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


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.


I will be speaking at 2 national conferences in March


On March 16, I will be presenting at The National Postdoctoral Association‘s annual conference in San Francisco. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) is a member-driven organization that provides a voice for postdoctoral scholars and aims to enhance the quality of the postdoctoral experience in the U.S. I will be presenting on the work that I am doing at UC Berkeley to support international spouses of postdocs, visiting scholars, researchers and graduate students. Specifically, I will talking about the 10-week long course that I developed and teach called “Creating a Fulfilling Life in America.” I will be co-presenting with Sam Castaneda, director of the Visiting Scholar and Postdoctoral Affairs Office at UC Berkeley. Here’s a link to the description of my presentation

On March 30, I will be presenting at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in Washington, D.C.
FIGT has, for over ten years, led the worldwide community in empowering families and those who serve them in global transition. FIGT is the premier advocate and educational resource for families, organizations and service providers. They build their global community by bringing together corporate, diplomatic, academic, the arts, military, missionary, and NGO sectors to share and develop leading edge research and concepts that address international relocation issues. I will be co-presenting with Gwyn Dukes from Stanford University and Jennifer Recklet Tasi from MIT on the topic: Supporting International Spouses at American Universities: 3 Models. Here’s a link to a description of the presentation. 

Stop by and introduce yourself if you’re at one of these conferences! 

UC Berkeley class seeks to aid expatriate spouses


From the UC Berkeley student newspaper, The Daily Californian:

UC Berkeley class seeks to aid expatriate spouses

By Sarah Rosen | Staff

Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 6:14 pm
Updated Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 10:17 pm

A new class at UC Berkeley seeks to help spouses of international students, postdoctoral scholars and researchers more easily transition into American life.The class, called “Creating a Fulfilling Life in America,” came to campus in May and aids expatriate spouses as they transition to living in the United States. Furthermore, the class seeks to help spouses rebuild their sense of identity in this country, according to Yvonne Lefort, a career counselor and instructor for the course.

The 90-minute class is six weeks long and covers everything from managing culture shock and stress to creating a social life. According to Lefort, inspiration for the class came last fall after she thought about how a program on campus could be helpful in supporting expatriate spouses.“I think that the most helpful thing for spouses is to know that they are not alone — that the problems they face after coming to the United States are shared by other people in the same situation,” Lefort said in an email.

Explaining that the class also benefits the person working on campus, Lefort added that when the spouse is happy, a lot of pressure is taken off the worker, who can then concentrate on work without worrying about the family.

Lefort said she is hopeful that the course will be offered this fall and that it will expand so that someday there will be an international center for families on campus, but that it is not her decision. The decision to continue is left to Sam Castaneda, director of Visiting Scholar and Postdoctoral Affairs.

Aside from this class on campus, other groups in the area have been created to help the contingency of expatriate spouses.

German expatriate spouse Dorothee Constanze Unger-Lee founded the international spouses group Berkeley Wives just after leaving Germany in March of 2011 with her husband — a doctoral student of history on campus. The group is composed of spouses of UC Berkeley employees and students.

“(I) was looking for a spouse program or club for foreign wives who are accompanying their significant others studying or researching at UC Berkeley,” Unger-Lee said in an email. “During my search, I got in touch with the Stanford Wives who run a cool blog about life as a wife moving to the Bay Area. Unfortunately, I could not find such a website, club or program at UC Berkeley.”

After receiving a great amount of support for her idea to start the group, she founded Berkeley Wives, following the Stanford Wives example. She said in the email that several of the people who attend the group’s monthly “Happy Hour” have taken Lefort’s class.

“Starting your life over in a new place is hard,” Unger-Lee said in the email. “You have to find your way around a new town, make new friends, find a job — when you are authorized to work — or find something to do, if you are not authorized to work. Many women feel isolated and find it challenging to create a new social life. This is where the Berkeley Wives kick in.”

Berkeley Wives member Gabriela Garcia-Escobar took Lefort’s class after moving from Chile last July with her husband, who is studying for his masters degree in information management and systems at UC Berkeley.

Garcia-Escobar said in an email that the class helped her realize that feelings of isolation and loneliness are normal.

“Attending the class made me feel more confident with my self, not feeling sad or insecure about all the mix of emotions that I was feeling,” she said in the email. “(Since joining Berkeley Wives,) I have more independence from my husband, I have my own social life, activities and circle of friends.”

UC Berkeley Turns Its Attention To Researchers’ Spouses


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.



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.

Berkeley program aids expat spouses lost in translation


From the University of California, Berkeley News Center

Instructor Yvonne Lefort works with expatriate spouses. Photos by Peg Skorpinski

Berkeley program aids expat spouses lost in translation

By Roibín Ó hÉochaidh, NewsCenter | July 19, 2011


Turning the page on the people, places and possessions that anchor the only life you have known, you wave goodbye to family and friends, walk away from your job, bid farewell to your favorite corner café and leave behind most of your worldly belongings to open a whole new chapter as your spouse pursues the opportunity of a lifetime at UC Berkeley.

Yet amid the excitement and adventure of the big move, trailing spouses often can feel like outsiders in the college community as their identity gets lost in translation.

Take Wendy Lukkien, who arrived in Berkeley from the Netherlands with her husband, a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley’s College of Chemistry, eight months ago.

Lukkien struggled to find her feet at first.

Lukkien struggled to find her feet at first.Lukkien struggled to find her feet at first.

Lukkien struggled to find her feet at first. “In the beginning I was becoming more and more isolated, staying in and not doing things unless it was with my husband. I didn’t feel like I was creating enough for myself here,” says Lukkien.

“You’re leaving your whole life behind and you have to start over from scratch, friends, job, everything, and that’s really difficult if your husband is away all day and you’re at home by yourself all the time,” Lukkien says.

A new class titled “Creating a Fulfilling Life in America” aims to ease the transition by helping the spouses of international scholars, postdocs, students and researchers adjust to the translocation, rediscover their sense of identity and build a meaningful new life here.

“The things that created your identity, whether it’s your work, your friends, the organizations you belonged to, that’s all gone, and the question becomes how do you recreate all that and reinvent yourself when you come here,” says career counselor and life coach Yvonne Lefort. “That’s what this class was created to help people do. It’s about overcoming isolation and finding purpose.”

A 1998 University of Montana study of its international scholars found that spouses who remain lonely and do not adjust well often cause a hardship for the scholars, negatively impacting their life and academic work.

“The bottom line is, the university invests a lot of resources in visiting researchers and scholars — time, space, opportunity and even the reputation of the university — and a lot of international assignments fail because the spouse is unhappy,” Lefort says. “In the corporate world it happens all the time and people have to return home because the spouse is unhappy, so we need to have programs to support the spouses.”


With Lefort focused on building connections and developing skills, the six-week course covers a range of topics from managing transitions and culture shock to developing strategies for meeting Americans and creating a social life. Participants also learn about coping with stress, finding balance in one’s life and nurturing their interests and skills through volunteering.

VSPA course helped Yu build new life.

“The class opened the door to a lot of options and resources and helps you understand how things work and how to get started in a new country. I’ve seen a change in myself and my outlook where I’m more positive and more outgoing,” says Bin Yu, who is from China. Yu’s wife is working in molecular and cell biology.

“It helped me realize that I’m not the only one in this situation — I’m not alone — and that’s most important,” Yu says. “I started volunteering several weeks ago and I’m excited to be opening a new chapter in my life in a new place with people from many different countries.”

Isolation, coupled with cultural alienation and disruption in the core sense of identity can lead to frustration, loneliness and depression, and the final session included a presentation by University Health Services about the confidential psychological services offered to international spouses at the Tang Center.

“Strange food, culture, language, visa issues, transport, health care, the list just goes on and on. And not having family and friends, not having a social support system, while your spouse is working 80 hours per week, it’s easy to see how anyone could struggle initially,” says Sam Castañeda, program director at Berkeley’s Visiting Scholars and Postdoc Affairs program, which organized the course.

Rounding out each 90-minute class session, an hourlong catered lunch allows participants to mingle and share experiences with classmates outside the learning environment.

“Giving it a little touch of the personal by providing lunch just complements the whole effort,” Castañeda says.

Some 35 expatriate spouses from 20 countries across three continents signed up when VSPA circulated an email announcing the course. VSPA used English-language proficiency to whittle down the pool of applicants to 25 and funded the new class through its existing program budget.

“When Yvonne Lefort contacted me with the idea of putting together something for international spouses, I could just sense it was going to work because she had the experience, energy and passion,” Castañeda says. “In the end, it’s been a real winner.”

On the back of its success, “Creating a Fulfilling Life in America” is tentatively scheduled to be offered again in the fall as part of a broader campus effort to centralize support services and resources for the families of international scholars, graduate students and researchers.


A number of universities across the United States provide dedicated programming to address the needs of international spouses: language and conversation courses, workshops, personal and professional development services, recreation and wellness classes, support, and discussion groups, social activities and tours.

“At Berkeley, it seemed like different departments were doing different things, Graduate Division is doing a little something, University Village is doing something, but it really wasn’t developed as a structured, coordinated program and one hand didn’t know what the other was doing,” Lefort says.

Last semester, the campus’s international community included about 1,900 graduate students, 1,500 postdoctoral fellows, 1,400 visiting scholars and 500 visiting student researchers — with the majority married or partnered.

“Our mission is to provide a robust environment, not only academically, but socially, and spousal support is certainly part of that,” Castañeda says. “Really, this is about paying more attention to a population that doesn’t feature prominently on anybody’s radar.”

Castaneda’s office is well placed to fill that void. One of the first postdoctoral offices in the nation, Berkeley’s VSPA program has more than 15 years of experience providing services to international scholars and researchers.

VSPA already provides four sections of English-language courses for its population of international scholars. Offered through a private contractor at the Berkeley Language Center, the ESL classes are open to expatriate spouses.

In 2006, VSPA collaborated with the University Village’s Family Housing program and Human Resource’s CALS Project to provide similar programming support for other campus populations. “America 101: Life in the U.S.A.,” which targets foreign-born scholars and campus service workers, continues to help individuals navigate American cultural practices and habits, including colloquial speech, personal greetings, restaurant protocol, telephone conversations and appropriate job-interview behavior.

In 2009, VSPA introduced “Pronouncing American English,” a six-week class that employs the services of a trained speech pathologist to help international scholars enhance their ability to communicate in academic and professional situations. Offered twice per semester with the cost covered by client fees, the evening class is also open to expatriate spouses.

“Of course, a number of other units already do some of this stuff, so I see VSPA taking on the role of coordinator because the services are scattered and nobody has charge of taking care of this community,” Castañeda says.


Having identified a need for services, organization and coordination, VSPA established a steering committee — bringing together decision-makers at the Berkeley International Office, CALcierge, Graduate Student Services, International House, University Health Services and University Village — and is working closely with key stakeholders to gather together what each individual unit can contribute as they develop a master plan.

“The fact that all these people were in the same room for the first time learning that we were all kind of doing a little bit, there was real excitement that this population could be well served without a lot of additional work just by having someone to push things forward and make sure we got things done… and that’s my job,” Castañeda says.

In addition, Castañeda is hopeful he can persuade the Career Center to provide support services to expatriate spouses and take on a group that is technically outside its client base.

“This collaboration will ensure that collectively, we’re not reinventing the wheel, but are more focused on bringing together and building on what we’re all doing already,” Castañeda says.

Beyond cultural, practical, language and wellness programming, Castañeda ‘s office is also exploring the feasibility of a variety of other activities and events, including monthly tours to regional attractions such as the Napa Valley, to foster community-building and participation among international spouses.

In a similarly social vein, the Berkeley International Office, which provides advice, immigration services, programming and workshops for international scholars, will offer a series of tea-and-talk sessions this fall on topics of interest to international scholars and their spouses.

“Some women have lived here for years and never met an American,” says German expatriate spouse Dorothee Constanze Unger-Lee, whose husband is a graduate student in the history department. Unger-Lee recently launched the Berkeley Wives website in an effort to bridge the gaps in community among international spouses. (Despite its moniker, husbands are welcome.)

Looking to the future, Lefort sees a great opportunity to develop a program in which spouses can use their skills and abilities to create the support services that would best meet their needs — a program that engages the broader community, creates connections with corporations and does not cost the university anything.

“I see this evolving, and I’m holding this vision for an international center for families from other countries — a space where people can come and have all kinds of activities and events,” Lefort says.

Seeing the success of Lefort’s class and other initiatives as concrete confirmation of the need to do more, Castañeda agrees.

“It’s kind of a piece-by-piece thing that we’ve done across many areas and now we’re trying to expand our efforts,” Castañeda says. “Hopefully we can gain some momentum now moving forward.

“Princeton does it, Stanford does it, all our peers do it — well, we can do it too,” he adds.