Hanging out listening to the car radio with her cousin in the early 1970s, Jill Johnson may have appeared the typical American teenager.
Except that Johnson’s knowledge of the United States was not based on experience. As a so-called “third culture kid,” Johnson had spent her early life residing with her American parents in Amman, Jordan, and Katmandu, Nepal.
So at 16, when Johnson was back in the U.S. to complete high school, she occasionally slipped on cultural nuances.
“I remember sitting in the front seat of the car and saying, ‘What a great song,’” recalls Johnson. “My cousin said, ‘That’s a commercial.’”
Now 60, Johnson will be the oldest Ada Comstock Scholar to receive her bachelor’s degree this year. But for her, being outside the norm is familiar territory.
Even her introduction to college studies was not the typical choice for a young white American woman. Following high school, Johnson pursued her first year of higher education at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, a path that faltered early on. “I just bailed. I wasn’t happy,” she says.
Instead, within a few years, Johnson was married and living in New Hampshire. For a while afterward, Johnson worked for food distribution companies, serving as the liaison between restaurants and suppliers.
When she was accepted to the Ada Comstock Scholars program a decade ago, she continued working. Throughout her time at Smith, Johnson has commuted to campus from Brattleboro, Vt., for two classes a semester while working part-time.
But, with her degree in hand, Johnson now plans to leave the typical 9-to-5 job in favor of writing and continuing her education.
If being a third culture kid had some drawbacks, it also had an upside, according to Johnson.
“I have a wealth of stories in me,” she says.
Johnson earned her degree in English and plans to be a writer. She envisions her next step to be enrolling in the master’s of fine arts program in creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. Johnson wants to continue studying with Pamela Petro, a travel-based nonfiction writer who lectures at both Smith and Lesley.
One of the stories Johnson would like to tell is the third culture kid experience.
She is considering returning to the schools in which she studied while her family moved around the world because of her father’s work. She’d like to interview children of expatriates and put together an anthology of their experiences juxtaposed with her own.
But, she’s in no rush. “Someone gave me a piece of advice that really makes sense,” she says. “’Enjoy the time when you are just writing and not yet published.’”