This article appeared in the Bay Area Newsgroup newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune on August 7, 2011.
UC HELPS SPOUSES OF VISITING SCHOLARS
RESEARCHERS’ PARTNERS CAN SOMETIMES FEEL ISOLATED IN NEW LAND
Bin Yu, whose wife is a UC Berkeley postdoctoral scholar, waits in front of Krishna Copy Center before a job interview in Berkeley on July 29. Yu gave up a job as a computer technician in China and left his family to come with his wife to the East Bay.
Shuttered in his Berkeley apartment, half a planet away from his family, Bin Yu was not enjoying his new life in California after arriving in April with his wife, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley.
Yu has a work permit but could not find a job, had no Bay Area friends and almost immediately wanted to start again somewhere else. He would spend his days alone, surfing the Internet, and when his wife, a microbiologist, would return home from her studies, the couple would quarrel.
“I needed someone to talk with,” said Yu, 32.
The Bay Area’s research universities have long attracted international talent, but the schools have not always paid much attention to those visiting scholars’ spouses and partners. Faced with thousands of significant others like Yu — who gave up a job as a computer technician when the couple left China — UC Berkeley has started helping them cope with the challenges of a move and the isolation that can afflict spouses who are left at home while their partners pursue new opportunities.
Nearly three-quarters of UC Berkeley’s 4,800 postdoctoral and visiting researchers are married or have a partner, said Sam Castaneda, who runs the school’s program for visiting scholars. Many of those 3,500 or so partners and spouses are unable to work in the United States because of visa issues, and solitude and language barriers often lead to depression and marital problems, he said.
“If the spouse is not happy, then the researchers are not happy,” Castaneda said. “And then nobody is happy.
About a decade ago, UC Berkeley was shaken by three suicides in nine months: a postdoctoral researcher, a visiting scholar and the wife of a Brazilian postdoctoral scholar. The experience prompted the university to extend psychological care to spouses and partners, but it took years for Castaneda and Yvonne Lefort, a Moraga career counselor, to design classes for that group.
The university’s first stab at spousal outreach, a six-session series of workshops that ended in late June, attracted 25 spouses and partners from at least 12 countries, including Estonia, Israel, Chile, Spain, Germany and Vietnam. Topics included how to start a conversation with an American, coping with stress and “Why do Americans act like that?”
Organizers plan to offer the workshops again in October at the University Village housing complex in Albany, where many of the visitors live.
But organizers also acknowledge they need to do more for spouses and partners, such as allowing access to the UC Berkeley library and career center, and would like to model the Berkeley program after Stanford University’s 40-year-old spousal-support center, which sends spouses and partners a welcome package in their native language before they arrive in California.
Some universities do not understand the challenges facing international visitors, said Susanne Maas, the Stanford program’s coordinator.
“Coming from India or China, you’re coming to a completely different culture,” said Maas, who arrived at Stanford from Germany four years ago with her husband, a postdoctoral researcher. “Homesickness and the new surroundings can be really hard. Sometimes you underestimate how it feels.”
Stanford’s pre-arrival welcome package, she said, is “so they know there are people here for them.
“But, in the end, they have to take the first step out of the house.”
Visiting scholars spend their days studying on the UC Berkeley campus, but their spouses often have trouble finding their way in a new country, said Lefort, who also teaches at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill.
“Often our identity is tied up with our jobs,” she said. “They come here and can’t work. It’s easy to lose a sense of who they are.”
“They basically have their spouse, but they need to find ways to develop their own lives.”
The UC Berkeley workshops prompted Yu to volunteer at a San Francisco center for Chinese newcomers, even as he pounded the pavement searching for a job. Despite the discouraging shortage of computer-related jobs, he said the classes helped keep his spirits high.
“It opened my eyes to my situation and let me know I needed to work harder,” he said. “I just needed to make some effort to improve my situation.”
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488.