, Volume 42, Issue 2, pp 177–190

National or global: The mutable concepts of identity and home for international school students


    • Faculty of Education and Social WorkThe University of Sydney

DOI: 10.1007/s11125-012-9226-x

Cite this article as:
Bagnall, N. Prospects (2012) 42: 177. doi:10.1007/s11125-012-9226-x


This article examines a selection of responses about identity and belonging among students in an international school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who must often move from one continent to another because of the nature of their parents’ work. A review of the literature highlights some of the issues these students face within an international school community, including social, psychological, and academic difficulties. The students were interviewed about their nationalities, their sense of belonging, and their thoughts about the future. Their responses were video-recorded and analyzed by thematic groupings. Initial findings indicate three distinct groups of students: those who know exactly which country they come from, those who are not sure, and those who feel an attachment to a global rather than a national identity.


International schoolIdentityGlobalizationBrazil
International schools have no unifying thread of nationalism. While some, such as the United Nations School in Hanoi, talk of the need to unify all humanity under the banner of a universal code of ethics, for the most part international schools acknowledge the limitations placed upon them as agents for the transformation of global citizens (Bagnall 2008). Kanno (2008), in her work on second language acquisition, uses Anderson’s (1991) theory of imagined communities. For Kanno and Norton (2003, p. 241), the concept of imagined communities refers to “groups of people, not immediately tangible and accessible, with whom we connect through the power of the imagination”. Kanno (2008) explains:

Anderson argued that nations are best conceived of as imagined political communities “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. We forge our sense of belonging and loyalty to our nations chiefly through the power of our imagination. The nation as an imagined community does not make it any less real for us than much smaller communities in which we recognize most members’ faces. (p. 6)

In fact, Anderson believes that almost all communities, beyond those of the scale of face-to-face contact, are imagined. Thus, the nation, albeit an imagined construct, is a real community, one that inspires a sense of “a deep, horizontal comradeship”; further, Anderson notes, it is these deeply felt ties to imagined communities that have ultimately compelled millions of people to sacrifice their lives to their nations (Kanno 2008, p. 7).

This aspect of imagined communities provides a way of understanding what is implied in belonging. Large numbers of people are advocates of a global society. They believe as much in a global society as in one constrained by national boundaries. The students in international schools are often seen as members of such a group who believe that the world is their home. Many parents, for instance, have visions of imagined communities for their children, and these visions often guide their educational decisions for them (e.g., Dagenais 2003). Similarly, schools have imagined communities for the students they serve. While individual learners aspire to certain imagined identities and membership in certain communities of imagination, schools also envision future affiliations for students: what kinds of adults they will grow up to be, what communities they will join in the future, and what roles they will play in those communities (Kanno 2008, p. 26).

The students taking part in this study are the first group in a larger project involving international school students from several countries. The initial results of this study show that country of birth no longer ties students to a particular national or cultural identity. In the literature review below I position this study in relation to previous work on this topic of global identity. In the second section I discuss the responses of students I interviewed in one international school in Brazil, and suggest that the conception of a world without borders may have meaning for some students but not all.

Previous research on global identity

The literature on global identity spans many topics. Here I discuss the international school, the internationally mobile student, relationship challenges these students face, the concept of culture shock, and their challenged sense of belonging and of cultural identity.

Globalization and the international school

Despite the extensive literature on international schools, and on their history, their development, and their unique educational curricula, a clear definition for such schools, one describing their fundamental purpose and vision, has yet to be agreed upon. According to Heyward (2002), international schools emerged in the 1950s in order to accommodate the increasing number of westerners living abroad. However, the world has since undergone drastic changes, especially with today’s technological and information revolution. Globalization has played a major role in blurring national boundaries and in bridging the distances between countries across the globe. Economic, political, and cultural institutions are increasingly under pressure to absorb new ways of being.

Such transformations have given a whole new meaning to being “international”, “expatriate”, or “foreign”, and thus have brought into question the meaning of being an international school in the 21st century (Heyward 2002, pp. 9–10).

Several definitions exist for international schools. Leach (1969) distinguishes four categories of international schools: those basically serving students of several nationalities, those serving an expatriate community of a particular nation, those founded by a joint action of two or more national groups, and those affiliated to the International School Association (ISA). Ezra (2003), however, provides simple definitions for schools that meet four basic criteria: She believes that international schools are expected to use English as the medium of instruction, align their standards with American or European schools, offer degrees that have international accreditation, and maintain a western educational focus (p. 124). Others, like Gellar (1981, cited in Bagnall 2008, p. 8), adopt an even broader definition of international schools as institutions that “welcome pupils of many nations and cultures, recognize that such pupils have differing aims, and […] actively adjust their curriculum to meet those aims”.

Some schools are regarded as international simply because they are what the International Baccalaureate Office (IBO) often refers to as “internationally-minded” schools. Ultimately, given these several existing perspectives, a large range of schools may be regarded as “international”, making it a complex task to agree upon one definition that includes all the schools that consider themselves international. Despite the lack of consensus, however, the various interpretations do share common themes such as a diverse and multinational student population and a significant student turnover due to their internationally transient lifestyle (Hayden and Thompson 2000; Langford 1998; Matthews 1989; Tomich et al. 2000). The students at the school chosen for this study in Rio de Janeiro share these experiences.

The internationally mobile student

Not only has the 21st century brought about fundamental changes in the conceptualization of international schools; it has also triggered a worldwide interest in studying phenomena associated with relocation and international mobility, especially those related to students within the international school community. Many names were created to describe such internationally mobile children, “third culture kids” (TCK). Useem et al. (1963) coined that term after studying the experiences of American families residing in India. Over a decade ago, Pollock and Van Reken (2001, p. 19) introduced what is perhaps the most widely accepted definition of such students:

[…] A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

Another term, “global nomad”, has been frequently used to refer to any person of any nationality or age who has lived a significant part of his or her developmental years in one or more countries outside his or her passport country because of a parent’s occupation. Other terms are “transculturals” (Willis et al. 1994), and “internationally mobile adolescents” (Gerner et al. 1991).

Peer and teacher relationship challenges

In addition to overcoming the communication challenges, TCK students face the dilemma of finding friends they can relate to and can be comfortable with. Arnett (2001) found that children and adolescents tend to make friends primarily with culturally similar people. He claims that during adolescence, ethnic boundaries in friendships tend to appear more strongly, almost to the extent of ethnic segregation. Hallinan and Williams (1987, cited in Schneider 2000, p. 187) offer an explanation for this by pointing out the importance of similarity and its prerequisite role for interpersonal chemistry and appeal. Conversely, Willis (1992) found that within an international school, students look past nationalities and cultures and instead emphasize an individual’s personality and similar interests such as sports or hobbies or clubs. However, the nature of these children’s friendships has also been the subject of much inquiry. As a result of the constant possibility of moving and the experiences of unresolved grief from previous moves, some internationally mobile children become cautious about making deep friendships and having to leave friends behind, or about being left behind when friends leave (Pollock and Van Reken 2001, both cited in Mclachlan 2007, p. 236).

Internationally mobile students face another key challenge: building positive relationships with teachers. Researchers have found that a student’s perception of his/her teacher as a supportive, respectful, and caring role model positively affects his/her motivation and engagement (Roeser et al. 1996, p. 419). However, students who continuously transition from one teaching environment to another not only must constantly face new and confusing curricula and grading systems; they also face the challenge of adapting to new teaching methods, reinforcement techniques, and the general demeanour of teachers (Ezra 2003, p. 130). Furthermore, many children encounter teachers who are not tolerant of or aware of the difficult and time-consuming process of learning and adapting to a new language environment. Ezra calls attention to the traumatizing experience such children may go through if their teachers ignore their unique situation and misconstrue the initial “silent period” as a sign of underachievement (pp. 141–143).

Culture shock

The notion of experiencing difficult challenges of adjustment to a new culture is referred to throughout the literature as “culture shock” (Heyward 2002, p. 13). Initially, culture shock was seen as an illness caused by cross-cultural exposure. However, describing it as a malady tainted with negative connotations implied that interacting with and adjusting to an alien culture is a traumatic endeavour replete with physical and psychological stress. In the 1980s, a more positive outlook emerged when the term was recast and perceived as a learning experience (Bochner and Furnham 1982; Taft 1986, cited in Heyward 2002, p. 13). Hanvey (1986, cited in Heyward 2002) described culture shock as “cross-cultural awareness”, while Adler (1986, cited in Heyward 2002, p. 13) proposed this definition:

[…] an experience of personality in culture. It consists of the psychological events that occur to a person in the initial phases of his encounter with a different culture […] rather than being only a disease for which adaptation is the cure, culture shock is likewise at the very heart of the cross-cultural learning experience. It is an experience in self understanding and change.

A considerable amount of research has been conducted on the process of acculturation. Fennes and Hapgood (1997, cited in Ezra 2003, p. 126) studied patterns of adjustment to a foreign culture. They found that a person going through the process of acculturation in a new environment would progress through diverse phases. These include initial excitement, rejection, superficial accommodation, and finally gradual adjustment and acceptance of the new culture. These phases have been represented using a U-shaped figure.

Heyward (2002) suggests a three-stage model of adjustment as an interpretation for the U-shaped figure. According to him, a person begins with a period of “initial enthusiasm”, during which he/she has limited interaction with host nationals and is merely a sponge, absorbing information through the senses and forming impressions. The second stage, the “dip” in the U curve, involves a “period of disenchantment” or frustration: the sojourner is aware of his/her inability to progress due to an inability to communicate with or understand their surroundings. The final stage is the upturn: the person develops more awareness of the host culture’s minute nuances and acquires a fluency in the language (pp. 11–12).

Several analysts have developed models that depict the cross-cultural experience. Each one focuses on a different facet of that experience and pictures it with varying degrees of detail; collectively, however, the models create an almost consistent picture of a step-wise development from “naive mono-culturalism” to “informed and integrated pluralism” (Heyward 2002, pp. 14–15).

Gullahorn and Gullahorn (1963, 1966, cited in Heyward 2002, p. 12) further extended the U-curve concept to accommodate for the process repeating itself when sojourners re-enter their home culture. They illustrate this “reverse culture shock” period as a W-curve in which the second dip represents two additional stages: a stage of “re-entry crisis” that is typically less drastic than the first dip, and finally a stage of readjustment and adaptation. Researchers have highlighted the importance of children understanding their own culture. They have found that a pre-requisite for developing an appreciation of other cultures is first acquiring an understanding of one’s own. Unfortunately, many international students do not possess a strong attachment to their own cultures and have a confused sense of belonging and identity (Bartlett 1994, cited in Ezra 2003, p. 139).

A challenged sense of belonging

Among the recurring themes in the literature on global nomads is the concept of a challenged sense of belonging. Studies indicate that upon returning “home”, many internationally mobile individuals report they cannot fully re-integrate into their national culture. In fact, they are believed to better identify with other global nomads who have had similar experiences (Sears 1998: p. 36; Gregory 2002, cited in Grimshaw and Sears 2008, p. 262). Pollock and Van Reken (2001) agree; they say that for some TCKs a sense of belonging is not “geography based”, but is instead dependent upon relationships formed through common interests and experiences.

The literature contains numerous attempts to study the “sense of belonging” among TCK students. Goodenow and Grady (1993, cited in Ma 2003, p. 340) define sense of belonging as “the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported in the school social environment”. Several researchers in various fields recognize the importance of achieving a strong sense of belonging; Ma (p. 340) lists several of them. First, Maslow (1962) states that within the hierarchy of human needs, the need for belonging must be satisfied before others can be satisfied. Second, Finn’s (1989) identification-participation model strongly links students’ identification with their schools to their increased participation in the education process. In fact, Finn warns that unless students feel welcomed, respected, and valued, their participation will always be limited. Finally, the psychologist Arthur Combs holds that student success in learning depends on four highly affective variables, one of which is the feeling of belonging or being cared for.

Notably, several researchers have examined constructs similar to the sense of belonging. For instance, J. B. Berger (1997) and P. L. Berger (1997) identify a “sense of community” in residence hall environments and define it as students’ perceptions of membership, influence, fulfilment of needs, and shared emotional connection. His studies suggest that students have a fundamental need to feel that they are an important part of a larger community that is valuable, supportive, and affirming (Johnson et al. 2007, p. 527).

Despite this substantial amount of research, it is still not entirely clear what constitutes belonging and what role it plays in students’ motivation and achievement (Anderman 1999; Connell and Wellborn 1991, both cited in Faircloth and Hamm 2005, p. 293; Bagnall and Cassity 2012). Meeuwisse et al. (2010) developed a six-item scale to measure sense of belonging. Their results contradicted previous findings by several researchers. They reported no evidence of differences between ethnic minority and majority students’ sense of belonging, and say that this discrepancy clearly highlights the complex study of a concept such as sense of belonging (p. 543).

A common theme that appears throughout the literature is the effect of teacher and peer interactions on students’ sense of belonging. Johnson et al. (2007) argue that healthy and supportive relationships with classmates and teachers can transform a traumatizing and challenging new environment into a more socially and academically encouraging one; however, their study results did not confirm this argument. As Meeuwisse et al. (2010, p. 531) report, other researchers have found that developing a sense of belonging is more critical for minority students than for others, and requires serious attention.

A challenged cultural identity

According to Erik Erikson’s psychological theory of development, adolescence is the stage where notions of identity and role confusion compete. During this stage, adolescents explore various aspects of identity; they either develop a unified sense of who they are, or they remain confused. Unfortunately, during a transition process, a child’s self-concept is tested and challenged as new cultural ideas and norms conflict with one’s own (Cole and Cole 1989). Many reviewers speak of “own-culture deprivation” and the “clouding of cultural identity” in international schools (Murphy 2003). According to Arnett (2001), the process of moulding one’s identity consists of “[…] sifting through the range of life choices available in [one’s] culture, trying out various possibilities and ultimately making commitments” (p. 170). Clearly, for global nomads attending an international school, the range of choices is wider and thus more difficult to sift through.

Adler (1975) describes the multicultural person’s identity as temporary, fluid, and ever changing, moulded by a person’s transitional experiences. Similarly, Allan (2002, cited in Grimshaw and Sears 2008, p. 262) suggests that internationally mobile individuals create, and then exist in, a sort of “cultural no-man’s land” between the “ending of one set of attachments and the beginning of the next”. It is their goals and aspirations that shape their identities into cosmopolitan people who feel comfortable in several environments (Fail et al. 2004, p. 323).

Reverse culture shock has also been well documented in the literature on TCKs (see Fail et al. 2004, p. 321). Researchers report that some experience a deep challenge to their sense of belonging to their home country, when they return to that country. Despite their ability to cope and adapt to new settings, internationally mobile children tend to harbour ambiguous and ambivalent feelings towards their roots. Studies show that many become socially marginal, existing in a world that is “apart of and apart from” their peers. Sadly, they usually feel misunderstood by their peers who do not have overseas experience and must stow away that part of who they are so that they can make friends and adapt to the new situation (Fail et al. 2004, p. 322).

Those who grow up outside of their passport country inevitably experience cultural marginality. The question is whether one remains marginal and isolated, or chooses to develop a sense of self and relate to different types of people. Referring to Bennett (1993) and Schaetti (1996), Fail et al. (2004) describe this as being in a state of “encapsulated marginality” or achieving “constructive marginality”. Studies show that parents, teachers, and peers all play a part in validating the child’s identity and self-construct; however these “validators” change constantly, especially during a cross-cultural move (Fail et al. 2004, p. 324). Therefore, in addition to encouraging parent and teacher support, many sources promote the “buddy system” at schools as a way to pair new students with “cultural mediators” to ease the process of acculturation (Bennett 1993).

With respect to children’s academic performance, all the above-mentioned challenges discussed throughout the literature may have a direct or indirect effect on a child’s academic performance. For adolescents, simply attending school constitutes an exploration of oneself that is replete with personal milestones and stressful experiences. The added challenges of acculturation could quite possibly be reflected in students’ lack of focus, confidence, and motivation, and could result in poor academic achievement.

Research efforts and future outlooks

Despite the growing literature on the effects that global mobility has on children, Hayden (2006, cited in Grimshaw and Sears 2008, p. 263) points out that it is limited, since the voices of the children themselves have rarely been acknowledged. Grimshaw and Sears (2008, p. 272) also reveal a gap in the literature: Little research has included the thoughts and voices of global nomads or has even sought to listen to them in any systematic way.

However, the idea of using narrative to investigate the construction of identity is becoming more and more widespread in the field. Educational researchers today believe that the narration of life stories may assist in investigating and explaining how globally mobile young people maintain a persistent sense of self, amidst a constantly dynamic and changing environment. Grimshaw and Sears (2008) encourage using a research methodology that would trace the trajectories of the participants’ lives and account for the strategies of identity management that they have developed along the way.


This study is part of a larger qualitative study on student belonging. As noted above, the voices of the children themselves have rarely been acknowledged. This article is the first study in a series based on interviews with these children, all students at international schools. Rarely consulted by parents about where they want to live, members of this group are seen by many as harbingers of a new generation. They are often referred to as a generation of students who view the world as one big country. Allegedly, they are equally at home in Rio, Paris, Yellowknife, or Wagga Wagga. In the study reported here, nine in-depth interviews were conducted in an international school in Rio de Janeiro, with students aged between 15 and 19 who were selected by the headmaster of the upper school. The headmaster chose them randomly but did know all of them. Two of the students hold passports from the United States, and one each holds one from Norway, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, France, Brazil, and Chile. All the selected students were given the schedule of questions and a participant information statement to read before taking part. Their parents were also informed of the study and they all signed the consent form enabling their child to participate. The interview schedule is included in the Appendix.

Along with Elizabeth Cassity, I interviewed the students (5 female, 4 male) in Rio de Janeiro in April 2011. Each interview lasted approximately 30 minutes and we taped them using both videotape and audiotape. All of the interviews were undertaken in English. The video recordings were transcribed and thematically coded. As Jenner and Titscher (2000) note, for a sample of any size, it is important to reach saturation before making any conclusions. However, it is widely acknowledged that the point of saturation is a difficult and indeed elastic notion (Guest et al. 2006), and Charmaz (2006, p. 114) suggests that a small study with “modest claims”, such as this initial study on global identity, might achieve saturation more quickly than a study that aims to describe a process that spans disciplines. I acknowledge that the sample for this initial study was beyond our control, as the headmaster chose the students purposively.

I analyzed the interviews by ordering the interview data into categories based on themes and by examining the relationships between themes (Neuman 2010). For example, when reading the interview transcripts, I examined each line of text to identify what the interviewee focused on; through this process, a list of themes emerged (Hays and Minichiello 2010).


Several key themes emerged from the student interviews. They fall into three categories: affiliation, technology, and school culture.

Student affiliation mostly addresses the question of identity. A combination of factors determined a student’s sense of identity. These included birth country, length of time in birth country before moving, number of schools attended, language, parents’ nationalities, composition of family, friendship patterns, and length of time living in a particular country.

Under the heading of technology, I consider aspects of belonging that relate to the use of such Internet tools as Facebook, Skype, MSN, and email.

The third theme that emerged relates to aspects of the school culture. It includes a range of influences such as the curriculum offered within the school, the composition of both staff and student body, and the culture of the school.

All three themes are strongly connected and it is difficult to separate them from each other. This study is predominantly concerned with the students, not the staff or parents of the students.


The literature relating to international school students suggests that a new breed of students is emerging; they are often depicted as identifying more with a global than a national identity. In this study, three distinct groups emerged around the theme of identity. I have termed them national, unsure, and global.

National identity

The first group consists of Stephanie (Chilean), Claudia (Spanish), David (Colombian), Michael (Argentinean), and Gerry (American). All these names are pseudonyms. They all associated strongly with a national identity. Stephanie had moved several times but stated that she was “100 % Chilean, having been born there and lived for several years in Santiago before I started travelling”. They all felt a strong tendency towards a national rather than a global identity. Stephanie started travelling with her parents when she was about seven, moving initially to London for three years before coming to Rio de Janeiro for the first time when she was ten. She only stayed in Brazil for 18 months and then moved to Monterrey, Mexico. In 2009 she moved back to Rio for the second time and has been there ever since. She has three older brothers and is the only child to move with her parents. Initially she was not given a choice about where she lived but her parents now ask her and she is keen to head back to Chile to study in Spanish, her native tongue. She loves Brazil and Brazilian people. Some time in the future, she would like to come back and live there as she has made lots of friends there. She made many friends in the United Kingdom and Mexico but was aware that they would probably not be there were she to return. When asked where she felt most at home, she said Chile, “because I have my childhood friends there”. She also felt that the weather made her feel at home: “there are four seasons in Chile, not two like in Brazil”. When asked where she would choose to live (Question 11), she replied “Chile, because the life that I am going to be living in the future will be there. My whole family is there and that’s where we want to settle, that’s my home […]”.

Claudia was born in France and lived there for a year before moving. Her mother is French and her father Spanish. She feels more Spanish than French because she goes to Spain more often than to France. She has moved around all her life, living in France, Spain, Venezuela, the United States, and then Brazil, Aruba, and Canada, and would be moving back to the United States, to Houston, a month after the interview. The six years she spent in Rio was the longest that she had spent in any one country. She felt very comfortable in Brazil, which she found was especially welcoming toward foreigners. She felt she belonged in Rio: “I like the beach, the sky, the feel of the big city […] and I feel safe here”. When asked where she felt most at home (Question 8), she replied, “Spain, because I have been going there since I was young, my father’s family are from there and my group of friends is very close […] it’s where I’m from”. Choosing a place to go to college provided her first opportunity to move where she wanted; she chose Spain, because she had “never lived with” her family: some of the children “are young” and she wants “to be with them when they grow up”. She speaks with envy about her Brazilian friends who can “talk to their grandma every week”, and “a part of” her “wants to do the same in Spain”.

David was equally emphatic in stating his affiliation: “I am Colombian, I was born in Colombia, my parents are Colombian, so I am 100 % Colombian”. He moved from Colombia when he was four, first to the United States, then to Canada, Venezuela, and Argentina, back to the United States, then to England and France and now Brazil. He has been at his present school for five years, which is the longest he has been anywhere. “I was meant to move three years ago but then my dad got a new job in Moscow. Now my dad is living there in Moscow, most of the time by himself, but my mom goes and visits him”.

Understandably, at a later stage in the interview, David seemed to contradict his earlier affiliation as Colombian. When asked where he feels most at home (Question 8) he said, “Nowhere; you’ve seen I have moved around a lot every two years, so I don’t really think of any place as home”.

Michael felt that he was Argentinean: “I’m from Argentina, I’m an Argentine”. He lived there for eight years, attending primary school and some secondary. Despite this he said he doesn’t “feel as Argentinean as some people”, and explained: “You know you have grown up there though and you identify, I was there for like 8 years […]. So I can identify but I know I am a little different”.

Gerry was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and has moved around every two or three years since he was about seven. He feels very welcome in Brazil but “most at home” at his “birth place in Alaska”. He misses being able to “walk to the nearest basketball court”. Also, his grandmother “owns a cottage up there, and other family members have homes”. That cottage has special significance for him. It is what he considers home because it has “always been there”. Family members “always use it” when they are back in Alaska, since they have “been moving around and we just leave places and we never go back and like visit where we lived”.

The students in this group displayed a range of emotions relating to their home country. Predominantly they felt an affiliation to one specific location. Those in the next group were not so certain about where they came from.


The students in the second group—Robyn (United States) and Rita (Norway)—were unsure about exactly where they belonged. When asked where she felt most at home Robyn said, “I would probably say the United States, or Sao Paulo […] it’s the same as I said before, I’d like to have a little more certainty in what I’m doing”. Robyn has dual nationality. She was born in Brazil to an American father and a Brazilian mother. When asked if she felt she belonged in Brazil (Question 7), she thought that it was a key question.

Because I’ve moved around […] I’ve got myself to mould to the situation, and I really love it here, and I feel like I belong here. But other times I feel like I belong more in the US because my father is American and I feel like I have a more Anglo-Saxon personality.

Rita was born in Norway and lived there until she moved to Azerbaijan at seven. She moved back to Norway in 2004 and then to Venezuela for grades 8 to 10. She said,

[…] I don’t really know where I belong. I guess that is normal. I think, that for me […] I really want to be back in Venezuela. But then I guess that Norway is my home. Like we still have our house there […], my best friend lives next door.

Since her brother moved back to Rio and started living with her and her parents, she feels more at home in Brazil.


The third group—consisting of Ivan (Bolivia) and Jessica (Brazil)—felt that they were not really associated with any particular country but rather had a global identity. Ivan said,

[…] I think I can relate to [a global identity] more than to a national identity, because […] when I live abroad, I am considered a Bolivian and when I am in Bolivia I am considered a foreigner. And this applies to everywhere I’ve lived. No matter how hard I try, I can’t pertain to one single culture. […] I think I pertain much more to a global identity than to a single culture or a national sense of identity.

Classifying these students immediately becomes problematic. Several students had parents of different nationalities. The country of birth was often merely the country where their parents were at the time. Jessica put it like this:

[…] well, I was born in Sao Paolo Brazil, but I don’t really consider myself Brazilian. I have lived in lots of other places and I just love the international feel, I don’t really see myself as a Brazilian as my Portuguese isn’t so good. (Both of her parents are Brazilian but they have travelled and worked out of Brazil for most of her life. Her father works in the oil industry. She travels on a Brazilian passport).


The use of technology to stay in touch with friends was significant for most of these students. Many students spent at least an hour or two a night on Facebook, email, MSN, or Skype. Michael felt that “through technology it’s pretty easy” to stay in touch. He continued, “It’s a good thing because you kind of keep the same relationship”.

Some students, like David, had a problem with Facebook and prefer “talking to a person in person”. Others, like Robyn, valued technology:

[…] I do Skype, Facebook, all together (on Skype) and that’s very nice ‘cause then you are really back there together. So you really get back to the feeling of what it’s like to be there together. A lot of times I get to talk with one [person] but all together is much more fun.

Ivan said that Facebook helped him “to stay in touch”. He went on to say that he had been in a long-term relationship and “would spend too much time on Skype”. On the other hand, Maria stated that, though she was not a Facebook addict, she did tend to check it every day.

School culture

Several students spoke of the school being a positive place that helped them feel at home. Michael put it like this:

[…] and this school also gives a nice base for international students. Like they have a buddy programme, they walk you around, they tell you how things work. Both the company and the school give you a nice base to make this transition.

Robyn felt that, at her school,

[…] the people are very warm. You feel more welcome than in New York. You can just tell when you are talking with the teachers, everyone is doing what they can.

Discussion of results

The results outlined above can be critiqued at a number of levels. As I discussed earlier, Erik Erikson points out that students in the age range in this study, 15–19 years, are arguably at their most vulnerable stage of identity formation. He contends that adolescence is the stage where notions of identity and role confusion compete. During this stage, adolescents explore various aspects of identity in which they either develop a unified sense of who they are, or they remain confused (Sternberg and Williams 2001, p. 84). From this standpoint alone, it could be argued that there is little to be gained from interviewing students at this age. However, the preliminary results of this study suggest the merit of undertaking a larger-scale study of this nature.


There is little doubt that the preliminary results of this study are open to critique. The number of students interviewed was small and the principal purposively selected them. Though the students were given the questionnaires in advance and were able to discuss them with their friends and family, they were only interviewed once and had little opportunity to reflect on what they had said or how it might be interpreted. Given the nature of international schools, researchers seldom have an opportunity to re-visit a location.

However, these preliminary results reveal several significant tendencies. As I noted in the literature section, global nomads carry a challenged sense of belonging. Some students say they enjoy the opportunity to visit a wide range of locations and learn different languages, customs and ways of doing things. At the same time, others relish the times before they started moving internationally, when they might have lived in a small neighbourhood where they knew everyone on the street.

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