Working with the Forgotten Half: International Spouses on North CampusSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The University of Michigan is one of the most international universities in the United States. In 1996, one in twelve students enrolled at the University came from somewhere outside of the U.S.. Among graduate students, the proportion of international students is twice as high, more than one in six. Given the fact that long-distance commuting is not generally possible, married graduate students and visiting scholars who come to the University from abroad usually bring their families along with them. Of the nearly 2,000 apartment units that make up North Campus Family Housing, half are leased to international students and scholars, the majority of them from Asia. Although Ann Arbor is more cosmopolitan than many other cities its size, it does not have established communities from different countries. International spouses, more often women than men, who are “transplanted” and often do not have any connections in the University, may have a much harder time adjusting to the new context than their partners who came to study at the University.
The case of Itsumi Koga, a depressed Japanese mother in Farmington Hills charged in the drowning death of her newborn baby, shocked Japanese residents in greater Detroit (for more on this case, see Michael Fetters, “Cultural Clashes :Japanese Patients and U.S. Maternity Care,” in ii, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter 1997). To many Americans, the story may have seemed an isolated and peculiar case—-a foreign woman suffering from postpartum depression failed to save her drowning son. The cultural and social isolation that formed the context of this case, however, is a problem that can be found here on the University Campus. The Koa case provides just one example of what can happen when international residents are cut off from any support network. The isolation that results can put them at risk for depression, child abuse, domestic violence, or even suicide.
The isolation that experienced by many spouses of international students at the University has both cultural and structural causes. Language and cultural differences may act as barriers between these people and the larger university community and may make it difficult for the University to provide services to these families And their roles as spouses and primary caregivers for children can make it all the harder to break through the cultural barriers.
Last summer, I conducted focus groups with international Asian mother as a part of a community outreach project. Most of the participants were newly arrived spouses of international students who would be in the U.S. for just a couple of years. One point of discussion was what these women found most surprising about life in the U.S. . Many women were struck by the large size of American meals, or by the fact that people walk in pouring rain without umbrellas. Other observations were very idiosyncratic. One Japanese mother who had been in the U.S. for three months said: “I heard Americans were supposed to invite new neighbors over for tea, but it never happened to me. I wonder if there is something wrong with how I behave to them.” She continued that she had found out that her neighbors on one side were also foreign nationals, which, for her, explained why they had not invited her over. But she still could not understand why the other neighbors, Americans, had not invited her over for the last three months.
It is not rare for cultural novices to experience a gap between their expectations and the reality of a new place. These expectations are particularly likely to remain unmodified in the case of spouses whose opportunities for interacting with Americans are limited. Such expectations and stereotypes regarding a host culture can have a strong influence on how a person adapts to the new cultural context and on such subsequent outcomes as his or her sense of competence and psychological well-being. This perplexed mother, after all, ended up questioning her own behavior, rather than the accuracy of her expectations about American culture. When such preconceptions remain unmodified they have the potential to lead to feelings of isolation and even depression.
Not all of the problems experienced by spouses of international students arise from cultural isolation. Women who accompany their spouses to the U.S. tend to be more dependent on their husbands than they were in their home countries. They are seen as wives rather than as individuals. They lack jobs, social status, informal support networks, and extended families, all of which were available at home, and their mental and physical health may therefore become vulnerable. They are in the U.S solely because of their husbands‘ research and other study, and they are expected to support their husbands and raise their children rather than to pursue their own interests. Because of the high cost of child care and their non-working visa status, these women are often simply “stuck” in their apartments with their children. Finally, this particular community is also unique in that there is a very rapid turnover of residents compared to the other communities of foreign nationals, and this transience makes it difficult to foster a sense of cohesiveness and continuity.
The North Campus Outreach Project (NCOP) is a community outreach program for spouses and families of international Asian students and scholars living on North Campus, which began in the summer of 1996. The goal of NCOP is to help residents create and strengthen various support networks in their community, and to develop new services to meet their needs. Although, at present, NCOP provides services only to families of Asian students, organizers hope that eventually they will have the resources to serve families other international students as well.
NCOP started its work in the summer of 1996, by conducting focus groups for Asian women to explore the needs of what has been seen as a “hard-to-reach” population. Currently, there are several sub-projects underway: creating a web page which contains practical information written in Asian languages; organizing parenting seminars and social gatherings where people with similar needs can meet and form informal networks; and building collaborative relationships with existing university subdivisions to support its population more effectively. One idea under development is an interdisciplinary student internship program, in collaboration with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) and, possibly, the International Center.
NCOP has developed a number of outreach methods in order to involve spouses of international students. These methods include visiting English conversation classes, organized by Family Housing, in order to meet international spouses and to publicize programs, and posting flyers for events in accessible places, such as dumpsites, bus stops, and the community center at North Campus Family Housing. Second, NCOP organizers have provided services in the languages and cultural contexts of international spouses. For example, NCOP has provided names of potential baby-sitters among students in the Asian Languages and Cultures Department, so that parents can find baby-sitters who speak their languages and understand their cultures better than people they might find in the classified advertisements in a local newspaper.
This summer NCOP, with funding from the Japanese Business Society of Detroit, will conduct a comprehensive needs assessment for North Campus international Asian spouses. Collaborating in this project and conducting the interviews will be a group of international spouses who are themselves residents in this community and speakers of major Asian languages (Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and possibly Malay and Hindi). Focus groups with these collaborators will help to develop the survey questionnaire used in the needs assessment study. Thus the questions posed to international spouses will come from people who are part of the community. The collaborators will then use this questionnaire to conduct survey interviews. The needs assessment will be a form of “participatory/action research”, which enables interviewees and interviewers to meet each other and potentially create informal networks. For interviewees, the assessment will provide a chance to express their concerns and to vent their feelings to women in a similar situation who may have a better understanding of what they are saying than would people from outside the community. In sum, the idea behind this participatory/action research is to bring about change in the community by creating systematic opportunities for residents to meet with each other, while also gathering data for future service provision.
NCOP began with summer financial support from the School of Social Work and Department of Psychology. The service provision component is currently supported by CAPS in conjunction with the Family Housing Office, both of which have been concerned about the well-being of international families. Lorraine Gutierrez, associate professor of Social Work and Psychology, and Tom Morson, a senior counselor at CAPS, act as the direct supervisors to the organizer. Other members of the advisory board include Su-Fen Lin, director of Children‘s Services in Family Housing; Mieko Yoshihama, assistant professor of Social Work; and Sarah Heuser and Lisa Colarossi from SAPAC. Several undergraduate students from different Asian countries have helped with translating and with developing ideas for effective services.
NCOP has received encouragement from many students and faculty members in the School of Social Work who are interested in international social work. The growing interest in international social work was heightened in November, 1996, when Social Work International, a student group, held a two-day conference, International Social Work: Building an Understanding of the Global Community. This event was the first international social work conference at the University, and attracted over 100 participants. Conference organizers received support from the International Institute, the School of Social Work, the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives, and the Michigan Student Assembly. The North Campus Outreach Project is one example of international social work practice in our own backyard, and has the potential to generate a model for greater internationalization of the University at large.
Izumi Sakamoto has a master‘s degree in Social Work, and is a doctoral student in the joint program in Social Work and Psychology. In 1996 she initiated the North Campus Outreach Project for international Asian spouses, which she continues to coordinate.