Navigating Tricky University Transitions as a Missionary Kid

All transitions are tricky. They represent the end of something old and familiar, and the beginning of something new and unknown. When facing transitions, you naturally experience a period of grief and mourning over the losses that now lay somewhere in your past. God has created us with an amazing and extensive spectrum of physical and emotional responses to the changes that take place in our lives. For instance, when you’re happy, you smile. When something is funny, you laugh. When you’re angry, you find something to throw at a cat. When you lose something or someone that you love, you grieve.

In that way, missionary kids are no different than other university students. When incoming freshmen arrive on campus, they naturally miss their beds, their mom’s cooking, their high school friends, and probably their dog. They probably even miss their annoying siblings, and even their dad sitting in his recliner snoring while watching football on Sunday afternoons. But I have some dramatic news for you, wait for it, here it comes: There are some MAJOR differences between MKs who arrive at university and other American kids who show up on campus for the first time.

Profound, huh? Think about this with me for a minute. What are some of the major difference between a typical dorm student and a missionary kid who grew up in some remote corner of the world?

The MKs probably can’t go back home.

-When a student drives onto campus from Georgia or Michigan, he or she doesn’t need a visa to cross state lines but many MKs have to surrender their legal rights to live on their mission field when they make the international trip to attend university. They give up their visas just to come to college and that means no turning back. That’s tricky!

-MKs who grew up in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America are faced with a huge financial decision at Thanksgiving, Christmas and summer breaks. Should they pay $1000-$2000 for a two-week trip home, or should they pay for their school bill for this month? That’s tricky!

-When MKs leave their field, they pack up everything they own, say goodbye to their family, friends, neighbors, church members, and pets knowing that if they ever see them again, it will likely be years from now. For MKs, their “home” is thousands of miles away across multiple time zones and several international airports. That’s tricky!

-If you grew up in the States, there’s always a backup plan if college just doesn’t work out for you: Quit and go home. If your roommate snores, eats pickled garlic, steals your food, has a foot fungus, uses too many essential oils, or owns a cat, you can always jump in a car and be back at home within a few short hours. Even if MKs can afford to go back to their field during breaks, the world they knew has changed and gone on without them. For MKs, there is no backup plan. Like Cortez when he burned his ships, there’s no going back. That’s tricky!

What else is different for MKs?

The MKs are learning two new cultures at once.

The first few weeks of college life are fun to watch. In those initial days, students receive approximately 2 million details and pieces of information that you need to remember to be able to succeed. It’s essential to figure out “Can I get to Alumni 301 from the Fine Arts building in 4 minutes?” Or “Who am I going to go to lunch with today? Is there a bathroom somewhere in the student life building? Why is the line at Chick-fil-A always so long but Papa Johns is always empty? Do I really get demerits if I jump in the fountains? Why is that creepy guy in my freshman speech class trying to follow me on Instagram?” Figuring out the answers to these questions is a necessary ingredient in every student’s college experience. No matter where you grew up, you have to be concerned about more than just academics; you also have to learn dorm student culture as well. That can be tricky!

It’s easy in the swarm of college life to forget that MKs aren’t just learning “university culture,” they’re also trying to learn “American culture” at the same time. What am I talking about?

-Many MKs have been riding and driving motorcycles on the mission field since they were old enough for their feet to reach the ground but in America, they have to complete the equivalent to a doctoral dissertation just to get the DMV to give them a driver’s license. After having a crazy amount of freedom to roam the villages and countryside where they lived, they now can’t even get to Walmart. That’s tricky!

-Asian MKs are taught that feet are “dirty”, and you never touch anything with your foot. You don’t point your feet, especially the bottom of your feet, at another person unless you’re trying to insult them. If an MK has heard and been taught this way their whole life, how do you think they feel the first time their roommate puts their feet on the MK’s bed in the dorm room? That’s tricky!

-Church on the mission field can be pretty “organic”. There are likely to be small children roaming around the room and babies crying. Church music might consist of a guitar, a bongo drum, or some other traditional instruments that sound nothing like a piano and orchestra. People put on their “Sunday-best” clothing on the field and that just means that they put on their best sandals and their shirt that doesn’t have holes in it. How strange do you think it must be for MKs to walk into a typical church here in the US where 500 people are wearing suits and ties? Overseas, it’s normal for everyone in the church to greet every single person one-by-one before church, and then enjoy a meal together after church. For MKs who grew up deeply immersed in their local culture, American church culture can be suffocating and way too formal when compared to their “home” church on the field. That’s tricky!

So, what’s the point in writing all this? Well, MKs need to remember several important things about life in the States:

1. Transitions are tricky. They are emotional, tough, chaotic and will push you way out of your comfort zones. 1 Corinthians 10:13 offers a profound reminder, there is literally nothing that enters your life that you are unequipped to endure. God’s Spirit dwells in you and His love is more than able to sustain you no matter how low you go during this time of transition.

2. Transitions are unavoidable. Never try to ignore or go around the transition process. You-Have-To- Go-Through-It. Period. Double-stop. You can’t bury your past. You can’t stick your memories in a box and pretend they never happened. 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 points to the imminent changes awaiting our bodies when Christ returns. Hebrews 11 powerfully outlines the lives of men and women who bravely walked through repeated transitions with grace and power. Those people are the heroes of our faith and we stand on their spiritual shoulders because they bravely went wherever God moved them.

3. Transitions are temporary. There are five stages of transition that we don’t have time to look at here. Maybe if you contact the CGO and tell them you enjoyed this article and want to hear more, then they’ll ask me to write some more in the future…cough, cough, hint, hint, wink, wink.

Students who grew up in the States but live among MKs on campus need to remember several important things as well.

1. MKs have learned to adapt to their surroundings to try to fit in. In many contexts, MKs probably could be described as “hidden immigrants”. What does that mean? They look like Americans, but they think like the people on their mission field. They smile and nod when you make references to the NBA and NFL, but they might not know the difference between a two-point conversion and a jump shot.

2. MKs would like to understand. They need you to take time to explain movie references, pop-culture icons, and contemporary humor. It’s exhausting pretending to understand American politics and why every American thinks their culture is superior to other cultures. Don’t assume that your MK friends “get it”. Ask them follow-up questions and help them understand.

3. MKs would like to be understood. MKs grow up riding elephants, playing with monkeys, touring 1000-year-old castles, and riding canoes through crocodile infested waters. They’ve flown before they could walk. They’ve eaten stuff that would make you cringe. Their life is extremely colorful and multi-cultural. They would love to share those memories with you. They would love to include you in their world, but they need you to ask them questions to get the conversation started.

We know and are known by the telling of our stories.” Michael Pollock

Matt Jones

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