In this interview, Lena Lee, former international school student and author of Girl Uprooted, discusses her life as a globally mobile student with Natasha Winnard, an educator and K-12 school guidance and college counselor. The daughter of a diplomat, Lena was born in South Korea but grew up moving countries every three years, her world swinging between East and West.
- Is there anything you wish your educators knew about you when you were at school?
How do I put this? Growing up, everything changed every three years: not only my house, school, and friends but the food, the language, the culture, the climate, and the color of people’s skin. Everything. And with it, inevitably, me. One day I was an effortless all-A student (at my predominantly white middle school in the United States), and the next at the bottom of my class (at my hyper-competitive boarding school in Korea). Then once more, I was magically transformed into the teacher’s pet with perfect grades again (enrolled in the International Baccalaureate diploma program at my bilingual French high school in Paris). And that’s only how I was perceived academically. In reality, my whole identity swung drastically every time we moved countries. Had I really changed overnight? All this to say, please remember when you are dealing with globally mobile children, you are only seeing them in their current environment and they are likely dealing with a lot more than meets the eye.
- What’s the most important thing international educators can do to support their students?
Take time to really get to know your students. I appreciate educators are already under an enormous amount of pressure so I don’t know how realistic this is, but a student will only feel comfortable opening up and sharing what’s really going on if you take time to build their trust and show them you truly care.
As a student, I was often mistrustful of my teachers and felt all they cared about was my grades. It drove me crazy, this excessive focus on grades; in fact, it still does. I hope that educators can strike the right balance between motivating their students to work hard and taking care of their general well-being.
- Safeguarding the mental health of our students is a top priority. Do you have any advice when it comes to young children?
I experienced my first suicidal urge at the age of 10, having barely started sixth grade at my international school in Malaysia. I clearly remember wishing to jump out the window; I also wrote about these early dark thoughts in my diary (alongside anxiety about my upcoming math exam). Looking back through photos from that time, I’m taken aback by how young I look! I know my parents could never have imagined what I was going through. Nor my teachers - in fact, I was the class clown in my math class.
It’s troubling and deeply saddening to consider young children experiencing such serious mental health issues, but it’s vital we address this possibility head-on. I’m not sure what “advice” this leads to, but it’s perhaps a reminder that what you see is not always what you get.
- As school counselors, we sometimes need to guide our globally mobile families to access external professional support because the needs of their children are beyond a school team’s specific skill set. Any advice on seeking external support for students?
Speaking only from personal experience, I believe a lot of the mental health issues I suffered (depression, eating disorders, alcohol abuse), both growing up and in my 20s, stemmed primarily from my globally mobile upbringing. However, if I had sought help for my bulimia, for instance, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I imagine I may have been directed to an eating disorder specialist. But I don’t think that she, however qualified in her field, would have been able to truly help me without an understanding of the specific needs and experiences of globally mobile children.
It is so important that children are guided to the right professionals at the right times as having a bad first experience with someone who doesn’t “get” them will only put them off seeking further support.
- How can school educators be better informed of what their globally mobile students are going through?
First of all, the fact that you are reading this article, and have made it this far, is already a great sign. Please continue to be curious. There are many helpful resources today (see below for further resources), but I highly recommend the book Third Culture Kids. Regardless of whether your students identify as TCKs, you’ll learn a lot. You can of course also check out my memoir, Girl Uprooted.
Thank you to Lena Lee for sharing her experiences. This is invaluable guidance for us all. As educators, we often underestimate the full extent of the challenges that third culture kids (TCK) growing up cross-culturally face. We all have so much more to learn together to ensure that our globally mobile cross-cultural students are healthy, happy, and can thrive.
Natasha Winnard is an International Educator and Youth Empowerment Consultant fueled by a passion to support and guide young people to thrive. She has worked with amazing children, young people, their families, and educators for over 25 years in international schools and communities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. Natasha Winnard Consultancy provides holistic, personalized guidance for young people and their families looking for support in the world of international education.
Lena Lee was born in South Korea but grew up moving countries every three years. As a third culture kid, she has lived in Seoul, Paris, Oslo, Kuala Lumpur, and New Jersey. After studying human sciences at Oxford University, Lena has been working in finance. Girl Uprooted is her first book and can be purchased at https://mybook.to/girluprooted. She lives in London, a place she now calls home(ish).