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Landing a Job during the Pandemic: Gabriela’s Story

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Gabriela is an international accompanying spouse from Argentina. She came to the United States a few years ago with her husband, a postdoc at an American university. In Argentina, she worked as an online marketing specialist. She is now an Account Executive at an American company, helping them expand their footprint in Latin America.

I interviewed Gabriela about her job search during the pandemic. Here’s her story.

Tell me about your process of finding work in the U.S. What were your main challenges?

My main challenge was not having a network. You don’t know anyone, and nobody knows you and how you work.

Another challenge was that even though I work in an industry that is known worldwide, the main topics in an industry are different from region to region. Things that I thought were “hot” topics in my home country are different from what companies or advertisers think are important here. So, you need to understand and update the hot topics for your profession in the region or city you want to work.

Lastly, a challenge for me was learning how to sell myself. How you engage in an interview here is culturally really different compared to in Argentina.

How did you overcome these challenges?

I studied for a one-year certification in marketing at a university extension program. It was great because you can meet other people who are facing the same challenges you’re facing, so you have a community. It also helps you make new friends in the area. In addition, you get practice in public speaking and meet professors who can give you a recommendation for your LinkedIn profile and advise you on how things are going in the industry.

I also took workshops on “How to Write an American Resume” and “How to Toot Your Own Horn” and went to a few meetups on resume-writing.

Another very valuable resource was joining Facebook groups for women professionals in my industry. Women are very supportive to each other no matter where you are. You can send your resume to someone and they can give you feedback for free. They can tell you what the main challenges are in your industry, which companies are hiring, share contacts, tell you where to go to find more news or information. It’s a very open environment with people who understand your profession.

What job search strategies did you use?

I used LinkedIn and other listings such as Glassdoor and Indeed. LinkedIn was the best and most reliable source. You can get good information about the company, see trends and find out if the company is growing. I checked a company’s reputation on Glassdoor. It’s important to apply to jobs that are a good match for your background and experience. I applied to many jobs. It took me about 2.5 months to get an offer, which I got in May. I now work for a mobile marketing company, doing business development and account management for their Latin American territory.

How was the interview process? What questions did you find the most difficult?

The process took a month. I had three screening calls and later with four virtual interviews in a row with different people. I prepared a “pitch,” which is common here but not as common in Argentina.

“Tell me about yourself “was the most difficult question. What did people want me to say? Should I talk about my resume, my hobbies? I was tempted to start with explaining that I’m from Argentina but decided it’s not the best place to start. Your nationality is not the only thing that defines you so don’t start at the beginning with this topic. You need to know how to sell yourself besides talking about your nationality.

Some people might think that not having American work experience is a drawback. I turned not being from here, or not having experience here, into a valuable and unique asset. I included part of my personal experience in my cover letter. In addition to talking about my previous experience, I explained in the last paragraph that I’m from Argentina and that I’m multicultural. I talked about how my experience working in emerging markets could have value. I explained that I’m unique because I can work in different environments, and that I can add diversity and a different perspective.

I think that deciding to leave a great job in Argentina and having another life experience is a risk that not everyone is willing to take. This is a valuable skill. It showed that I’m willing to take risks and step outside my comfort zone.

It’s also important to recognize your limitations. It’s obvious I’m not American. I can’t fake that. You’re not going to hire me because I’m American. If you’re looking for that, you’re not my company. But if you really want someone different who can offer a different value, maybe I can give you things that you don’t have now.

Is there anything that you wish you had known at the beginning of your job search that you know now?

Yes. Don’t say “we did.” Say “I did.”

Be patient. It’s going to take time. Don’t worry about rejections. It’s not about you. There are many great people here applying to jobs. Be resilient. Keep learning. There’s a place for everyone. Keep going!

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Starting Life Over Again in a Foreign Country

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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

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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

 

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Moving Through Transition

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[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!

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Breaking into a new chapter of my life!

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[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ello Berkeley, my new home. What are you up to? Do you want to be my friend? I see you are confused. Let me introduce myself. My name is Marie and I am from the Czech Republic. Please, do not ask me what I’m doing here, because right now my answer would be that I am accompanying my husband who is a Physics grad student at UC Berkeley. I know what you’re thinking, “another wife coming into the city looking to find her own identity in the USA while her husband is pursuing his career.”
Well, you are right.

Marie explores Berkeley in Vatsala Shrivastava’s cooking class.
Photo credit: Maki Nishizaka

I have to say that I have been warmly welcomed by you and I hope we become friends. What do I mean by that? I know this might have different meanings for both of us. Let me explain it. I want us to get to know each other better, explore and enjoy each other, and maybe share a strong bond between us.

At this point you do not know anything about me and I know very little about you. So, let me take the first step and tell you something about myself.

Back in my home country I had my professional life as a trainee lawyer and I lived with my American husband in a one-bedroom apartment in Prague’s cool neighborhood. We were living a life of newlyweds (I guess that we are still newlyweds since we got married a year ago) and we loved to socialize with our friends. We were planning dinner parties, going out, training for a half marathon and enjoying daily activities. Nevertheless my husband wanted to pursue his career in Physics in the USA. He worked really hard and got accepted to UC Berkeley. We sold our furniture, vacated our cozy apartment and said goodbye to our friends and family. We were both looking forward to opening a new chapter of our life.

Let me be honest. The first few pages of this chapter were “challenging.” Even though you tried to make me feel welcome, I felt lost. I did not know where to go grocery shopping, how to get around or what to do with so much free time. I felt like a little child discovering the world, however, not always in a positive sense. It seemed to me that everything required an extra step and much more time. I used to be very productive back at home and here I felt helpless. I would very often compare everything with what it was like back home and refused to look at you with a pair of different lenses. There were various things in Berkeley that were familiar but different and I could not figure out how to fit in. Feeling frustrated and anxious that was part of my first weeks. It felt like our “honeymoon” phase was very short and the time after became very hard.

Most importantly, there was no one I could share my feelings with. My husband was overwhelmed by his school assignments and I did not have any friends here who would be willing to listen to me and be supportive. I have great friends and family like that back in Czech, however, I did not want to worry them. Overall I was supposed to be happy here and that’s what I would keep telling to everybody. Everything is great, amazing and how incredibly happy I am here. But I was far from feeling that way.

From the day I met my husband I knew that we are coming here. This was a commitment I had chosen and my husband is so important for me that there is no way that I would not be with him wherever he goes. It was our/my choice to come here and they did warn me how difficult it might be. Did I listen to them? Yes, I did but I did not want to accept it.

Even though you are so beautiful and exciting, I was not able to connect with you. I was truly looking forward to meeting you and becoming friends, but after being here I was confused. Happy for being here and lost at the same time. Is it hard to understand my ambiguous feelings? A part of me was still back in the Czech Republic with my family and friends, familiar places and habits. It was not possible to create a fulfilling relationship without that missing part.

One day I had a conference call with my mom and my sister. They asked me how am I doing and instead of telling them that everything is ok I spilled it all out, my frustrations, feelings of losing independence, not knowing who I am anymore. They were patiently listening and tears running down my face as I was speaking. Finally, open up and be able to say it to them felt like a big rock just fell of my heart. The support and love I have received from them was enormous. I realized that even though that my family and friends are not here with me, they will always be here for me and I will always be there for them. I did not lose them or left behind we will carry on our lives and friendship just in a different way. I have also learnt that there is no point in comparing you or my life here to the one I had in the Czech Republic.

Why am I telling you all this, Berkeley? I believe that friends should share their happiness and difficulties. To make the relationship stronger, they should listen and be supportive. I have come to realize that all my previous frustrations were laying the foundation for better understanding and have created the new relationship with you I now enjoy. So, let`s make it last!

To Berkeley with love,
Marie

 

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