Menu Close

Starting Life Over Again in a Foreign Country

Share

By Jolanda Heijnen

Jolanda is an international spouse from the Netherlands. She followed her husband who is doing a post-doc at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Before moving to Berkeley, Jolanda worked at one of Europe’s largest steel manufacturers as a Product- and Process Technologist, combining aspects of data science and data analytics.

Here she talks about her transition of moving to Berkeley and the support she received from attending the Friday Morning Coffee, a group for international spouses/partners facilitated by Yvonne Lefort that meets weekly at Caffe Strada in Berkeley.

As I’m writing this story on the 7th of November, I just realized I missed the year mark of my arrival here. On the 6th of November last year (2017), I arrived in the USA. In the first few months after arrival, I would have given you totally different expectations of this international adventure than I’ll give you now, in hindsight based on experience. It’s not over yet, but the difficult initial struggle is over. Though this was harder than anticipated, I don’t regret it at all, and I think I’ve personally learned more than I would have, had it gone according to expectation. Yvonne’s weekly Friday Morning Coffee at Caffe Strada has been a huge positive contribution to this.

My husband started his Postdoc in August last year, after backpacking around South America. At that time, we had been living apart for about two years due to necessity after having been together for nine years, and before that, we lived together for six years. It was about time we started living together again. In November, I joined my husband, after quitting a good job with nice colleagues just a week before departure, and lots of stress related to finishing my job, packing and moving out. In the first month, my youngest sister, who happens to be called Yvonne as well, accompanied me and we spent a lot of time together. We got to do the touristic stuff, mostly using public transport. For example, we visited Pier 39 and walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, and we rented a car to see the Monarch butterflies in Santa Cruz.

Within a few weeks after she left in the beginning of December, reality hit me: I was extremely bored. I no longer had a job, and my main hobbies in the Netherlands were either too expensive being on a budget (a common issue for many in the Bay Area) or hard to get in contact with people to start (i.e. playing bridge). Later I found out that UC Berkeley students were about to go away for the holidays, and the other bridge club required more patience. While still processing quitting my job, and officially becoming a dependent spouse (the requirement for my visa type), I struggled to find things to do.

Cleaning isn’t really my thing. I see it more as an annoying necessity, and also cooking more elaborately starts to get boring when there’s plenty of time to do that every day. In order to find something to do, I decided to try and improve my English writing, focusing on improving writing structure, something I generally struggle with. I’m hoping you’re able to notice a difference. If not, just imagine what it was like before!

Luckily, I had lots of support from friends and family back home through frequent Skype calls, and from my husband here. He arranged for a few meetings with other international couples for the evenings. In one of these meetings, a spouse, working at that time, mentioned the support she got from the Friday Morning Coffee group before getting a work permit. Friday Morning Coffee is not advertised clearly, unfortunately, as UC Berkeley does not promote it. Referrals to the group are often by word of mouth. I’m attempting to send in anyone who I think might benefit. I’m also hoping this piece might help contribute to getting the word out.

Friday Morning Coffee, promoted through the Facebook group Creating a Fulfilling Life in America, consists of a group of international visitors, many with links to UC Berkeley or the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Most are spouses or partners of postdocs and scholars, or graduate students. Some are long-term residents by now. Many in the group are, or were, in a similar situation: either waiting on a work permit, being ineligible for a work permit at all, starting or raising a family, or a combination of those. For most attendants, it is a good excuse to get out of the house and talk to people, reduce loneliness and learn from each other. Here I met others in similar situations and was able to put my own situation into perspective.

Yvonne founded these weekly meetings and is like the glue keeping it together. She suggests local activities, highlights interesting topics as they come up, and the different cultural approaches to a certain situation. She also held a potluck-style gathering in her garden in the summer and arranged for pumpkin carving for Halloween. She sometimes brings interesting books, or even children’s tales to help people learn about American culture. A few months ago, she brought a book called the “Little Engine That Could,” representing American values taught to children. Since then, I’ve seen and heard it been referenced on several occasions, one of which was an episode of the Big Bang Theory.

Friday morning conversations, infused with some pointed advice, helped me fight through this initial difficult period and appreciate, and eventually start enjoying, my time in the Bay Area. Right now, I think both my husband and I have developed a stronger bond, and I have become mentally more resilient by learning to occasionally let go.

After a few months, my work permit got approved, and though I worked part-time, I worked on Fridays, and therefore did not get to attend these meetings for a while. To me this was the biggest disadvantage of working: I wasn’t able to attend these meetings regularly anymore. Being off on Fridays was not an option due to scheduling problems, though. After a few months, my work permit had to be renewed, and the process started over again. This means I was attending Friday Morning Coffee for a few months again, until I got the new work permit.

A word of caution depending on your cultural background: Friday Morning Coffee is said to start at 11:00 a.m. but generally starts somewhat after 11:00, more like 11:15 or so. (As I’m Dutch, I showed up exactly at, or even slightly before, 11 a.m. the first time, and didn’t see anyone.)

P.S.  If you’re considering joining: Yvonne usually brings a small sign that says “Friday Morning Coffee” and puts it on the table to help newcomers recognize the group. If you don’t see the sign (sometime Yvonne forgets it), look for a group of women (occasionally there are men in the group) and ask if they’re part of the Friday Morning Coffee. Also, be sure you join the Facebook group Creating A Fulfilling Life in America as Yvonne posts a reminder about the Friday Morning Coffee as well as lots of other good information!

My Support Group

Share

By Ruth Weinhold-Heße

Ruth is a journalist and an international spouse from Germany who is currently living in Berkeley while her husband does a post-doc at UC Berkeley. Here she talks about the Friday Morning Coffee, a group for international spouses/partners facilitated by Yvonne Lefort that meets weekly at Caffe Strada in Berkeley.

Friday mornings, my mood generally is in the pits: getting up early, the long week, trying to convince my 2-year old for the fifth time in a row to leave the house quickly… and, as I mentioned recently, I feel lonely. For friendships with the locals are still quite sparse. My husband and my child are gone during the day. So what to do when one (unfortunately usually the woman) is in a foreign country, the partner is totally occupied with his job, you yourself have no work permit, and the children finally are well taken care of?

Drink coffee? All day long? That’s what I do on Fridays. I meet with other women who, almost all, have accompanied their scientist-husbands. I call it my support group. Because every time I’m there, I feel so much better afterwards. I get to know other women, all of whom are in a similar situation and have to cope with similar problems, and they all have very interesting stories. Even the mix of cultures is exciting:

Miki comes from Japan, Diana from Italy, Anna comes from Poland, Berit is Norwegian, Sarina is German, Xia originates from China and Yvonne is American.

When Yvonne was a young woman, she lived in Germany and out of this cultural experience grew her life’s work: to support women from abroad in adjusting to the United States. Every Friday at 11, she is at Caffe Strada across from campus and listens, asks questions and gives a few little tips. It may not sound earth shattering, but here I’ve learned that there are compostable plastic cups in America that are made from corn, or where you can park and for how long. This gives me the feeling of understanding American life just a little bit better. (Americans don’t just give up their plastic cups but manufacture more environmentally friendly ones instead… although this is not true for all disposable cups. But that’s another topic.)

My Support Group
My Support Group

And even though it’s a pity that I haven’t hung out yet with more Americans, it is perhaps only natural to feel attracted to those who have a similar or live in a similar situation. Almost all of the women have children or have used the time abroad to have children (which is the only thing mostly left for accompanying spouses to do!). We’re allowed to get irritated about American customs and learn, on top of it, how the same things are handled from China through Poland.

Recently, we even took ​​a small day trip. We went to Sonoma, a town north of the Bay Area that is known for its vineyards . Of course, we also did some wine tasting at a small winery whose founders were two Germans, which you can still see by the name (Gundlach Bunschu).

Here’s a picture of my support group, in no longer completely a sober state (except for the drivers who were nursing, of course!).

Note:   This blog post was translated from German into English by Yvonne Lefort.

The original blog post in German can be found on Ruth’s blog:

http://ruthroyal.blogspot.de/2014/05/meine-selbsthilfegruppe.html

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Yvonne Lefort

Moving Through Transition

Share

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y work as a career consultant and intercultural trainer brings me into contact with many people in career and life transition. At UC Berkeley, where I have been working as a consultant and teaching a course called “Creating A Fulfilling Life in America,” I have met many international spouses and partners going through intercultural, career and life transition.

Some have never lived or even traveled outside their home country, and living far away from friends and family is a daily challenge. Finding a place to live, setting up the apartment, opening a bank account and knowing where to shop or get a good haircut are some of the practical challenges of living in a new place, but there are also psychological challenges. Most people from other countries experience some degree of “culture shock” and loneliness, while others can get paralyzed with fear, depression and anxiety, and not know how to “get out” of what may feel like a big, black hole.

I often refer people to William Bridges’ book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Every transition, according to Bridges, begins with an “Ending.” When you move to another country, you experience many endings: an end to your job and to the sense of identity you got from your work, an end to time spent with close friends and family, and an end to being in a culture where you know the norms and can feel safe and comfortable, to name a few. You may go through a period that Bridges calls the “Neutral Zone,” where you feel lost and confused, unproductive, and not sure who you are anymore. It’s not a comfortable place. But in this period of confusion, there is growth happening as you begin to sort through who you are, what’s important in your life, and what you need to have to feel fulfilled. Your new identity is trying to take shape. Eventually, you will experience a renewed sense of energy as you begin to get new ideas and take action. You have moved through the neutral zone to a new beginning!

I have witnessed this process with the spouses and partners at UC Berkeley with whom I have had the privilege to work. To them and to you, I say, “Step Outside Your Comfort Zone.” It may feel scary because you don’t know the culture, your English isn’t perfect and you have an accent, or maybe you’re not used to starting up conversations with strangers. I understand, but don’t let this stop you from fulfilling your dreams. Take your inspiration from some of these spouses:

Satu, a spouse from Finland, applied for work authorization but her application was denied. So, she decided to form the “Language Café,” an informal language exchange where people meet weekly at a coffee shop to practice different languages.

Mila from Mexico is a marine biologist. After volunteering at a nature center, she applied for a grant from UC Berkeley and received a sum of money to start a program on sustainable living called “Nature Village.” (http://www.naturevillage.org). She received an award for her work from the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability.

Ernani from Brazil is a high school physics teacher and musician. Since he couldn’t work on a F-2 visa, he decided to join a band and volunteer at a children’s science museum.

Doro from Germany didn’t know anyone when she first arrived in the U.S. and wanted to meet new people. She started a social group called the “Berkeley Wives” and created a website (http://berkeleywives.jimdo.com), and now she has a membership of almost 300 spouses.

Kathy from Chile is a veterinarian who volunteered at an animal shelter for several months before getting a part-time job as a veterinary assistant.

Kirsty from Australia loves to sew and make her own clothes. She started writing her own blog, “Tea and Rainbows” (http://www.teaandrainbows.com), to show off clothes she has made and talk about sewing techniques, patterns, fabric and anything else crafty.

These are just a few examples of spouses who have created or seized opportunities, taken risks, and stepped outside their comfort zone. You can too.

If you’re a new mother, find a mothers’ club to join where you can meet other moms to share the joys and frustrations of motherhood. Or, start your own new moms group.  

If you’re looking for work, learn the American way of networking and asking for informational interviews, and begin to make contact with people who can help advance you in your career. Take job search classes to learn how to write an American style resume, interview for a job, and “toot your own horn.”

If you are unable to get work authorization, find other ways to make your time in America meaningful and fulfilling. Is there something you’d like to try that you’ve never had the time to do? Is there a class that you could take or certificate that you could get to upgrade your professional skills? Can you think of some ways that you could be of service to others and volunteer your time? Or perhaps you’ve been too busy with your career to just take the time to have fun and relax. Allow yourself to do what makes you feel good and what makes you come alive.

Whatever you decide to do, enjoy your life in America!

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Yvonne Lefort

Finding A Job in America: Laura’s Story

Share

Laura Grau[dropcap]L[/dropcap]aura is from Barcelona, Spain and is 37 years old.  She first came to the US with her boyfriend three years ago. When she arrived, she was holding a fellowship that allowed her to work in the communications department at the Advanced Light Source in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab (LBL).  After that, she returned to Barcelona for 4 months and decided to come back to Berkeley to do a masters in Project Management. As soon as she finished her masters, her boyfriend and she decided to get married so that she could stay in the US. Her husband is a postdoc at UC Berkeley. 

I interviewed Laura about her job search and how she got her first job in America. Here’s her story.

What was your professional background before you came to the U.S. and how did you conduct your job search here in the San Francisco Bay Area?

In Barcelona, I worked for 6 years as an event manager in a research center and I wanted to further my career in the US. It took me more than half a year to find a position. It was harder than I thought it would be. During that time, besides spending lots of hours every day in front of my computer searching for a position and getting ready for interviews, I took advantage of all the opportunities that are offered here in the Bay Area: English classes, workshops and courses at UC Berkeley, the program English in Action, Berkeley Toastmasters, informational interviews, movie clubs, etc.

Where are you working, what does the organization do, and what is your current position? How long have you been there?

One month ago, I started working at OWASP  (the Open Web Application Security Project) as a Global Event Manager. The OWASP is a worldwide not-for-profit charitable organization focused on improving the security of software. Its mission is to make software security visible so that individuals and organizations worldwide can make informed decisions about true software security risks.  Everyone is free to participate in OWASP and all of its materials are available under a free and open software license.

How did you find this job and how long did it take?  How was looking for a job here different from looking for a job in Spain?

I found this position through LinkedIn, but I also used other resources to search for a position. I regularly checked UC Berkeley Jobs, UCSF careers, Glassdoor, Careerbuilder, Monster, etc.  I subscribed to some career websites so that every day I would receive e-mails advertising positions for event managers.

The first thing I did was to write a resume in “the American way.” I asked for advice from some Americans to make sure it was all right! Apart from that, I wouldn’t say the process would have been different if I had been in Spain. However, for me, the interviewing process was hard. I felt frustrated after every interview I did because I am not a native English speaker and I can’t express myself as I do in my own language.

What was the most difficult interview question you were asked? 

Once I was asked what my communication strategy was in my previous job. To me it is funny how some interviewers use grandiloquent expressions. He just wanted to know how and how often I communicated with my team. Apart from that, the questions are more or less always the same and the more common job interview questions can easily be found on the internet.

Given that you’re from another country and didn’t have American work experience, how were you able to sell yourself to your employer and get hired?

OWASP is a foundation that involves people from all over the world. A couple of months ago they were looking for a Global Event Manager able to organize conferences across the five continents. I don’t know much about selling myself, and actually I don’t like doing it. I know that there are plenty of people out there very well prepared to do what I do, but I also know that I am a very good Event Manager, I have six years experience, and I enjoy doing my job.  I think that was enough for them to see me as a good match for the organization.

What is one thing that you wish you had known at the beginning of your job search that you know now?

I wish I would have known that it would be such a long process. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten so frustrated during those months.

What advice would you give to other spouses who are looking for employment in the U.S.? 

What worked for me was not ever losing hope, and being open-minded about other things I could do while looking for a job. There are plenty of good opportunities out there! It is not only about finding a position, but enjoying the learning process!

 
Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Yvonne Lefort

Dual-Track Couples in Academia

Share

On June 28, 2012, UC Berkeley held a PhD Colloquium on Dual-Track Couples, and I was invited to speak on this topic. Over 70% of PhDs are in dual-career relationships. This “Two Body” problem adds to the stress and uncertainty caused by the already challenging academic job search process. The purpose of the colloquium was to equip PhDs with information and advice designed to help them navigate the search for career opportunities and provide spouses/partners with useful strategies for pursuing their own personal and professional objectives as an academic or in other realms.

The focus of my talk was on 1) helping couples understand the issues and challenges that they may be facing as they relocate together and 2) providing practical information and strategies on what they can do to create personal and professional meaningful lives after relocating. Click below to download a copy of my Powerpoint presentation.

PhD Colloquium: Dual Track Couples

Other speakers at the colloquium were Dr. Mary Ann Mason, professor of social welfare and co-director of the Center, Economics and Family Security, Berkeley School of Law, and Dr. Andrea Rees Davies, Director of Programs and Research at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University. Dr. Davies is a national expert on dual-academic career couples.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Yvonne Lefort

I’m quoted in an article in Human Resource Executive magazine

Share

Last year I was interviewed by a journalist from Human Resource Executive, a national trade magazine with a distribution to over 200,000 readers. The article “Coming to America” discusses what employers are doing to assist international spouses. I am quoted for my work with international spouses at UC Berkeley.

You can read the full article here. My comments are in the sidebar on page 29.

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2018 Yvonne Lefort

The American School System

Share

Today, while riding on BART, I read the book Understanding American Schools by Anne Copeland and Georgia Bennett. This book helps parents of school-age children understand the American educational system. It provides information about different types of schools, the structure of the school system, the academic curriculum and grades, your role as a parent, and daily customs in the classroom, to name a few of the topics covered.

I found it interesting to read about what American teachers value and to think about how these values carry into adulthood. For example, American teachers (in general) believe that individualism is good and should be taught. They encourage every child to be unique and highly value any sign that a child thinks for him or herself. Children often will be encouraged to express their opinions even if they differ from the teacher’s opinion. American teachers also believe that children should be “well-rounded.” This means that getting good grades is only a part of being a good student. Being “well-rounded” means doing extracurricular activities (non-academic activities, like sports, art, music and community service), being a good friend, and being a happy and friendly person.

So, if you need answers to questions about the American school system from pre-school through high school, I recommend this book.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Yvonne Lefort