My 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!
Thank you to our contributing expert:
Yvonne Lefort, MA, is a career coach and intercultural trainer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She coaches and teaches classes for individuals in career, life and intercultural transition and also designs and develops programs for universities and organizations. “Creating A Fulfilling Life in America” is a course that she developed to help international spouses and partners gain the skills, knowledge and support they need to rebuild their social and professional lives and regain a sense of their own identity