativity that is within them, waiting for similar others to recognize. But, unfortunately, finding TCKs is a bit like the Where’s Waldo books, where the colors, and shapes and chaotic activities hide the single man who is looking right at you. TCKs can be seen but the search can be daunting.