UC Berkeley class seeks to aid expatriate spouses

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.”

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