Lin Yi-jiun, a second-year MU doctoral student in counseling psychology, was unsatisfied after the first meeting of an international women’s support group she began leading on campus in September.
Why? Because there were too many Chinese speakers.
So over the next three weeks, Lin managed to find a Japanese exchange student and an Italian to join the group of nine. Still, with four Chinese, one Taiwanese and two Korean members, she thought the group was too Asian.
“My guess is Europeans already speak good English,” she said. “And most Europeans are Caucasian, which means they can hang out with Americans without standing out.”
The Chinese, on the other hand, might feel the need to practice their English, which is something the International Women’s Support Group facilitates helps with.
The group, made up of MU students and spouses of employees and students, meets every Friday afternoon at the Women’s Center to talk about “shoes and ships and sealing wax” — in other words, anything the members fancy; from life experiences to topics such as family, homesickness and learning a language.
Now in its fifth year, the support group aims to help international students adjust to American culture and make friends in the international community. Its goal is to expand and strengthen the women’s support system in Columbia.
Women’s Center Student Services Coordinator Laura Hacquard said the group has a long history.
“We used to have one, and then we didn’t have one anymore, and then we had one again,” Hacquard said.
Hacquard attributed the revival of the group to an international graduate student who told the center how attending the meetings helped her get through life in America.
Huang Ya-huei, a first-year master’s student from Taiwan, said she thought participating in the group was similar to attending church.
“I feel a sense of belonging in the group,” she said, “and a sense of security.”
Huang joined hoping to find out more about campus activities and practice English with other internationals. Then she realized the group demanded more commitment than she expected — members cannot miss a single session, unless it’s an emergency. She admitted to occasional laziness and reluctance to attend, but eventually, she learned to relax.
For first-year MU students, who make up the majority of the group, the language barrier is the first obstacle they must overcome.
“Lack of English proficiency is a huge blow to their self-esteem,” Huang said. “But things improve as time goes by.”
Other sources of pressure, Lin said, include culture shock and expectations placed upon their gender role. Lin’s co-facilitator, Rimoko Thomas, who is African-American, provides an American perspective to the discussions.
Wiley Miller, staff psychologist at MU’s Counseling Center, pointed out that international spouses face many issues, including boredom and difficulty developing social relationships. Part of Miller’s role was to supervise the group’s two facilitators, suggesting creative ways to solve problems and making sure no issue is overlooked.
Lin and Thomas found themselves sharing experiences, even though it is generally not required of facilitators.
“We feel like a part of the group,” Lin said. “That’s why I make the same amount of disclosure as everyone else.”
In addition to the women’s support group, the Multicultural Center runs an International Student Discussion Group that recruits foreign students of both sexes. Also led by doctoral students from the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology, this group focuses more on discussing issues and lately has focused on introducing participants to cultures of different countries.
Having led such a group last year, Lin said members of the women’s group are more willing to show their soft side compared with their counterparts.
“It is indeed more emotional,” she said.