Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


Educational Leadership and Policies


Educational Administration

First Advisor

Michelle M. Maher


The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the experiences of third-culture students who repatriated to the United States for their first year of college. In the context of this research, third-culture students are American children who lived overseas as a result of their parents' professions for two or more years immediately prior to returning to the United States to attend a university. Useem (1993) defines "third-culture" as the new style of life that is created, learned, and shared from blending first-culture experiences and customs from a country of origin (i.e., "home" country) with second-culture knowledge acquired from living in a foreign country or countries (i.e., "host" country[ies]). Third-culture students are further categorized into subpopulations labeled by the parents' professions or overseas sponsoring organization: business, government, military, and missionary (Cottrell, 2002). In particular, this study addressed a gap in the literature--whether there were differences among the experiences of these subpopulations of third-culture students.

The method of investigation included 26 one-on-one interviews and two follow-up focus group interviews with students identified as third-culture. An inductive research approach was employed as well as a constant comparative analysis of the data to draw final conclusions. Data collection and analysis were guided by Pollock and Van Reken's (2001) four-category cultural domain taxonomy (i.e., foreigner, hidden immigrant, adopted, and mirror), which is based on physical and cognitive attributes (e.g., looks alike/different; thinks alike/different). This conceptual framework provided a unique lens to view participants' relationships with their surrounding culture, resulting in the development of a theory of variance among the domains.

The findings revealed that (a) the majority of participants were in the hidden immigrant cultural domain during their first semester of college (i.e., physically resemble their American peers but think differently in terms of norms, values, and beliefs) and (b) significant variations were observed among the students in terms of differentness from their country-of-origin peers or the overall American culture. Furthermore, a correlation was established between the expressed levels of differentness and reported degree difficulty with the first-year college transition. The study also revealed differences among third-culture subpopulations: most notably, students whose parents were international business workers experienced the greatest degree of difficulty with identity issues. Major qualitative themes that emerged from the data included Identity, Relationships With Peers, Culture Shock, Support, and Concept of Home.


© 2010, Dorothy Steel Weigel

WeigelDissertation.pdf (632 kB)