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International scholars’ spouses face hardships

BY SAMANTHA HONKEN | OCTOBER 15, 2009 7:20 AM

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The dialogue ranged from what time of the day was best to apply makeup to making sure their children were well-socialized to who had the meanest mother-in-law. While the conversation took place on American soil, the women present represented three other continents.

Annually, the UI hosts nearly 400 international scholars. Many of them bring along their families. And often the spouse — typically, the woman — finds herself isolated or feeling out of place.

That’s where the International Women’s Club comes in.

Founded in 1959, the club caters to women from abroad in an effort to give them a sense of community while they’re here.

The club sponsors English classes, coffee groups and a craft club. But a bigger part of what they do is help women connect in a time when they have lost their support system.

“The friendships that are formed across countries are very valuable,” said Elizabeth Riesz, a director of the club.

The meetings, some of which are as frequent as once a week, allow women, who may be limited in their activities, a chance to get out of the house.

“[The club] makes our lives more colorful,” said Jueqiong Hu, a club member who hails from China.
Often the spouses of international graduate students face many difficulties when they come to the United States. Many women spend a lot of time alone while their husband does research, and they may not speak English or have a driver’s license.

Originally from Russia, Olga Yakunina came with her husband in 2001 to the UI, where he meant to study software engineering.

“In the beginning, it was very hard,” said the 39-year-old.

She said she felt very lonely when she first came to the Iowa City area. She didn’t speak any English, didn’t have a driver’s license, and was nervous about meeting new people.

Eventually, Yakunina started going to the coffee group the women’s club offers so her young son could socialize with other children. But she enjoyed getting to know the other mothers, as well.

Now she leads the morning coffee group.

“I don’t feel so alone now,” she said.

Sophie Charles, the club’s liaison to the Office of International Students and Scholars, said many women she knows who come to the UI struggle with loneliness.

“I think isolation is one of the biggest challenges,” she said.

In addition to feeling lonely, many women struggle leaving their own careers behind. A stipulation of most visas for scholars is that their family members do not work while they are in the United States.

Hu holds a master’s degree in information economics, but her visa stipulates she cannot hold a job while in the United States.

“I gave up a lot to come here, maybe too much,” she said.

Kathy Fait, a club volunteer, said many members have training in professional fields and it can be very difficult to leave those careers behind so they can travel with their husbands while they study.

“I always imagine the look on the face of the woman whose husband comes in and says ‘Good news honey, we’re moving to Iowa,’ ” she joked.

But the club is making that transition as easy as possible for the women involved.

The only bad thing is that the connections are sometimes cut short.

Club President Shelagh Hayreh, a native of Scotland and club member for more than 35 years, talked about the difficulty of seeing so many women come and go.

“You just get to know someone,” she said. “And then she goes back.”


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