Iowa’s invisible wives

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

By Lu Shen for The Gazette

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.

Read the full story at The Gazette

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