Ruth Hill Useem 1915-2003
The words “Third Culture Kid” (TCK) have had a huge impact on the lives of thousands who may think of themselves as “terminally weird.” These are individuals who lived outside their passport countries because of a parent’s work, and who consequently don’t fit usual identity categories. The woman who gave a name, thus a sense of culture and community, to these globally mobile persons was Dr. Ruth Hill Useem.
From the 1940s until her death, Ruth was actively engaged in studying the coming together of cultures and, in particular, people engaged in relating cultures. With her husband, and life-long collaborator, John Useem, she did research on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation; Western Educated Indians in Bombay, India; Americans working in India (Diplomats, AID workers, Missionaries, businessmen), and the scientific community in the Philippines. It was in India that the Useems introduced the concept of “third culture” to describe cultures created by individuals who mediate between societies as representatives of larger collectivities (e.g. national governments, churches, businesses). Ruth became interested in the families accompanying individuals working abroad and in particular the children, who she called TCKs.
Beginning in the 1960s Ruth’s research and teaching focused primarily on TCKs, their schooling and reentry to their passport countries. This included supervision of numerous pioneering dissertations on TCKs and international schools as well as her own field research on expatriate communities, overseas schools and TCKs in 76 countries. For the last decade of her life she was involved in a large study (700 respondents) of American Adult TCKs, exploring their identity, life decisions, and their place in local and global communities.
Ruth also consulted widely and gave workshops at schools and regional organizations assisted by the Office of Overseas Schools of the US State Department, Department of Defense Dependents’ Schools (DoDDS), and church related schools. Her influence is seen in the fact many sponsors and schools now acknowledge their TCKs’ special issues and have established TCK support programs. A search of the internet reveals the term “TCK” in wide use by those who are internationally involved. “TCK” can be found on sites of sponsor organizations, support groups and counseling centers, TCK organizations and chat rooms, international schools and TCK researchers. Ruth’s interests and contributions were not limited to third culture issues; she was a significant force for both internationalizing and diversifying universities and professional organizations.
This listing of accomplishments and contributions does not begin to do justice to the many ways Ruth touched the lives of her students, colleagues and friends. She challenged and supported them with devotion. Perhaps most importantly, she touched the lives of thousands of TCKs, from those who found their way to Michigan State University and her classes, to those she listened to in schools across the world and the countless others who can thank her for “telling me who I am.”