Iowa's invisible wives

Spouses of international students and scholars without work, friends, purpose

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March 29, 2014 | 12:20 am

Anna Kolpakova stands by her kitchen counter in Iowa City, dumping flour from a coffee mug into a mixing bowl. She consults a laptop atop the microwave oven where the cake recipe passed down from her mother – in Slovak – is displayed, then refills the mug, this time with sugar, which goes into the bowl as well.

Kolpakova is making a cup cake, with a cup of flour, a cup of sugar and a cup of vegetable oil. In Slovakia, her home country, flour is measured in grams instead of ounces and cups. A physicist, she doesn’t like converting measurement units, so she measures with her eyes and experience.

Kolpakova, 28, has turned baking into a hobby since she moved to Iowa City in June with her Czech husband David Pisa, who is completing postdoctoral research in physics at the University of Iowa. She spends at least one afternoon a week making cakes, having started baking “just for fun” and to alleviate boredom, she said.

The boredom comes with her status as the dependent of a visiting scholar, and other temporary Iowans at the state’s public universities are dealing the same problem.

They either cannot work or have to apply for government permission to work, which costs money. Some put advanced studies on hold to follow a spouse to Iowa. Many do not have connections that result in meaningful relationships with others.

Dependent wives of international students and scholars generally lack a support system and feel marginalized, with economic strains often accentuating the tensions, Yalem Teshome, an Iowa State University adjunct assistant professor of anthropology, said.

“You don’t have the cultural capital, social capital, social connections and you don’t have the income if you don’t have a wealthy family who can potentially support you,” Teshome said. Teshome is originally from Ethiopia. She began studying the experiences of wives of international students in the United States as a dissertation topic at ISU.

VISA REGULATIONS DICTATE SPOUSE’S OPTIONS

As an exchange scholar, Pisa has a J-1 visa, and as his dependent Kolpakova holds a J-2 visa, which requires that she have a work permit from the U.S. government in order to seek employment.

The situation is even more restrictive for spouses of students enrolled in degree programs. International students have F-1 visas and their dependents, holding F-2 visas, are prohibited from either working or pursuing academic degrees, according to the Title 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

The primary federal statute dealing with immigration is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. But finding the origin of the restrictions is not as easy as reading the law.

For example, the J and F programs are administered by two different parts of the U.S. government. The J visa classification for visiting foreign students and scholars is administered by the Department of State, while the Department of Homeland Security deals with students and their dependents in the F visa classification.

“I think that’s just something that no one knows at this point of time why it was created like that,” Lee Seedorff, a senior associate director of the UI’s International Student and Scholar Services said. “It could just be the simple thought that F-2s are just more individuals who could potentially be taking jobs that Americans would be completing for.”

Teshome said laws restricting spouses of international students might arise from the assumption that wives not only would have children to take care of but that these women were uneducated and unaspiring to have outside job opportunities.

Michael Bortscheller, a senior advisor of the UI’s International Student and Scholar Services, said 752 F-2 and J-2 dependents, including both spouses and children, are with 492 students and scholars from 54 different countries are at the University of Iowa.

Deborah Vance, associate director of the International Students and Scholars Office at Iowa State University, said 208 F-2 and J-2 spouses are with their husbands or wives studying at ISU. The University of Northern Iowa has 39 F-2 spouses, according to Immigration and Visa Coordinator Ross Schupbach.

On each campus, most of the dependent spouses are women.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, spouses in J-2 status may work if they get an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Kolpakova applied for her EAD in September, paying a $380 fee. “Like everything in America, it takes three months to get the paperwork through,” she said.

Kolpakova and Pisa had dated for six years when they married in May, prompted by the Iowa post-doc offer. Becoming his wife – a legal dependent – meant she could accompany him to the United States. “So when he got the opportunity (in Iowa), it kind of pushed him to propose to me,” she said.

Other women who had accompanied their husbands abroad told her the wives stay home all day and don’t have local friends. She didn’t relish that scenario so the couple decided to come to Iowa for only one year.

“I told him half a year is fine, one year is fine, but three years is a long time, because I don’t want to sit home three years and to just be a housewife,” she said.

Kolpakova attends a free English classes at places like Kirkwood Community College, the Iowa City International Women’s Club and Iowa City Public Library during the week. But making friends with other international spouses is difficult, she said, because women her age in similar situations usually have children and are too busy to get together with her.

Even in the women’s club, she feels isolated because women from China, Japan, Korea and Mexico stay within their own groups during coffee breaks, speaking languages she doesn’t understand.

Making friends with Americans is even harder, she said, finding most Americans friendly but seldom going beyond polite niceties. Kolpakova repeated a conversation with people at a local church that she says is typical:

“Where are you from?”

“We’re from Czech Republic and Slovakia.”

“Oh, it’s nice. My grandmother/mother of my grandmother was from Czechoslovakia. I can say in Czech ‘How are you?’

“And that’s it,” Kolpakova said.

Kolpakova said she hopes working moves her out of the margins of Iowa City life.

PUTTING A CAREER ON HOLD

Patricia Leon, 45, a native of Columbia, is trying to leave the margins of Iowa City life, too, but is on an even more restricted F-2 visa. She is a dependent of her graduate student husband Gonzalo Pinilla, with no prospect of legal employment.

An accomplished photographer and college instructor in Columbia, Leon said she made the biggest decision of her life last year when she agreed to travel to the United States with Pinilla and their 8-year-old son Santiago. Leaving their small hometown near Columbia’s capital Bogotá, they also left behind relatives, friends, careers and the house Gonzalo built himself on a mountainside.

Her husband’s pursuit of an M.F.A in printmaking at the UI is a dream opportunity, she said. “We have few opportunities in our country. We are artists, we don’t have resources we need there,” she said.

The couple also hoped that their son would become more proficient in English and receive a better education in the United States.

F-2 visa holders cannot seek a degree or study full-time but can take casual classes unrelated to their degrees or professions at home. But rules recently proposed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would let dependents of F-1 foreign students study in their chosen field as long as they are not full-time students.

SEEKING STATUS AS A STUDENT

Yike Li, 25, missed accepting her master’s degree in finance at a June commencement. She was in transit to Iowa City from her home city of Chongqing, China, with her husband Jiajia Li, who was pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at the UI.

Sitting in the main library on the UI campus, the young woman wearing a pair of black Dr. Martens 1460 combat boots looks no different than any college student around her. In fact, she hopes to become one soon. She is preparing for the GRE test, hoping to get into graduate school at the UI, although she hasn’t yet determined a program.

Li said she sometimes regrets coming to the U.S. rather than settling into a job in China. “My friends in China are all at work. I know that I won’t feel good if I go back because they’d be at a higher point. But I’d have to start from scratch,” she said.

ISU’s Teshome said U.S. colleges and universities have become increasingly reliant on international students for enrollments, without corresponding changes in policy and law.

In the 2012-13 academic year, a record high number of 819,644 international students and scholars on U.S. campuses contributed an estimated $24.7 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the 2013 Open Doors Report released by the Institute of International Education.

Teshome said accompanying wives in particular deserve better conditions, including access to educational and professional opportunities.

“Students have become more and more selective on where they want to go, what kind of degree they want,” she said. “So that eventually will become an issue that the couple will ask: What kind of support system, what kind of opportunity exists for my partner when we go if we wait long enough?”

* * *

Anna Kolpakvoa sent an e-mail early in November that began with “Juhuuuu!!!” – the Slovak equivalent of “Yayyyyy!!!” Her U.S. government work permit had arrived in her mailbox.

As she crafts her personal statement, draws up references and prepares for job interviews, her husband and his colleagues continue to eat her cupcakes. As long as she has the time, she’s carrying on with the hobby that has become a routine of her American life.

Lu Shen is a journalism and mass communication student at the University of Iowa. This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news Website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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