Building Support for International Spouses
By Amalia Safran ’13
Lehigh University’s International Spouses Support Network started just three years ago, but it has grown into a powerful resource and friendship-building program for the spouses of international students who come to Lehigh.
It all stemmed from university staff members meeting families through their departments or the ESL program and realizing that these families were slightly isolated. Because the families live in Saucon Village, several miles from the Asa Packer Campus, they are often unaware of what is going on at Lehigh.
By developing a program that lets international families meet one another and learn about campus events, the international spouses have been able to network with one another. These women can share information and form bonds despite their different backgrounds.
When first coming to campus, the women felt like they couldn’t participate in activities because they aren’t students, but through the network, they soon realized that they are also a part of the Lehigh community.
The group takes part in various activities around campus that allow them to be more involved. Just recently, three of the women participated in the V-Day Monologues. Events like the International Bazaar, a Halloween party in Saucon Village and a Thanksgiving lunch are just a few of the programs they participate in.
Diana Guerreno came with her husband three years ago from Colombia. Lehigh was a clear choice for them when a professor at Diana’s university told her about the school. Diana had no idea she would end up moving to the United States just one year after marrying her husband. But what was most shocking for her was that she was not alone.
“I thought I would be the rare case,” Diana says. “I never thought so many spouses would come to accompany their husbands. I never thought there would be that many people.”
The International Spouses Support Network gave Diana a place to make friends, do activities and share valuable information about life in America. Coming to the United States from a foreign country has some difficulties. From language barriers to work visas, it’s a complicated process that Diana had to research.
By meeting other spouses and exchanging information on things like what English classes to enroll in or what jobs to look for, Diana felt less alone throughout the process. Her hope for other spouses is to join the network and be able to enjoy their time in the United States right from the start because they will have people giving them advice.
Diana enjoys the opportunity to hear about different cultures through organized discussions the network puts together. The discussions empower the women and help them connect with one another. They often listen to music and sing, or share special moments.
Shahijaa Bhattarai came with her husband from Nepal. She was studying for her master’s degree when her husband was accepted to Lehigh.
“I was happy for him, but I was a little bit worried about my education,” Shahijaa says.
When Shahijaa first came to the States she was expecting tall buildings, abundant amounts of stores and people everywhere. But once she got to Bethlehem, she couldn’t believe it was the same United States she had always heard about.
After settling in, Shahijaa began studying for the GRE to pursue her own graduate education. She eventually applied to Lehigh and got accepted. The Spouses Network has been a great way for Shahijaa to make connections at Lehigh.
“I met lots of spouses. I really love it and it’s special for me,” she says. One of Shahijaa’s favorite aspects of the network is that she can participate in the International Bazaar and dance, which she loves.
“Here I am not alone,” she says.
Cecilia Lesomar’s husband, a Fulbright Fellow, came to Lehigh from Indonesia three years ago. After he was here for two years, Cecilia joined him.
“I was very uncomfortable because I didn’t know anyone,” she says.
Flying in to New York City, Cecilia expected all of the United States to look the same. Skyscrapers and busy streets were not what she saw when she came to Bethlehem though. She was shocked by the area and struggled with the language barrier. Cecilia was able to meet other spouses at an ice cream social and started to form friendships with other women here.
“Now, I get along with the community,” she says. Cecilia is now taking English classes, working on her TOEFL score in order to apply to Lehigh and holding a job. Cecilia says, “The U.S. is the capital of opportunity.”
In 2011, Sumita Kolay’s husband came to Lehigh as a Ph.D. student in the civil engineering department. In India, Sumita received a master’s of arts in Bengali culture. Upon moving to the United States, she couldn’t understand any English. She started taking English classes and is working to improve her language skills while meeting with other spouses from around the world.
“People are so helpful,” she says. During her time at Lehigh, Sumita also wants to pursue her interests in learning about different cultures
Iryna Levytska, from Ukraine, was traveling around the United States when she met her husband. After he spent the summer of 2007 at Lehigh as a part of the Global Village program, he decided to come back to get his MBA and work in a business development center.
“I was lucky because I met Diana almost the first week I moved here because her husband studies with my husband,” she says.
Iryna has been in Bethlehem for a year and a half now. She has been learning English, taking online classes and participating in a customer service program. She has also been involved in the community and really enjoys the opportunities she receives from the International Spouses Support Network, like the opportunity to be in the V-Day productions.
Anna Serrano and her husband met in Barcelona and started dating. Soon, he told her that he would have to go to the United States for work. She agreed to go with him, and said, “It’s the country of opportunities, so perhaps we’ll have opportunities there.”
For visa purposes, the two had to “run and marry” in May so it would be easier for Anna to come to the States. She arranged with her job to end in November, and in December, she joined her husband in the United States.
“I’m happy to have found this group after only two months of being here because you feel alone when you are here,” Anna says.
Without friends and family, there is a lack of a social network. After finding the International Spouses Support Network, Anna is comforted by the social backing it can provide her. Her adjustment to living in the states has been smoother because of the network.
“The best place to find some activities and meet people would have to be a university. I was lucky to come here, take some English classes and find this group,” she says.
Shehnaz Shumalia Nilamdeen has been at Lehigh for one year. Her husband did his undergraduate and graduate master’s in engineering at Lehigh and now works in Library and Technology Services (LTS).
Originally from Sri Lanka, Shehnaz grew up in the United Arab Emirates. She has recently discovered the International Spouses Network by connecting with another spouse whose husband plays cricket with her husband.
“I think it’s a great thing to have,” Shehnaz says. “I wasn’t aware of it. I wish I had known sooner because it was quite lonely the first year.”
February 28, 2013