This TCK’s Journey Led Her to Your TV Screen: An Interview with Actress Elizabeth Liang

June 12, 2020 § Leave a comment

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Growing up in Taipei didn’t give my daughter much exposure to colleges in the States, so when she got older and came across the WB series Felicity on DVD, she was excited to find a tutorial on the college experience. Since then, she’s become a university student herself and has learned that real college life contains a lot more schoolwork and a lot less draaaaaama than Keri Russell’s version. But Felicity still holds a special place in her DVD collection, and in her Third Culture Kid heart.

When I told my daughter I was reviewing Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s solo show about being a TCK, Alien Citizen, and that Lisa had appeared in season two of Felicity, she was impressed.

Yes, Felicity gave Lisa her first TV role, in 2000, but it was far from her last. Since then she’s appeared in a number of television shows, as well as movies and stage productions. Most recently, her TV credits have included Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schooled, Bob Hearts Abishola, Big Little Lies, and Fresh off the Boat. (Want to see a sampling of her on the small screen? She’s Margo in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine clip at the end of this post.)

As I wrote about in my review, Lisa has a lot of cultures packed into her life. She’s the daughter of an American mother of European descent and a Guatemalan father of Chinese-Spanish descent, and she grew up in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and the US.

After watching Lisa in Alien Citizen—and on TV—I wanted to find out how being a TCK affected her development as an actress, so I asked her a few questions. Thanks, Lisa, for the conversation:

In Alien Citizen, you say, “In the theater everybody’s weird. We use our imaginations to create a world that we step into together, kind of like being dropped into one that you have to adapt to.” Tell us what led you to acting and explain more how the stage become a refuge for you as a TCK.

My mom is an actress and had worked both Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 9.02.35 AMprofessionally and in community theatre since before I was born, so the smell of theatres and the excitement of the creative process were a “home” to me from a young age. I started acting at school and in community theatre as a kid in Panama, and my love for it only grew as I grew up.

The stage became my refuge as a TCK because it allowed me to express all the facets of my personality, as well as all the facets I dared not explore in real life, without argument. The audience might like or dislike my work, but for two to three hours on stage no one could interrupt me to argue with or dismiss my experience. I wasn’t being a bad guest, nor was I losing the possibility of making or keeping friends, when I portrayed a character on stage . . . even if she was angry or rude or rebellious, or vulnerable or scared. It was a great release.

To quote an essay I wrote for the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, “I also became an actress because the lifestyle bears a resemblance to the TCK lifestyle, with added perks: the immediate family of casts and crews, the insulated world of the play or film, the inherent loss of one another at the end of a project. Actors have no choice but to live in the moment when we are acting, just as we lived in the moment as kids when we experienced a new school, a new airport, a new language for the first time. There was only the here and now, and however frightening it might have been at times, it was also exciting. Based on this, one might expect all actors to have had mobile childhoods. Many have.”

Probably the most famous TCK among actors is Mark Hamill of Star Wars, but there are plenty of others: Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Kathleen Turner, and many more.

“One might expect all actors to have had mobile childhoods.” I can’t help but think about the converse of this phrase: “One might expect all who have had mobile childhoods to be actors.” How has your experience as a “cultural chameleon,” playing new parts in new locations, influenced your ability to inhabit new characters?

My experience as a TCK gave me extra skill at playing characters with regional and international accents or dialects. I’ve played everything from a Cuban lawyer to a Japanese mother to a French maid to a Cockney convict and more, and I’m very grateful that my upbringing made those roles possible for me to play convincingly. Many were “open casting,” racially speaking (I was an actress of color playing roles originally written as white), so I had to convince the audience with my accent and behavior that the character was embodied in me. I’m proud to say it worked.

Being a TCK also taught me to show automatic respect to cultures of which I’m not a member. So when I’m playing a character from a country I’ve never been to, I avoid stereotypes and do a lot of research on that country and the region the character is from. I look for the recognizable and relatable behavior that will make the role seem true as a human being and as a member of that culture and not a cartoon.

Finally, diving into a new role is very much like moving to a new country: there’s excitement, thrill, terror, and dread . . . all at the same time. With every role, as with every country, like every actor I know, I ask myself, “How am I going to do this?!?”

Your SAG-AFTRA resume says that you can portray 24 ethnicities. That’s quite a range. Can you share about any particular role that stretched you or that taught you something you didn’t know before about a place or culture?

One role that required a lot from me was Matilde in Sarah Ruhl’s wonderful play The Clean House. Matilde is a Brazilian standup comic who has moved to the CT/NY area (I decided it was Fairfield County, CT) and is working as a maid. She hates cleaning and she doesn’t much like the town she’s in, so I deeply understood her. Nevertheless, the role was challenging because I had to learn to speak Portuguese, because Matilde opens the show with a long-form joke in her native language. Since she’s Brazilian, I had to learn a Brazilian accent. I tried for São Paulo and hoped for the best.

I can never fully explain the courage it took to open a show by delivering a long-form joke directly to the audience in a language they and I didn’t speak, while sounding utterly confident and helping them “get” the joke.

My courage as an actor grew a lot during the run of that show.

You act out many characters in Alien Citizen, including your parents. How has creating and performing the play helped you understand what it was like for your mother and father raising TCKs?

Giving myself permission to write about the hard parts of my upbringing, and then include some of them in the final draft, helped me to process those experiences so I could then overwhelmingly see and acknowledge all the good in my TCK life. I had to be honest about the difficulties in my family’s dynamic, and bear witness to some of it in the show, in order to move past that and see how much my parents succeeded as parents and how hard it must have been for them to pick up and move and navigate different cultures over and over while raising two kids. My brother and I knew we were loved, without question, and that’s not always a given in families.

Also, interviewing my folks for a “special feature” in the DVD helped me understand how it was for them. They’re very clear that there was no help or guidance whatsoever from the international schools or my father’s employer regarding the emotional challenges their kids would face. That shocks me to this day. My heart goes out to all the families over decades and centuries who’ve relocated and had to learn how to cope emotionally on their own.

You offer workshops to help others wanting to share their stories in solo shows, personal essays, memoirs, and the like. What would you say to TCKs who would ask, “Why me? Why my story?”

Every human being’s story is part of the great, infinite prism of the human story. We have always relied on stories to help us feel connected, and learn how to behave and how to understand one another. Your story will resonate with people you expect and people you would never expect to relate to any of it. I know this from personal experience.

Ask yourself: What is it costing you not to have your voice, your story, in the world?

And remember: Our stories and our feelings about them matter. Honor them.

[photo: “Television,” by dailyinvention, used under a Creative Commons license]

If You Send an MK Some Cookies [—at A Life Overseas]

July 30, 2019 § Leave a comment

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Inspired by Laura Numeroff

If you send an MK some cookies, she’s going to want to eat a couple.

But first she’ll ask her mom if she can walk down the street to get some apple soda to go with them.

On her way, she’ll see a stationery store.

That will make her think about buying a card to send to you.

In the store she’ll find one that says, “Thanks You! Very! Very!”

Then she’ll decide to make a card herself.

For that she’ll need some glitter, so she’ll ask the clerk (in his language) if he has some “really small colorful things,” while making “sparkly” motions with her hands.

He’ll probably reach under the counter and pull out a bag of marbles.

Finish Reading at A Life Overseas. . . . 

[photo: “Cookies,” by z Q, used under a Creative Commons license]

An Interview with Sara Saunders, Author of the TCK Book “Swirly” [—at A Life Overseas]

May 30, 2019 § Leave a comment

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There have been a lot of books written about Third Culture Kids but not so many for them, especially for young TCKs. Swirly, written by adult-TCK Sara Saunders and illustrated by Matthew Pierce, helps remedy that. It’s a picture book that tells the story of a little girl, Lila, who moves with her family overseas, returns back to her family’s “home” country, and then lands at another, new, destination, all the while trying to figure out where she belongs.

Since 2012, when Swirly was published, I’ve seen it displayed at conferences and included on TCK reading lists, but it wasn’t until recently that I purchased a copy to read myself. I also shared it with my wife, and she read the last few pages to our college-age daughter, who’d grown up overseas. It brought tears to my wife’s eyes.

I wanted to hear more from Sara, so I contacted her, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions:

First of all, where are you from? Just kidding! Better question—Where have you lived? Tell us about your cross-cultural experience as a child.

I was born in the United States, which is my passport country and both of my parents’ passport country. We moved to Nigeria when I was almost 8-years old and lived there for ten years. But I was away at boarding school in Kenya most of the time from age 14-18. My parents were missionaries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, serving in a mission hospital. As a young adult I have also lived and studied or worked in the United States, Thailand, Mexico, Nigeria again, Kenya again, Uganda, and now Lebanon.

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Marbles,” by Peter Miller, used under a Creative Commons license]

Merton Brings Her Nomadic Sensibilities to The Tonight Show

February 10, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Alice Merton performed on The Tonight Show last night, singing what Jimmy Fallon called “the catchiest song of the year, by far.”

I’m posting this for two reasons:

One, to show how incredibly hip and relevant I am, since I wrote about her earlier this week.

And, two, to share a joke that the junior-higher in me just made up:

Why didn’t Fallon’s house band accompany Merton when she sang on The Tonight Show?

Because wherever she goes, she makes it very clear, “No Roots!”

[photo: “Fallon Tonight,” by Edgar Zuniga Jr., used under a Creative Commons license]

Alice Merton Sings about Her Rootlessness—I Wonder If She Knows She’s a TCK

February 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

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A few days ago, I heard a new-to-me song on the radio on my drive home from work. As the kids on American Bandstand were wont to say, “It’s got a good beat and it’s easy to dance to” (and by “dance” I mean “tap my foot”). I liked it so well that I found it on Youtube when I got home and it’s now a standard on my playlist (and by “playlist” I mean I’ve been listening to it over and over again).

The song is “No Roots,” written and performed by Alice Merton, and the part that caught my attention was the chorus, with its, appropriately enough, “I’ve got not roo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oots! I’ve got no roo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oots!”

I figured that could mean all sorts of things but thought it sounded kind of Third-Culture-Kid-ish. Sure enough, an internet search told me that Merton’s led a life of international relocation, moving 11 (or 12) times in her 24 years. Born in Frankfort, Germany, she moved to Connecticut, with her German mother and Irish father, when she was three months old. The family later moved to Canada, and when Merton was 13, they returned to Germany—where she learned German and attended high school—followed by another move, to England. Later, on her own, she was back in Germany again, where she earned a bachelor’s degree at the Popakademie (University of Popular Music and Music Business) Baden-Württemberg. (I’m piecing this together from bios and interviews, so I apologize if the details are off. The point is, she’s moved around a lot.)

“No Roots” has done its share of globe trotting, as well, with Billboard reporting that as of August of last year, it had climbed the top-ten charts in Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and Switzerland. And now it’s crossed the ocean to take on the pop charts in the US, hitting number-one on Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Songs airplay ranking in December.

Merton may not call herself a TCK—or an Adult TCK—but she certainly speaks the language. The lyrics for “No Roots” include

I built a home and wait for someone to tear it down
Then pack it up in boxes, head for the next town running

and

I like standing still, but that’s just a wishful plan
Ask me where I come from, I’ll say a different land

with the refrain

And a thousand times I’ve seen this road
A thousand times . . .

I’ve got no roots, but my home was never on the ground

Merton wrote her first song, “Lighthouse,” when she was a 16-year-old student in Germany. She tells Billboard that the song was born out of her homesickness. “I just didn’t feel at home in Germany at all in the beginning,” she says. “That’s why I kept on searching for this lighthouse, I guess, which would take me back to Canada.”

Years later, her nomadic life once again provided inspiration, resulting in “No Roots.” Again to Billboard, she says,

I was on the beach, and I was just thinking to myself that I have no one place where I actually feel like I’m at home. I came up with the idea of having no roots—never being grounded to a certain place, but having your home with people who you love.

Talking with Tolga Akar, in an interview for a German radio station, she says that writing “No Roots” was helpful in processing her global transitions:

Once I’ve written a song I know how I feel about something. So this whole no roots topic was this topic that was just swimming around in my head, ‘cause I just felt like I just wasn’t at home anywhere. So I guess it’s kind of like therapy, because I only really knew how I felt about not having a home after I wrote that song.

But the therapeutic effect isn’t only in the creation of the song, for Merton, it’s also in the singing. Riff Magazine asks why her feelings of rootlessness didn’t lead to a “sad ballad.” She replies,

Before I went into the studio, I knew I wanted this song to be up-tempo. This topic at the time wasn’t a happy topic for me because I felt quite lost, but I didn’t want to look back at this song and feel sad while singing it, because I needed something that reminded me that it’s OK not to feel at home in one specific place. I knew that I wanted a hooligan-like choir to chant “roots,” so that it would feel even more uplifting.

If you’re a TCK, or anyone lost and rootless, let “No Roots” remind you “that it’s OK not to feel at home in one specific place.” Sing along with Alice Merton. She’s got the words and the tune.

Or if it’s more your style, you can join the hooligan choir and holler out “Roots!”—with passion—every time it comes around.

(Kevin Rutherford,  “Alice Merton Puts Down ‘Roots’ at No. 1 on Adult Alternative Songs,” Billboard, December 20, 2017; Tatiana Cirisano, “Alice Merton’s Wanderlust Anthem ‘No Roots’ Heads to U.S. After Blowing Up in Europe,” Billboard, August 22, 2017; Tolga Akar, “Interview Alice Merton: Scandalous Pics and Real Roots!” Der Beat Von Berlin KISS FM, June 27, 2017; Roman Gokhman, “Q&A: Nomad Alice Merton Raises Anchor, Drops ‘Roots,’” RIFF Magazine, November 20, 2017)

[photo: “Alice Merton 12/11/2017 #37,” by Justin Higuchi, used under a Creative Commons license]

Study Prep: Getting Your Kids Ready for College back in the US [Updated]

August 2, 2017 § 1 Comment

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[This is a new version of a post I wrote two years ago, including updated links and FAFSA information]

Now that your kids’ school year has started, it’s time to take in a big breath, let it out slowly . . . and start thinking about graduation. Ready or not, college is just around the corner.

Hear that sound? Listen closely. It’s the sound of time marching by.

While we can’t slow down the passage of time, we can prepare ourselves, and our children for what lies ahead. And if relocating to the US for college is part of your child’s future, then take a look at these tips for getting ready. They’re based on my experience sending two children back to the States for college while we were overseas, putting two into high school in the US (after home schooling and having them attend school abroad), and working in a university admissions office. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments.

  1. Academics
    Before your child begins high school (or as soon as possible thereafter), find out the college-prep requirements and recommendations for the state in which she plans to continue her education. Each state will have its own list of required coursework for entrance into its public institutions, with courses in English, math, science, social studies, and fine arts. The list may also include classes in such areas as foreign language or personal finance. You’ll also want to check with individual colleges, public and private, to find out what additions or exceptions their requirements might have in comparison to the state’s core curriculum.
  2. Homeschoolers
    Most colleges welcome the addition of home-schooled students to their campuses, but homeschoolers will want to find out what documentation is needed and any hoops that they might need to jump through for admission. Students with diplomas from unaccredited high schools may have additional requirements, as well. Also, if students will be transferring to a Stateside high school before graduating, make sure you know the school’s policy on what courses they will give credit for towards graduation.
  3. AP
    For students taking AP (Advanced Placement) courses, check with potential colleges to see what level of test scores they accept. Also, find out if successful completion of an AP course will earn advanced placement (taking the place of a college-level course), credit (hours toward graduation), or both. While you’re at it, see if the school will allow a bilingual child to test out of foreign-language courses. This may or may not be part of CLEP (College Level Examination Program) testing. Testing out of classes not only can help meet degree requirements but can also be an easy way to add a minor.
  4. PSAT/NMSQT
    Students can take the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), during their junior year. The test, from the College Board, is used for awarding National Merit Scholarships. High-scoring students who receive semifinalist status can apply to be finalists. Interested students outside the US can get more information at the “International Student” page. Schools in your area may also offer the PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 as practice tests for younger students. After completing a test, students who are at least 13 years old can link their scores to Khan Academy for personalized practice.
  5. SAT and ACT
    While some institutions don’t require SAT or ACT scores, the majority do. But which one should your child take? There are differences between the two exams. For instance, the SAT emphasizes vocabulary more than the ACT, and the ACT has a science section while the SAT does not. Other differences are more subtle. For a helpful comparison of the tests, see “The SAT vs. the ACT,” from The Princeton Review. You can find international test centers for the SAT here and ACT’s international sites here. Contact your target schools to see if they “superscore.” Superscoring combines section subscores from two or more test dates, using the highest from each section instead of using only the scores from one date.
  6. Deadlines
    Don’t forget to keep track of deadlines: deadlines for submitting university and scholarship applications, for filling out housing contracts, for making payments or setting up payment plans, etc. Check early, as some will be much sooner than you might think.
  7. FAFSA
    Another big deadline is for filing out the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid), found at fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA is used to determine how much a family is expected to contribute to a student’s college education and, thus, how much will be offered in financial aid and loans. (The FAFSA applies only to US citizens and permanent residents.) Results are reported to up to 10 colleges at a time. The application period opens October 1 for the following school year, and students report income information from the previous year. (This is a change that started with the 2017-18 FASFA. Previously, applicants had to wait until the following January 1 to apply.) Each state has its own deadlines, including dates for priority consideration, which can be found here. Individual colleges may have earlier deadlines, as well. Even if students know that their family won’t qualify for federal or state financial aid, they should submit the FAFSA anyway, as it is often used for scholarship selection. It is important to remember that filling out the FAFSA is free, so if a site asks for payment, it’s not the official FAFSA.
  8. Scholarships
    When it comes to scholarships, there are those offered by individual colleges, and there are many, many more out there that are looking for qualified recipients. Some students treat scholarship application as if it were a job, and it can pay very well, with funds adding up well beyond the cost of school. For reviews on five top scholarship websites, take a look at Blake Sander’s article at MoneySavingPro. Remember that any scholarship or grant money that goes beyond paying qualified education expenses (tuition, fees, and books, but not room and board) is considered taxable.
  9. Transcripts
    Students will need to submit high-school transcripts to colleges as part of the admission process. For most schools, the transcripts will need to arrive in a sealed envelope from the high school in order to be considered official. Some will accept faxed copies from the high school. Foreign transcripts that are not from US accredited schools will need to be evaluated for authenticity, for diploma validation, and for determining a US GPA equivalent. Some colleges will do this in house, while others will require you to send the transcript to a third-party evaluation agency. If the transcript isn’t in English, it may be necessary to have it translated, as well.
  10. Campus visits
    Many colleges offer online virtual tours to help you get a good feel for their campus. Go to the institution’s web site, or see if your school has an online tour linked at CampusTours. When you’re in the States, it’s beneficial to have an in-person visit. If you give a school enough notice before you arrive, they should be able to arrange a tour for you.
  11. In-state tuition
    Back to finances: One of the biggest concerns for out-of-country parents is the issue of in-state tuition for public schools. Even if you’ve previously lived in a state your whole life, the fact that you don’t now means that your child will have to prove he deserves in-state status. The final decision will come from the university, and it will depend on such things as parents’ owning a house there (though that by itself is not enough), living there for a number of years, having ties to the state and other factors that show a probability the student will remain there after graduation, filing state income tax, registering a vehicle, registering to vote, having a library card, etc. Schools have widely varying rules on how students can gain in-state status on their own, such as living in the state as a financially independent adult for a period of time. Some schools offer in-state rates to children of alums or to residents of neighboring states or states with regional student exchanges. Words such as dependentresident, home, and domicile are important to define. (Hint: They may not mean what you think they mean.)
  12. Admissions office
    Make a friend in the admissions office of the colleges you’re serious about, someone you can email, or call, to get answers to your questions. You might get in touch with someone in international admissions, as well, for help with issues that are unique to students living outside the US.
  13. FERPA
    Understand that even if you want to stay in control of your child’s education, you will be limited in the information you can get from the school once he is accepted. Under FERPA (Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act), the college cannot give you such things as grades, class schedule, or billing information without the student’s written consent—even if you’re the one paying the bills.
  14. Orientation
    Make plans for your child to arrive in the US in time for student orientation. The earlier she enrolls, the more classes will be available for filling out her schedule. Orientation is a good time for parents, if you’re able to come, to hear first-hand the details of college life. It’s also good time for releasing your child toward independence. (That’s why you’ll probably be sent to a different room while your child picks classes.) Many schools offer priority (early) orientation for certain categories of students (for example, honors students and student athletes).
  15. On campus
    You’ll want your children to find community when they relocate. Some campuses will have a residence hall set aside for honors students or a floor designated for students with common educational interests. You can contact local churches and campus ministries (some of which will offer housing). Maybe there’s a Mu Kappa chapter (for missionary kids) on campus. Or maybe the school has a recognized group for Third Culture Kids (TCKs). International student clubs may offer a good fit as well.
  16. Transition
    Our two sons who came back to the US for college while we were overseas attended reentry programs. These were very valuable in helping them understand the transitions they were facing and giving them practical advice for acclimating to US culture. The two seminars we used are sponsored by Barnabas International (they also offer one in partnership with the Narramore Christian Foundation) and Interaction International. For help in understanding the TCK mindset and how to navigate cultural changes, get a copy of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds (by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken) or The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition (by Tina Quick).

The kids really are growing up. It’s never too early to get ready. Hear that sound?

[photo: “Campus Fall 2013 28,” by David Goehring, used under a Creative Commons license]

Cross-Cultural AT&T: Opa! and True Dat

January 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

I stumbled upon these two commercials from AT&T. I’m not sure what demographic they’re going for, but they got my attention.

The first one shows us a fun (but possibly expensive) custom from Greece. The second lets us hear that girl-next-door Lily Adams speak Russian. Turns out that the actress who plays Lily, Milana Vayntrub, was born in Uzbekistan, moving to California at age three.

Study Prep: Getting Your Kids Ready for College back in the US

August 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Now that your kids’ school year has started, it’s time to take in a big breath, let it out slowly . . . and start thinking about graduation. Ready or not, college is just around the corner.

Hear that sound? Listen closely. It’s the sound of time marching by.

While we can’t slow down the passage of time, we can prepare ourselves, and our children for what lies ahead. And if going to college in the US is part of your child’s future, then take a look at these tips for getting ready. They’re based on my experience sending two children back to the States for college while we were overseas, putting two into high school in the US (after home schooling and having them attend school abroad), and working in a university admissions office. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments.

  1. Academics
    Before your child begins high school (or as soon as possible thereafter), find out the college-prep requirements and recommendations for the state in which she plans to continue her education. Each state will have its own list of required coursework for entrance into its public institutions, with courses in English, math, science, social studies, and fine arts. The list may also include classes in such areas as foreign language or personal finance. You’ll also want to check with individual colleges, public and private, to find out what additions or exceptions their requirements might have in comparison to the state’s core curriculum.
  2. Homeschoolers
    Most colleges welcome the addition of home-schooled students to their campuses, but homeschoolers will want to find out what documentation is needed and any hoops that they might need to jump through for admission. Students with diplomas from unaccredited high schools may have additional requirements, as well. Also, if students will be transferring to a Stateside high school before graduating, make sure you know the school’s policy on what courses they will give credit for towards graduation.
  3. AP
    For students taking AP (Advanced Placement) courses, check with potential colleges to see what level of test scores they accept. Also, find out if successful completion of an AP course will earn advanced placement (taking the place of a college-level course), credit (hours toward graduation), or both. While you’re at it, see if the school will allow a bilingual child to test out of foreign-language courses. This may or may not be part of CLEP (College Level Examination Program) testing. Testing out of classes not only can help meet degree requirements but can also be an easy way to add a minor.
  4. PSAT/NMSQT
    Students can take the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), during their junior year. The test, from the College Board, is used for awarding National Merit Scholarships. High-scoring students who receive semifinalist status can apply to be finalists. Interested students outside the US will need to find a local school that is administering the test. To help with this, the College Board offers a PSAT school search form.
  5. SAT and ACT
    While some institutions don’t require SAT or ACT scores, the majority do. But which one should your child take? There are differences between the two exams. For instance, the SAT emphasizes vocabulary more than the ACT, and the ACT has a science section while the SAT does not. Other differences are more subtle. For a helpful comparison of the tests, see “The SAT vs. the ACT,” from The Princeton Review. You can find international test centers for the SAT here, and ACT’s international sites here. Contact your target schools to see if they “superscore.” Superscoring combines section subscores from two or more test dates, using the highest from each section instead of using only the scores from one date.
  6. Deadlines
    Don’t forget to keep track of deadlines: deadlines for submitting university and scholarship applications, for filling out housing contracts, for making payments or setting up payment plans, etc. Check early, as some will be much sooner than you might think.
  7. FAFSA
    Another big deadline is for filing out the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid), found at fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA is used to determine how much a family is expected to contribute to a student’s college education and, thus, how much will be offered in financial aid and loans. Results are reported to up to 10 colleges at a time. The application period opens January 1 for the following school year, but each state has its own deadline, found here. Individual colleges may have earlier deadlines, as well. Tax data is necessary for completing the form, but updated information can be supplied later by amending the application. Even if students know that their family won’t qualify for federal or state financial aid, they should submit the FAFSA anyway, as it is often used for scholarship selection. It is important to remember that filling out the FAFSA is free, so if a site asks for payment, it’s not the official FAFSA.
  8. Scholarships
    When it comes to scholarships, there are those offered by individual colleges, and there are many, many more out there that are looking for qualified recipients. Some students treat scholarship application as if it were a job, and it can pay very well, with funds adding up well beyond the cost of school. For reviews on five top scholarship websites, take a look at Blake Sander’s article at MoneySavingPro. Remember that any scholarship or grant money that goes beyond paying qualified education expenses (tuition, fees, and books, but not room and board) is considered taxable.
  9. Transcripts
    Students will need to submit high-school transcripts to colleges as part of the admission process. For most schools, the transcripts will need to arrive in a sealed envelope from the high school in order to be considered official. Some will accept faxed copies from the high school. Foreign transcripts that are not from US accredited schools will need to be evaluated for authenticity, for diploma validation, and for determining a US GPA equivalent. Some colleges will do this in house, while others will require you to send the transcript to a third-party evaluation agency. If the transcript isn’t in English, it may be necessary to have it translated, as well.
  10. Campus visits
    Many colleges offer online virtual tours to help you get a good feel for their campus. Look at the institution’s web site, but you’ll also find a number of schools represented at YouVisit’s college site. If you’re in the States, it’s beneficial to have an in-person visit. If you give a school enough notice before you arrive, they should be able to arrange a tour for you.
  11. In-state tuition
    Back to finances: One of the biggest concerns for out-of-country parents is the issue of in-state tuition for public schools. Even if you’ve previously lived in a state your whole life, the fact that you don’t now means that your child will have to prove he deserves in-state status. The final decision will come from the university, and it will depend on such things as parents’ owning a house there (though that by itself is not enough), living there for a number of years, having ties to the state and other factors that show a probability the student will remain there after graduation, filing state income tax, registering a vehicle, registering to vote, having a library card, etc. Schools have widely varying rules on how students can gain in-state status on their own, such as living in the state as a financially independent adult for a period of time. Some schools offer in-state rates to children of alums or to residents of neighboring states or states with regional student exchanges. Words such as dependentresident, home, and domicile are important to define. (Hint: They may not mean what you think they mean.)
  12. Admissions office
    Make a friend in the admissions office of the colleges you’re serious about, someone you can email, or call, to get answers to your questions. You might get in touch with someone in international admissions, as well, for help with issues that are unique to students living outside the US.
  13. FERPA
    Understand that even if you want to stay in control of your child’s education, you will be limited in the information you can get from the school. Under FERPA (Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act), the college cannot give you such things as grades, class schedule, or billing information without the students written consent—even if you’re the one paying the bills.
  14. Orientation
    Make plans for your child to arrive in the US in time for student orientation. The earlier she enrolls, the more classes will be available for filling out her schedule. Orientation is a good time for parents, if you’re able to come, to hear first-hand the details of college life. It’s also good time for releasing your child toward independence. (That’s why you’ll probably be sent to a different room while your child picks classes.)
  15. On campus
    You’ll want your children to find community when they relocate. Some campuses will have a residence hall set aside for honors students or a floor designated for students with common educational interests. You can contact local churches and campus ministries (some of which will offer housing). Maybe there’s a Mu Kappa chapter (for missionary kids) on campus. Or maybe the school has a recognized group for Third Culture Kids (TCKs). International student clubs may offer a good fit as well.
  16. Transition
    Our two sons who came back to the US for college while we were overseas attended reentry programs. These were very valuable in helping them understand the transitions they were facing and giving them practical advice for acclimating to US culture. The two seminars we used are sponsored by Barnabas International (they also offer one in partnership with the Narramore Christian Foundation) and Interaction International. For help in understanding the TCK mindset and how to navigate cultural changes, get a copy of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds (by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken) or The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition (by Tina Quick).

The kids really are growing up. It’s never too early to get ready. Hear that sound?

[photo: “Graduation Cake Guy,” by David Goehring, used under a Creative Commons license]

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