By Carla Farias
Kevin: I originally invited Mauro and Carla to both to write about their experience leaving Brazil for Mauro’s education here. Mauro was traveling for a conference, as is common for graduate students, so Carla stepped in. While she is now in graduate school as well, she came here initially as Mauro’s dependent. As challenging as it can be for immigrants, the dependents (spouses and children) of immigrants have an even more challenging time. I’m grateful that Carla could share her experience – sojourners sometimes come with loved ones, who we cannot afford to overlook.
Three years ago my husband and I moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school. It was an unusual decision, since the two of us had well established careers in our home country, Brazil. Mauro got accepted into the Materials Science and Engineering Doctoral Program at Carnegie Mellon University. Even though I had not been accepted to the programs I had applied to, we knew that the best decision for our family was to go, despite all we had to give up back home.
I knew God had a plan for us as a family, especially for me as a wife. So, I moved to a different country for a sabbatical year, where I would re-invent my goals and face new challenges. Being part of the labor force for nearly ten years, a sabbatical year was a big break to my busy schedule and endless working trips.
Adjusting to our new lifestyle was not easy for us. As newcomers to the community, Mauro was consumed day and night by his academic activities, while it was left to me to find a place in the community I could fit into.
Spouses of international graduate students are much more limited by visa restrictions. As F- 2 visa holders (dependents to F-1 visa holders), we are not allowed to study or work full-time. With this status, I felt invisible and completely unproductive to society. I was allowed only to exist. Nothing else.
I was not allowed to have a Social Security number. I was not allowed to rent and sign any utility contracts under my name. Even to get a driver’s license, PennDot had to have verification from USCIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services), since I was also “invisible” to their system.
I recall when we entered the country, the Immigration Agent at the airport going over my visa restrictions and asking me, “What are you going to do, sit at home and watch TV all day?” In the early days of us getting to the US, my sabbatical experience turned out to be different from what I imagined. I could not come up with a reasonable answer that would bring peace to my heart. It hit me that I had given up a home I owned, my senior position at a firm, my friends, my family, and even my dog to “sit at home and watch TV all day”.
I left my country and my professional life to pursue my husband’s dream at CMU, but I found that I could not eliminate the dreams of my own. And so, I started interacting with professors at CMU and got involved in volunteer research work. Then, I applied again for graduate school and was accepted to be a full-time student in the Masters program at CMU, giving me my own student (F-1) visa. Along with that, we experienced our greatest fulfillment as we now have a new addition to our family, our 3-month-old son, Daniel. And so, God transformed my life. He picked me up from the ground and filled every gap in my professional and personal life, in spite of the challenges and limitations I faced.
Because I was once “legally invisible”, I couldn’t just close my eyes to a reality that affected not only me and my household, but also many other spouses of international graduate students. These are women (and men) who are typically well-educated themselves and want to be intellectually challenged. But instead, they end up feeling lonely and lost, just as I did. These spouses look beyond coffee meetings and social gatherings. Like me, they don’t have personalities suited to being locked up at home.
I reached out to other wives here as dependents on F-2 visas and helped them design plans for their stay in the US, helping them to find research opportunities and academic programs at CMU that matched their interest, and to initiate conversations with professors and advisors. We brought up to the University the importance of belonging, and the need to embrace this group of spouses to enable personal and academic growth in the school and wider community.
As I look back on the past three years, having to reshape my life and face the limitations of my immigrant status was not easy. The feeling of being unproductive and intellectually stagnant was cruel to my mind and soul. But on the other hand, it urged me to find new dreams. I found strength and care in our community group, as we got to know the people from City Reformed. Having new friends in our faith, who prayed for and with me calmed the anxieties and uncertainties of my heart, and refreshed my hope in the Lord’s greater plans for my family and me. Maybe the paths taken were not the easiest, but I can see God’s perfect plan being fulfilled in my life. God honors his children and He honored me, and I could not be more thankful for the changes I had in my life and in my family. My experience has made me a more humble, sensitive, thoughtful, and stronger person.
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Matt Koerber is the senior pastor at City Reformed Presbyterian church. This is his personal blog that he also asks guest writers to participate on.