Building a community for Yale’s international ‘other halves’

At around noon, a group of 10 to 15 people start streaming into the International Center for Yale Students and Scholars. They come without fail, through rain or shine, Mondays through Fridays. They are predominantly women, of varying ages. Some have children in tow; others carry lunches.

Their only commonality is, in fact, their diversity. Hailing from all over the world, these women and men are the other halves to international scholars and postdoctoral fellows who are pursuing academic engagements at Yale.

They chat, catching up — which is, in fact, the purpose of their visit: a daily English conversation group. What used to be a group of strangers is now a gathering of close friends, thanks to the organization that brought them together, the International Spouses and Partners at Yale (ISPY — pronounced “I-SPY”).

The program was founded in the fall of 2000 by Warrena Wilkinson, a spouse from Vancouver, Canada, who approached the Office of International Students & Scholars (OISS) with the goal of providing more support at Yale for others in a similar situation. What began as one woman’s initiative has since expanded to a community of support and a wealth of resources for spouses and partners new to the country.

To date, ISPY has supported hundreds of spouses and partners through a variety of special interest groups and communication vehicles. The groups themselves are as diverse as the volunteer spouses and partners that run them, ranging from Baby Signing (American Sign Language) groups to Chinese Calligraphy. The volunteer-led conversation groups organized by OISS are some of the most popular with ISPY members, as they allow the non-native English speakers to practice the language of their new adopted country as well as facilitate building a strong community among its participants.

The OISS serves as both direct points of contact for programming support and information for over 4,000 international students and scholars, as well as their families, who represent more than 110 countries. The office offers resources on immigration and personal matters to help internationals settle in to life in the United States. At the beginning of each semester, the office hosts an ISPY orientation for new spouse and partner arrivals, introducing them to relevant Yale facilities (the OISS, dining halls, libraries, etc.) as well as local eateries and institutions around New Haven. For the rest of the year, the office offers support in terms of venue space at the International Center, publicity, and hosting other regularly scheduled events for the various interest groups, depending on their needs.

The main purpose of the ISPY program, according to Amanda Eckler, assistant director for programs, is to build connections between the partners and spouses, “to help them settle in, support each other, and access resources here at Yale and in New Haven.” She points out that the ISPY program fulfils the biggest need for this particular target group: that of mutual support. “Spouses look to ISPY for support while undergoing a shared experience, where they may have different linguistic proficiencies and their spouses and partners may be absent working full time on their schoolwork or research.”

To this end, the OISS is seeing a growing trend of American spouses joining the ISPY program. “They’re going through the same kind of struggles,” says Eckler, “trying to meet people and find their own community.” While the OISS handles the more administrative and logistical things for an international student or scholar’s arrival, their partners and spouses are often the driving forces for planning social events in the household. The support from ISPY extends to their everyday lives and, notes Eckler, is “more [concerned with] their own well-being while they’re here [at Yale].”

Audrey Campos, an active member of the program, agrees that the community building and support network is ISPY’s biggest asset. Having moved here from France to join her husband, a postdoctoral researcher in microbiology, she started out in the English conversation group as a way to practice the language. She so enjoyed the company and support of others who were also picking up English that she joined more interest groups. She now has taken on the role of helping to organize the orientation, and spearheaded two successful events last year: an excursion to a hockey game and a clothing swap.

It was through ISPY that Campos learned of volunteer opportunities in the community. After taking an English class in New Haven, she started volunteering at New Haven Reads, tutoring children in English. “Even if you can work, sometimes you can’t find work, so it’s good to help out the community [in that free time],” notes Campos, who says she also enjoys the time spent working for the OISS. “The first time I worked here for [ISPY], I loved it. I enjoyed the organizing and meeting other people.”

It’s fairly easy to start an interest group through ISPY, Eckler explains. If you have an activity or interest you would like to share with others through a structured group setting, you simply email oiss@yale.edu, and someone at OISS will work with you to discuss the logistics, offer venues, and help you advertise to the rest of the ISPY email list. Along with other French speakers, Campos started a French conversation group after several in her English conversation group expressed interest in improving their skill in the language. The ISPY activities are a good place for even non-international spouses and partners to be involved, says Campos, noting that the leaders of her English conversation group are mostly volunteers who work for Yale or are from the community.

“Only Yale has a program specifically for spouses and partners of internationals,” says Campos. “The paperwork is always taken care of well, but here, at ISPY, someone will point you to [solutions] for every problem, not just more paperwork.” When asked what the most difficult American experience has been for her so far, Campos responds with a slightly frustrated smile: “The tip! It’s a common topic for our discussion group — we never know how much to tip!”

The ISPY program was founded under a NAFSA grant and receives continual support from the OISS and the McDougal Center for Graduate Life. More information about their events and how to get involved is available on the ISPY website or by sending an email to oiss@yale.edu.