Making connections: Program helps university spouses adjust

Hasna was new to the United States, new to Davis and newly married. Other than her husband, a UC Davis staff member, the South Asian woman had no family and knew no one in the United States. And she was pregnant with the couple's first child.

But when Hasna, who asked that her real name not be used, faced complications in her pregnancy and a difficult transition to motherhood, she didn't face her problems alone.

Soon after she moved to Davis, Hasna had begun visiting the community's International House, where she found Connections. The volunteer-run program offers support, friendship and an introduction to American life for the spouses, almost always wives, of UC Davis international scholars.

After the birth of Hasna's son, the volunteers devised a schedule for visiting and cooking in her home.

"We set up a support system with a lot of women from Connections," said Lou Ann Vidmar, an International House volunteer. "We were her substitute mothers and sisters."

And with the help of her "second family" Hasna began to feel at home, Vidmar recalled. Although Hasna has moved to San Jose, she and Vidmar, a Vacaville psychologist, remain good friends.

Hasna's story - perhaps more dramatic than others - is just one of many examples of the international fellowship that Connections and its volunteers have doled out over the years.

The group, under various names, has been in existence for about 45 years in Davis, ever since the university began attracting international students and faculty. Other foreign visitors living in town are also welcome to join the group.

"(Hasna's tale) is not an unusual story. She had an unusual pregnancy," Vidmar said. "But it's a good example of culture shock. The women are trying to adjust to new lives."

Connections volunteers and International House staff literally connect the women - who, unlike their university-affiliated husbands do not have a formal colleague base - to the Davis community.

"I went to Chile as a (faculty) wife, and I would have given my eyeteeth for a way to get integrated into Chilean society," said Julia Hunter-Blair, the International House's office manager and visitor coordinator. "My husband was as happy as a clam."

During informal meetings of Connections and chats on the phone, Vidmar and her fellow volunteers dispense information on everything from where to get maternity clothes, how to find a good doctor and groceries. They teach crafts such as quilting, and encourage dialogue between visitors from different cultures.

"The ladies are extremely friendly. They make you feel very welcome," said Barbara Shebloski, a native of the Czech Republic and a regular attendee of Connections meetings. "They boost your self-esteem."

Connections members gather for cookies and company each Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning at the International House. In the summer, their children often accompany them, forming their own small groups.

At the gatherings, Kaori Fukushima enjoys the companionship of fellow visitors from Japan, her native country, as well as that of the volunteers.

Among her Japanese friends, Fukushima, who is married to visiting immunologist Nobuyoshi Fukushima, discusses where to find favorite foods from her native country.

"We talk about what restaurants are good," she said. "It's important to exchange information."

But she also appreciates the motherly guidance from Connections volunteers. "I'm having a baby," said Fukushima, who is due in October. "They are telling me what stores to go to (for clothes)."

Kaoru Sakai, a pianist in Japan, has sought advice on English classes for herself and summer camps for her children, Mone, 3, and Lisa, 6. "I have many questions about life in Davis," said Sakai, who came to town in May with her husband, Kenshi, a visiting professor of biological and agricultural engineering.

Kenshi Sakai, too, is glad his wife has Connections. He knows Davis. Twelve years ago he worked on campus as an engineer. But Kaoru Sakai came to Davis knowing no one.

"It's not only the information she gets," Kenshi Sakai said, "but it's the chance to communicate with someone other than me and family members. That's very important."

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Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,

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