Anna Kolpakova stands by her kitchen counter in Iowa City, dumping flour from a coffee mug into a mixing bowl. She turns to consult 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 others among these 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 to work. 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 herself 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 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.
“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.
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.
“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,” Seedorff said.
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 did not aspiring 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 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 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.
FROM EASTERN EUROPE TO IOWA
Without a timer, Kolpakova checks the cake several times until it is done. Taking it from the oven, she covers it carefully with apple slices preserved in a jelly jar — another time-consuming homemaking skill she probably would not have mastered in the Czech Republic, where she was a third-year doctoral student in physics before journeying to the United States.
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.
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.
“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. So they decided to come to Iowa just for a year.
Along with her new kitchen hobbies, Kolpakova works on her English language skills. On Mondays and Wednesdays she attends a free English class at Kirkwood Community College. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings she attends English classes offered by the Iowa City International Women’s Club (IWC). On Fridays she meets with an English conversation group at the Iowa City Public Library.
But achieving social and intellectual connections is hard. 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. She finds most Americans to be 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 summarized.
Even so, she said she needs to get out of their apartment near downtown Iowa City. But she doesn’t want to spend too much of her husband’s money because he is the only one earning income for the family at the moment. The couple eats out for dinner once a week — their “Friday date.”
In short, Kolpakova feels lonely. Before coming to Iowa City, she expected to make friends with people from all over the world, but the reality turned out far different. “We don’t have friends,” she said with a sigh.
Kolpakova said she hopes working moves her out of the margins of Iowa City life.
Kolpakova’s latest baked creation is cooling, and she anticipates that her husband will have one or two pieces when he gets home from work. He’ll pack up the remainder to take to his colleagues the next day – they are getting used to the constant flow of treats generated by his wife’s new hobby. Kolpakova doesn’t touch the stuff. She doesn’t like sweets.
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, in F-1 status, with no prospect at all of legal employment.
A college photography 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. In 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.” The couple also hoped that their son would become more proficient in English and receive a better education in the United States.
But Leon did not realize she’d be barred from working. After teaching photography for nearly 12 years at a Columbian university, she found herself a stay-at-home mom in Iowa City.
“It make me depressed because I used to work eight hours a day with young people in the university,” said Leon, whose photographs have been exhibited in galleries and cultural centers in Spain, Japan, Italy, Mexico and Columbia. “I feel lonely because my husband is always outside and my son at school.”
Leon said she never complains to Pinilla about her housewife duties – doing laundry, washing dishes and cleaning the apartment. Rather, she is concerned about her husband’s health. Besides his teaching assistantship, he works long hours in housekeeping at the UI Hospitals and Clinics.
Employment restrictions also apply to F-1 students. They can work, but normally only on campus. They need to apply for an employment authorization, but can do so off campus if the job is related to their areas of study.
Leon said her albeit temporary loss of professional identity not only makes her feel lonely at home, but too dependent on her husband.
“I have to ask him for money to shop,” she said. “We used to go traveling or go to cinema in our country. We can’t do it here because we’re trying to save money. We only spend money on things we have to have.”
F-2 visa holders cannot seek a degree or study full-time but can take courses on a recreational or avocational basis, meaning casual classes unrelated to their degrees or professions at home. Rules 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.
Taking casual classes at the UI is not always an option for people like Leon. Although she loved the jewelry and metal arts course she took last year through the UI’s School of Art and Art History, she is not taking more because they are too expensive, she said.
Yet she remains optimistic, seeing this as a gap year. She finally has free time to focus on her own projects and is doing photography in Iowa City, hoping to have new work to exhibit after returning to Columbia.
Leon’s son Santiago, a third grader at Borlaug Elementary School in Coralville, loves American football, but the family can’t afford to pay for a youth league. However, they find diversion in free concerts and free movies on campus, Leon said.
Leon also seeks other opportunities to leave her apartment on Westwinds Drive, on Iowa City’s west side, volunteering for the UI Museum of Art and attending English classes, always carrying her cameras as she explores her new surroundings.
FROM DEPENDENT STATUS TO BEING A STUDENT
Yike Li, 25, did not get to go to her graduate school commencement ceremony to accept her master’s degree in finance in June. She was in transit to Iowa City from her home city of Chongqing, China, joining her husband Jiajia Li, who was pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at the UI.
Sitting in the main library on 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.
Yike Li came to the U.S. with a plan to trade up in the visa ladder, changing from an F-2 dependent to an F-1 full-time student like her husband. She is preparing for the GRE test, hoping to get into graduate school at the UI, although she hasn’t yet determined a program.
She said her husband had warned her that life in Iowa might be boring, and indeed, she found it to be so. She also found herself with unfamiliar burdens.
“I didn’t do any housework while living with my parents, but here I have to do all the housework every day and prepare meals for my husband, and I don’t like it,” she said.
Like Kolpakova and Leon, Li said she lacks friends in Iowa City. She sometimes talks to her American neighbors in student housing, but is hesitant to knock on their door because of language and cultural barriers.
“I’m always afraid that I’d be offensive due to cultural differences,” she said. “Plus, I don’t understand all the stuff that they talk, and I’m also afraid that they’d be impatient when it takes me a while to form a complete sentence.”
Li sometimes regrets coming to the United States 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.
“They think I speak excellent English here, but that’s not true. I don’t have many chances to interact with people.” At times she misses home enough to cry, she said, but returning is not an option because it would be a “loss of face.”
So most afternoons, Li goes to the campus library, picks up a copy of The New York Times and sits in the first floor commons area, memorizing GRE vocabulary words.
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 out a joyous 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; finally she could find something else to do besides attending English classes and baking.
As she crafts her personal statement, draws up references and prepares for job interviews, her husband and his colleagues continue to eat cake. 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 came from a class assignment. It also was published with the help of IowaWatch in The Des Moines Register, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) and Mason City Globe Gazette.