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Mobile Student, Stable Schooling

By Anne P. Copeland, Ph. D.

Marie and Jacob were excited about moving to Hong Kong. Jacob had a new job with a multinational corporation with offices in 37 different countries, a job that promised to send them all over the world. Marie, a travel writer, was thrilled. She would live in interesting places she could write about. And their two children, ages 4 and 7, would learn new languages, have a broad and rich worldview, and meet people from many countries.

So they flew off to find a new home. They quickly learned that one of their first decisions should be where their children would go to school. Chinese schools had an excellent reputation and this had some appeal for Marie and Jacob. Both believed this would be the best way to connect to the local culture and the best way for their children to learn Chinese. They had always been active in their communities and figured that having children in the local schools would open doors for involvement and connection.

But as they thought about their long-term plans, including moves to new countries every few years, they began to worry. Would it be good to hop from local school to local school? It was one thing to ask young children to learn Chinese, which they could probably do easily on the playground. But as the children grew older, was it reasonable to expect them to study biology, math and history in the languages of their ever-changing host cultures? What if one country taught chemistry at age 14 and another at 16?- their kids might get it twice or not at all, depending on when and where they moved. Would their children have trouble earning their diplomas within the expected period of time?

In asking these questions, Marie and Jacob joined the thousands of global families every year who try to make wise decisions on their children's behalf. Luckily, there are several options available that allow students to progress through a single curriculum and set of requirements, even if they move from country to country.

The first decision parents should make is a long-range one: 'What kind of diploma, or secondary school certificate, do I want my children to earn?' If they want their children to have the option to return to their home country as an adult, they will want them to have diplomas that are recognized and well-respected there.

This does not necessarily mean that they must have their home country's national certificate, however. Universities increasingly understand the meaning of different countries' secondary school certificates and examinations, and have policies about which are acceptable for admission (see Sidebar 1).

On the other hand, there are several secondary school degrees that command wide respect throughout the world because of the high-quality and challenging curriculum on which they are based. Some of these have schools in many different countries, allowing children to move relatively easily within their systems (See Sidebar 2).

International Baccalaureate

Perhaps the most widely-recognized certification is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, a degree given to those who have completed a two-year rigorous course of study and have passed the IB Examination. The IB is offered in 1321 schools in 110 countries. The Programme allows students to complete their countries' national or state requirements as well as those for the IB Diploma. The curriculum is both broad and intensive, incorporating the best of many countries' educational systems.

To earn the IB diploma, students must take a course in each of these six areas:

  • Language: oral, written and reading skills in the home languages, and familiarity with their cultures' literature.
  • Second Language: written and spoken skill in a second language.

    On Being a Cultural Chameleon:

    I've always blended in so fast. Even a lot of people thought I was American right away... When I was in Kuwait, people would never think I was not Kuwaiti, when I was in England, I was easily an Englishman. I've always blended in very quickly in any culture I've been in contact with. - Azeez, Kuwait

    On Sense of Home:

    'It's funny...like in the summers, we'd always be traveling. At the beginning of the summer, my parents would say: 'we're going home,' and we (kids) would say: 'we're going on vacation.' Then at the end of the summer, when we were going back to the Philippines, my sister and I would say: 'we're going home,' and my parents would say: 'no, we're just going back to work.' ' - Lynn, US

    On Reentry:

    I guess I always took it for granted that I would come back here for college: we came back every summer and I considered myself American, my parents were from here, it was just kind of assumed. Then when I got here it was a big adjustment identity thing: I didn't feel American, I didn't understand a lot of American culture, I didn't understand my American roommate, or her friends or anything that most people were obsessed about, and I quickly realized that I wasn't that American at all. - Lynn, US

    On Friendship:

    People tell me: 'wow, that's so cool that you have friends all over the world,' but they're not the friends that I could just call up if I had a problem. And so, if you've left your friends that many times then I think you learn not to attach yourself too much to them: while you still keep in touch, you don't attach yourself, you don't depend on them as much - Marianne, Denmark

    On Commitments and Roots:

    I guess my problem was I never wanted to put down roots... roots that were going to get ripped out... - Brian, US

    On Decision Making:

    I think a lot of decision makings that I make are based on norms, on someone's societal norms, and I try to change them by not adhering to some of them. And it's hard because I might be doing something with my friends and according to my other cultures its not something correct: I shouldn't be doing it. So there's an inner struggle going on whatever you're doing: there's always battle in our brain: should I do this or shouldn't I? - Miro, Afghanistan

    On Global Nomads as Cultural Bridges:

    'Global Nomads have the ability to educate others...to reach across boundaries that might not otherwise be crossed ...there's a different sense of perspective: being able to look at more than one side, being able to mediate, being able to hopefully bring tolerance.' - Liliona, Ghana


    'You try to take the best parts of every culture that you've been in, and you shape a culture of its own, and...that's more satisfying than to have to identify with just one culture...especially today when there's more and more clash between people from different cultures, culture becomes kind of a restriction, and maybe that's the best part of our culture, that it's not restrictive.' - Marianne, global nomad

    Alice Wu may be reached at aw17@cornell.edu

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