“Ni de aquí, ni de allá,” explains Natalie: “neither here nor there”. The second year Archaeology student uses this Spanish expression to describe her upbringing in six different countries, including Azerbaijan, Trinidad, Angola, Oman, Russia and the UK. Her Colombian and English heritage add layers to her multicultural identity and to the sense of displacement that many ‘third culture’ students like her share.

Cambridge’s international student community has evolved over the years, reflecting the University’s global appeal. From the days when overseas students were a rarity to today’s vibrant mix of nationalities, Cambridge has become a microcosm of the world. While the full extent of Brexit’s impact on European student numbers is yet to be seen, early indications suggest a potential shift in enrollment patterns among the continent’s section of international students. In spite of this, Cambridge remains dedicated to fostering an environment that welcomes students from all corners of the globe. For ‘third culture’ students – those raised in cultures different from their parents’ nationality or the country of their birth – the journey, however, can still be quite daunting.

In exploring the notion of identity among third culture students, it becomes evident that “home” is not simply a fixed location, but a dynamic and evolving concept. Helena’s journey reflects this sentiment, as she navigates between her English, Polish and French identities, adapting to different cultural contexts while maintaining a sense of connection to each. “When living in Strasbourg I felt like I was more English and Polish, more comfortable in those identities and felt a bit out of place, not ‘French’ enough. But when I came here I was like ‘Oh, no, I am not English! ’”

Third culture kids often face significant pressures to assimilate to the culture of the host country where they reside or study. These pressures can stem from various sources, including societal expectations, institutional norms and personal experiences. One of the primary sources of pressure comes from the desire to fit in and be accepted by their peers and the broader community. Hasan, who grew up in Norway but has Iraqi roots, describes how there was a lot of pressure on his family to fit into Scandinavian culture. He points out how the Norwegian Constitution Day custom requires all students at school to wear the traditional costume (the bunad), with no acknowledgement of broader cultural backgrounds and more diverse attire. Despite this, his parents were steadfast in ensuring that Hasan would inherit their Middle Eastern cultural heritage and proficiency in Arabic: “It’s made it hard to feel like I can find a home anywhere, because I grew up in Norway but even there, because I was brown, I was still an immigrant. So I have this Iraqi identity but I am actually Norwegian – it’s my nationality, I did my schooling there”

“I think being a third culture kid is my identity in many ways”

Like Helena, Hasan’s move to the UK seven years ago further highlighted the transience of belonging: “suddenly in the UK I felt Norwegian, more so than in Norway itself”. He later says, in a phrase that somewhat sums up all of the interviewees’ experiences: “I think being a third culture kid is my identity in many ways”. These stories portray identity as a malleable construct, shaped by language, culture, and personal experiences, rather than constrained by traditional notions of home and belonging.

The positive impact of language and communication in shaping individuals’ cultural perspectives and identities resonates strongly across the interviews with Helena, Natalie, Hasan, Kayane and Phoebe. The multilingualism that often comes with a third culture identity serves as a gateway to different cultures and perspectives. Helena emphasises the importance of linguistic diversity in shaping one’s outlook, explaining, “you can switch your perspective so quickly because of the way you say something that you wouldn’t say in another language, the way you conversate with certain people”. She explains how the way she interacts with her English family has nothing to do with the way that she speaks to her Polish relatives: “You switch the codes that you’re using – even though it’s natural, not necessarily conscious”. Multilingualism fosters adaptability, allowing individuals to traverse cultural boundaries with ease. It serves not only as a tool for communication but also as a conduit for cultural exchange and understanding.

Kayane, born in England and raised in Switzerland by Lebanese parents, explains how her background and schooling in an international school in Geneva, surrounded by people from all parts of the world, provided her with a broadened understanding of her surroundings. She describes how her French begins to deteriorate slowly when she spends a certain amount of time in the UK, and how the opposite happens when she returns to Switzerland.

In conversation with me, she recalls one of her first conversations after arriving at Peterhouse for Freshers’ Week: “Someone pointed out how my accent sounds very different to other people’s here”. Her accent, which some might label an “IB” accent, is common among third culture kids whose education takes place across many different countries and international schools.

“Language therefore serves as both a conduit for understanding and a marker of fluid identity”

“You don’t usually hear those kinds of comments back home because everyone speaks in a different accent anyway,” Hasan similarly recounts in regards to people’s confusion over his accent. Because of his appearance, he says, “people either expect a British accent or an Arab/Middle Eastern accent and can’t place my Norwegian accent, so they always ask ‘where are you actually from? ’” Language therefore serves as both a conduit for understanding and a marker of fluid identity.

In the academic arena, cultural identity serves as a personal lens through which students navigate their scholarly pursuits. Natalie’s decision to study archaeology is a testament to her quest for deeper cultural connections. Motivated by a desire to explore Latin American heritage – a facet often marginalised in Eurocentric educational frameworks – Natalie is in many ways seeking to unearth untold narratives about her own cultural heritage. Her choice reflects a broader trend of students leveraging academic disciplines to bridge gaps in representation and reclaim neglected cultural narratives. In a similar way, Kayane, who is fluent in multiple languages, recognises the importance of language for a subject like History. She mentions its role in shaping historical interpretations, unlocking new avenues of scholarly exploration, and fostering a more inclusive academic discourse.

Unfortunately, the journey to Cambridge is not without its cultural clashes. The transition to British drinking and pub culture proved to be a profound cultural shock for many of the interviewed students. Helena recalls being told about Spoons: “I thought it was a joke! A chain of pubs?!” The strict enforcement of age-related restrictions and licensing laws, despite the pervasive presence of pubs and a celebrated drinking culture, came as a further shock. Helena found herself bewildered by the strict policies towards alcohol consumption in the UK, which contrasted sharply with the more relaxed attitudes she is accustomed to in France. These regulations even extended to her College bar (Jesus), where she was denied service due to only being seventeen at the start of her first year.

“They’re missing out on the hypest club music”

Additionally, Natalie’s comment on the limited representation of international cultures in Cambridge’s nightlife underscores the disconnect between expectations and realities for students seeking familiarity in a foreign setting. The lack of reggaeton at Lola’s and Revs is, in fairness, a tragedy. “They’ll put on ‘Gasolina’ or ‘Despacito’ but it’s like they can only circulate those two songs,” she complains: “they’re missing out on the hypest club music”.

In conversations with these students, it becomes evident that support systems and mechanisms facilitating integration are indispensable for international and multicultural students during their time at university. Navigating support systems at Cambridge involves finding a sense of community and accessing institutional support, yet improvements are needed to better accommodate students living abroad. For instance, in Jesus College, where international student intake is small, there’s a shortage of holiday storage facilities, with English students often occupying the available space needed by international students, as noted by Helena.


Mountain View

‘A home away from home’: Cambridge’s East and Southeast Asian communities

Despite these challenges, however, advice abounds for integrating into communities and joining societies. Natalie emphasises the value of cultural societies like CULAS and the Colombian Society, which host events like Latin American club nights. Attending events, societies and interacting with people of different cultures is crucial for students of multicultural backgrounds, fostering a sense of belonging beyond one’s immediate circle, as she underscores. While it is important to recognise cultural differences and critique aspects of the Cambridge experience, like Spoons, Helena points out there is also wealth in embracing the diverse environment, “letting oneself be tainted by the place one is in” and engaging with people from various backgrounds to enrich one’s own experience.

In contemplating the notions of identity and home, these ‘third culture’ students’ experiences suggest that both concepts transcend mere geographical coordinates. Home isn’t just a fixed point on the map where you were born, raised, or educated. Nor is it necessarily limited to where your parents reside, or where your lineage traces its roots. Perhaps, instead, home is a fluid concept, centering around where your heart is, rather than your head. As these students navigate Cambridge life, they carry with them the richness of their multicultural backgrounds, shaping the University’s community with their unique perspectives and experiences.