Today it is Part 3 in this series by Paul Asbury Seaman. Read part 1 here (Introduction) and part 2 here (The Heart of Ruth Van Reken). I gleaned a lot of information from part 3 that I hadn’t known about how this term Third Culture Kid came into existence. I appreciate especially Paul’s discussion in the last paragraphs of how this is not a descriptor of characteristics of a community but rather of how that community interacts with the broader world.

Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)

Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at


our tribal elders ruth useem

Anyone who has read Letters Never Sent, or one of the many other TCK memoirs and anthologies, understands the power of naming things. It is one of the most potent aspects of religion. Naming something puts a border around it; makes it less scary, easier to manage. And it tells us who we are. Ruth Hill Useem was the first one to name us. Moving clockwise around the medicine wheel, the second quadrant is the South, where we grow into and affirm our individuality, a place of clarity and a sense of purpose—where we begin to recognize our potential.

Dr. Useem was a sociologist at Michigan State University. From 1952 to 1985 she studied expatriate communities, overseas schools, and the discrete subcultures of organizations working abroad, including the military, religious missions, diplomatic services, private businesses, and nonprofit agencies. Her later work focused on the impact of living abroad on minor dependents and eventually took her to seventy-six countries.

The first cross-cultural research conducted by Useem, and her husband John, had been on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.[i] They wanted to explore the psycho-social dynamics of people (such as health care workers, educators, and government officials) who move temporarily across cultural borders for organizational reasons. Ten years later (in 1952), now with three children in tow, the Useems went to India with similar questions about people who had gone to a Western country for their higher education.

The Useems made a second, year-long trip to India in 1958, this time to study American expatriates working there. What they discovered was that these families, businesses, embassies, international schools, military commissaries, and mission compounds all developed patterns of interaction with their host country that were distinct, patterns that incorporated elements of both the home culture and the host culture into what the Useems called a “Third Culture.” While compiling their observations over the next few years, Ruth coined the term “Third Culture Kids” to refer to the children who grow up in such an environment. Her findings have been confirmed and elaborated on by many others and do not need to be summarized again here.[ii]

Glancing through Ruth Useem’s eight-page single-spaced curriculum vitae, what is most striking is how her academic career prefigured the trend toward interdisciplinary studies that would not take hold on university campuses for another three decades. Even her B.A. degree (in 1936, from Miami University in Ohio) is listed as “Sociology, Geology, English.” Introducing a long list of teaching credits, Useem writes, in that same résumé, that her central emphasis “has been combining sociological, cultural anthropological and social psychological perspectives for understanding individuals in their social/cultural/economic settings, particularly when those settings are undergoing rapid change and conflict. Over the life course, how do individuals construct and reconstruct their complex self-identities . . . ?”

Ruth Useem was recipient of numerous national awards for her contributions in sociology, international studies, and the advancement of women in academic professions. She was listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who of American Women, and World Who’s Who of Women. In many ways, however, her greatest influence came, not from her accomplishments but from her personality. Ann Baker Cottrell, one of Useem’s doctoral students and later co‑director of the major ongoing study of adult TCKs, writes, “she was a mother and mentor to almost everyone she met—especially professional women, students and TCKs. . . . I think I was one of many women who were the daughters she did not have.”[iii]

In the 1940s Useem was the only female in her graduate program at the University of Wisconsin. In 1951, she accompanied her husband to Michigan State University in East Lansing. Despite her own Ph.D., and full collaboration in all her husband’s research and many of his seminars, it took seven years for her to obtain an assistant professorship. Because of the anti-nepotism rules of the time, she was not allowed to hold a position in the same department as her husband. Thus, she worked out of the graduate student Quonset hut for $1.00 a year—so the university could get credit when she published. Many women would later remember how seeing Ruth Useem “pregnant and professional at national meetings empowered them to pursue advanced degrees.”[iv]

In the late-1960s Useem actively recruited graduate students with third culture experience. The effort resulted in nine Ph.D. dissertations on TCK issues.[v] When Ruth Useem died in 2003, at age eighty-eight, many of her friends and former colleagues recalled the famous gatherings at the Useems’ house, where amongst all the intellectual discourse was also a sense of family. Two dark wood tables came to symbolize Ruth’s provocatively seamless world: a coffee table in the living room, always stacked with books and the latest academic journals,[vi] and a large dining room table that was the scene of other kinds of feasting and fellowship.

In trying to describe Ruth Useem I am reminded of another diminutive Ruth: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Both were early feminists and pioneers in their male-dominated professions. The historic contributions both of them made in their respective fields was influenced by being female in a sexist society, but also by their experience as mothers. (Commenting on a particular case, Ginsberg once said that she didn’t think some of her colleagues understood what it was like to be a thirteen-year-old girl.[vii]) Likewise, it is doubtful that Ruth Useem could have come to understand so clearly the concept of TCKs if she had not accompanied her husband to India, not only as a colleague but as a wife and mother—with three third culture kids of her own.

John Useem’s focus tended to be much more cerebral and academic, looking at institutional structures and broad sociological principles. It was Ruth’s interest in the personal impact of these cross-cultural dynamics, particularly on children, that led her to pursue this as a research priority. A combination of circumstances and her interdisciplinary approach to scholarship made Ruth Useem uniquely qualified to identify and champion this distinct population—and become both midwife and mother to a movement.

Whether her subject was American Indians or Asian Indians educated in America, whether it was Americans working overseas or their offspring, in each case the purpose of Useem’s research was not foremost to identify the characteristics of a particular population, but to gain insights into how its members interacted with the majority culture around them. Whenever I tell people about TCKs I’m always quick to qualify that it really has nothing to do with “Third World.” Actually, in a way it does—and Dr. Useem saw the parallels with that anachronism of the Cold War. Originally it described those nations that were neither aligned with the West nor with the Communist Bloc dominated by the Soviet Union. We, too, are “neither-nors” who don’t want to choose sides and refuse to be categorized. We like our independence, but we still want to be involved. The southern quadrant on the medicine wheel represents the season not only of establishing our personal identity but finding where we fit in relation to others and what we have to contribute.


[i] There is a nice—and unintended—symmetry between the primary motif of this article and the origins of Ruth Useem’s intercultural/TCK research. Also interesting: the Rosebud (Lakota) Sioux Reservation is less than a hundred miles east of Wounded Knee, South Dakota (on the Pine Ridge Reservation), site of the infamous Indian massacre of 1890 and the last major conflict in the endless Indian Wars that accompanied the European expansion West.

[ii] See for example her article, with Ann Baker Cottrell, in Carolyn D. Smith, ed., Strangers At Home: Essays on the Effects of Living Overseas and Coming “Home” to a Strange Land (New York: Aletheia Publications, 1996); also various resources catalogued and available on line at and The concept of a “third culture” was first written about in 1969 (see TCK Research Network News 2:2 [Summer 2009], 1), but the first dissertations and articles to refer specifically to third culture kids/TCKs were not published until 1976.

[iii] Personal correspondence with the author. Much of the biographical material about Ruth Useem was provided by Ann Cottrell, professor emeritus at San Diego State University, San Diego, CA. Dr. Cottrell also must be given credit for pushing Useem to initiate what became their joint survey and analysis of 700 adult TCKs. Tellingly, as Cottrell recounts, “The study was initially designed as a small exploratory study of no more than 50 in-depth interviews. . . . Word got out and people started contacting us asking to be in the study. It was clear people wanted to do more than recount where they’d lived, etc. The background information survey grew to 24 pages.”

[iv] Ann Cottrell. Personal correspondence with the author and writing in memorial to Ruth Useem.

[v] Ann Cottrell, “Happy 40th Birthday Third Culture Kids!” TCK Research Network News 2:2 (Summer 2009), 1. See also Note 13, above.

[vi] One family friend remembers that Ruth liked to subscribe to newly launched journals; it seemed to Useem that a lot of pent-up creativity got expressed in the initial issues. According to Newslinks (International Schools Services newsletter) (Winter 2003-04, p. 16), Ruth Hill Useem’s personal collection of works by and about third culture kids was donated to Yale Theological Library; a bibliography she compiled of nearly 1,400 published works on the subject is available from Ann Baker Cottrell, 5111 Manhasset Dr., San Diego, CA 92115; email:

[vii] Dahlia Lithwick, “The Female Factor: Will three women really change the court?” Newsweek (Sept. 6, 2010), 19.