Like many Third Culture Kids (TCKs), Sarah (Spinella) Forcey’s eighteenth birthday preempted a transition to her home culture in the form of repatriating to the US for college. Unlike most TCKs, though, the process also served as a stepping-stone toward her current dissertation research: creating a tool by which to define the impact global mobility has on individuals.

From Taiwan to Texas

It seems fitting that Sarah’s first steps were in Taiwan on a short family trip, as her family’s later move from Colorado to Taiwan during her second grade year ultimately put her on the pathway to her current dissertation project. What would seem exotic and unusual for the typical white, American, upper middle class child soon became the norm for Sarah: she attended a Chinese church, went to school with missionary children as well as children from other countries around the world, and volunteered at an English camp teaching Taiwanese youth to speak English. During summers, her parents, two brothers, and she often found themselves on a fourteen hour flight back to the United States to visit supporting churches. In short, Sarah’s life fit into the traditional classification of a “Third Culture Kid.”

In the TCK community, the transition to college in a child’s passport country is often presented as a picture of bleakness, confusion, and isolation. After living for a certain time in a country outside of their passport country, many TCKs experience difficulty identifying with their home country counterparts. This disconnect can lead to dissatisfaction and isolation.

Sarah found this to not be the case. “I felt really well prepared for my transition back to the US by the senior topics class in high school,” Sarah said of her transition to Rice University in Houston, Texas. She cites several other tools that assisted her in the transition: having a model by which to say good-bye to Taiwan, the diverse community at Rice, and her trips back to Taiwan to visit her family.

As her undergraduate experience at Rice University concluded, Sarah’s residency in Texas transformed from temporary to permanent. She had found a home in the United States, and after undergraduate studies proceeded to pursue her PhD in Counseling Psychology at Texas A&M. Despite accumulating more years in the United States as opposed to Asia, Sarah sought to stay connected with her Taiwanese influence by continuing to learn Chinese while at Rice.

During her third in her doctoral program, as the deadline for her dissertation proposal neared, Sarah began to face a question that has gone unanswered for most TCKs. “I found myself wrestling with what place my experience in Taiwan had in my life now,” she explained. “And as I was nearer and nearer to spending as much time in Texas as I had spent in Taiwan…Did that give Texas a bigger claim on my current identity in Taiwan?”

Sarah’s commitment to exploring the impact that her experience in Taiwan had on her own identity ultimately produced her current dissertation project.

Crafting a Question

Despite an increasing amount of research being done in the TCK field, as Sarah began her project, she realized the necessity of more inclusive and defined categories in TCK research, as well as developing further quantitative research measures. “I was kind of disappointed to see that pretty much every quantitative study used only a few qualifying questions to identify their sample and went from there to see if those people proved their hypothesis about TCKs,” Sarah described. “I felt it was unreasonable to expect that everyone who had lived at least two or three years in another culture would have similar results on the hypotheses being tested.”

Sarah’s own life was a case in point: though she had grown up attending a missionary school in Taiwan, her life differed from that of other missionary students at the school in that she was much more removed from the “expat bubble” that the school created. While other students spent much (if not all) of the day on the campus with other expatriates, Sarah’s family lived in a community thirty minutes away, and she made a concerted effort in high school to develop friendships with local Taiwanese. If you were to ask Sarah, though, she would say that she was far from the involved TCK. Her family lived in the community, but she constantly felt she lacked meaningful relationships with locals and an adequate mastery of the language compared to other TCKs she knew.

With this in mind, Sarah set to work to develop a measure of global mobility. Rather than focusing on the traditionally defined TCK, Sarah wanted her research to include all people whose lives are impacted by living in a foreign country, whether a refugee, a child of a diplomat, or a domestic TCK. By defining and measuring the impacts that these experiences have on individuals, Sarah seeks to assist further research on global mobility by providing varied definitions of the global experience. She hopes that these definitions, or scores, will equip later research to more accurately assess the impact of the global mobility experience. Despite warnings from a professor that “you should never [design a measure] for your dissertation unless you planned on taking an extra year,” Sarah knew she had found her passion. “The research needed me,” she decided.

Reaching Her Destination

As Sarah continued to develop her dissertation research, she realized that in many ways, she would first have to create a language of her own. Instead of using the traditional phrasing of “TCK”, Sarah adopted the title of “global mobility.”

Even more challenging, though, was developing a language and framing for the survey questions through which she would collect her data. “How do you ask questions to get at people’s actual experiences of living in multiple countries…?” she wondered. But she refused to let these challenges stop her, and came up with increasingly creative ways to address them, including an “item-writing party” in which she solicited help from her friends to brainstorm and write possible questions and formats for questions. Ultimately, she settled on questions that revolved around familiarity with countries, states, and cities.

Sarah’s first pilot test went phenomenally well, and she gathered data from fifty people in less than twenty-four hours. Now, Sarah faces another hurdle: distributing the survey widely enough for 500-1000 people to participate by early January. After this, Sarah faces a tight deadline of writing chapters, running statistical analyses, and narrowing results before defending her thesis.

More than a personal desire to understand herself through this project is a desire to further TCK research. As global mobility becomes more applicable to the average person in the 21st century, we need deeper and more specific ways to measure the global experience for more diverse people. This project will result in a more inclusive way to analyze our increasingly globalizing world by providing a standard by which to compare these more diverse experiences.

You can help Sarah out by taking her survey here.