Surviving College Re-entry

Surviving College Re-entry

I was eighteen when I returned home to California. It was an intense summer before college began. I learned to drive, pump gas, get a bank account and found housing. Not to mention the daunting task of buying an appropriate wardrobe. There were more tears shed trying to find the perfect jeans then there were learning to drive stick and change a tire in L.A. County.

There was definitely no free time to acknowledge emotional loss or fear.

MK re-entry is all about survival, much like it is for any expatriate moving to a new and foreign country.  It requires a lot of sustained energy to learn to navigate any new place and homebound TCK’s are no different, even though we like to think we are.  This overconfidence is compounded by our youth and is often used as a buffer to bury our inadequacy and unavoidable grief that has incurred by leaving home to return home.

It takes age and time to be able to look back on those early re-entry years and see the patterns of both health and un-health and the difference between survival and flourishing. If I had the opportunity to go back in time and give my younger self some advice, I probably wouldn’t listen to it, I’d shrug it off and claim to be the one with whom the story is different.

Because, us TCK’s, we are fiercely independent, we are competent, and we know how to blend into our new surroundings. We can make just about any situation work, fitting in and filling gaps of need with ease. We know what it means to sacrifice. This is a gift…in part…but it can also be a curse.   

When we come back for college we are still young souls. As much as we’d like to believe we know how the world works, we are still naïve. While we have a more expansive and different worldview filled with painful experiences and unique adventures that give us a perspective, it is still an immaturely formed perspective on the world and of God and our place in society among friends.

After all, how mature can an eighteen year old be?

But when we come home for college we are thrust into the pool, sink or swim, and we will find a way to swim. It may look awkward at first, but we will catch on. We will observe and learn the appropriate strokes, becoming one with the many.

We will learn that our own childhood stories don’t resonate with our friends and their stories don’t resonate with us. So, we will smile at the appropriate times but keep our own experiences close to our chest, not wanting to hear the silence that meets us when we bare our soul.

As we stop sharing our stories we will begin to lose grip on the memories that define us and the relationships that secure us. We long for home and belonging and rest. This re-entry is exhausting. We lose one world to be left scrambling to build a future in a world where we don’t belong.

All of this fitting in and adapting can begin to make us feel unstable. College can be a support, giving us a sense of purpose and belonging and identity but what about when the classes are over? With the diploma in hand, where do we go?

For me, I moved from job to job, studied and took the LSAT, ready to become a savior for the world. I did all I could to keep myself together, to keep myself from feeling, to keep myself from falling apart. Seeking out the next new adventure to feed the turmoil that rested on me. 

That’s the thing about re-entry. It truly is all about survival. You don’t have the time or the maturity to fully understand the impact of your childhood. In fact, you are still at the tail end of your childhood, thrust into the world and forced to be independent. The support of family and community is limited and you must rise to meet the challenge.

You WILL rise to meet the challenge.  

So, if you are a young one who is heading off to college or is in the midst of the re-entry whirlwind, I want you to know that it is ok. It is ok that survival is your goal. Because there is no such thing as a perfect re-entry, there is no way to say the perfect goodbyes in just the right way that the loss doesn’t follow you. Your parents won’t say all the right things and your peers won’t either.  Holidays and birthdays will be hard and those pesky parent days at university will be lonely. You will struggle to find your place and it will take trial and error, it will take tears and laughter.

But one day, Lord willing, you will look back and be amazed at what you accomplished. You will be able to acknowledge the pain, disillusionment and anger without discounting the value and beauty of your third culture life.  But remember, your growth is not complete. I know it feels like you have lived a lifetime but there are many years of surprises ahead of you.

You will see just how deeply your life is impacted by those early years spent enmeshed in varying cultures and you will see that you have valuable insight to offer. You will also learn that those who surround you have something to teach you. They have beautiful stories themselves that, when embraced, can expose you to new depths of relational health that only stability brings.

This life of ours is a crazy, difficult adventure that will take you places you never imagined existed and God will be there, without judgment. He will know every feeling, he will see every motive, he will value every tear and he will be your constant. As the world changes and cultures shift and life goes upside down, God will remain as he always has. Loving you as much as any national or unreached people group, God will see you and he will care for you because you are his.

As you think about re-entry, what are things that you do well and what are areas that you struggle? How can you embrace where you are without judgement?


Are you preparing to return to your passport country after serving on the field? Are you in the midst of settling in to a new normal? Our Re-entry Kit is designed just for you! The kit includes a video class taught by Danielle Wheeler and Sarah Hilkemann, as well as access to a private Facebook community to help you process your re-entry journey, and a timed email series that shows up right in your inbox with tips and encouragement. Check out the re-entry toolkit by clicking on the button to learn more!

1 Comment

  1. Karen Carlson June 27, 2019

    This article motivated me to write a letter to our youngest who just completed his first year of university. I shared a few of these paragraphs with him, and I also typed a good size list of all the ways he succeeded in re-entry. Thanks for writing.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.