By Jessica Cerretani
Making the Connection
The room is abuzz with the sounds of welcoming laughter. Some partygoers linger over an array of appetizers from around the world, while others are deep in conversation, forming personal and professional relationships. “You see?” says Bori Stoyanova, gesturing to Sevdalena Lazarova as the two chat. “We just met, but it turns out we are both from Bulgaria, we both have two children, and now we live in the same town here. There are so many connections to be made.”
What seems to be an ordinary networking event in MIT’s Bush Room is actually a reception celebrating the 40th anniversary of MIT Spouses & Partners, a group aimed at providing support and resources to the significant others of MIT students, post-docs, and visiting faculty. While the group is open to all, it has a special focus on international spouses and partners, mostly wives. “Many of these women are embarking upon a lifetime of change, and their relocation to the United States and to MIT is just the first step in that,” says Jennifer Recklet Tassi, the program’s manager. “We want to provide them with the necessary skills and support as they move forward.”
Planting the seed
Yet just a few decades ago, the significant others of MIT students were largely neglected. “We began to notice that many members of our international community were experiencing a variety of stresses and mental health concerns,” says Charlotte Schwartz, PhD, then a psychologist at MIT Medical. At the request of psychiatrist-in-chief Merton Kahne, M.D., she spent a year interviewing international students, visiting scientists, and their wives to identify their greatest concerns and needs.
The results were undeniable, if not particularly surprising: It was clear that, for many people, the experience of moving to MIT from another country could be fraught with trepidation and confusion as they struggled to adapt to unfamiliar customs and cultural norms. But things were even more difficult for the international wives, who often also had to cope with isolation and the possible loss of employment in their home country—and who had the least amount of resources and support. “These women were at sea,” Schwartz says, “with little attention or assistance to manage their lives and their families.”
To help bridge the gap, she established The MIT Wives’ Group in 1972. At the time, the program was simply a small discussion group that gave the wives a forum in which to meet and talk with each other and with Schwartz. However, it became apparent that the group—and its members—had much more potential to grow. “We had a lot of talented women and a very diverse group,” Schwartz explains. “One size didn’t fit all.”
The discussion group soon became just one piece of a larger program, with wives creating new sub-groups tailored to their specific interests and hobbies. The Wives’ Group also provided international spouses with much-needed support in adapting to a strange country, whether that meant learning about local schools, the English language, or American culture.
Taking the next steps
By the time Schwartz left MIT Medical for private practice in 1996, the program was flourishing. “The group really brought women from all over the world together and resulted in lasting friendships,” she says. “I received letter after letter from wives, expressing the value of the program.” Indeed, at this November’s anniversary reception, Schwartz caught up with several women who glowingly recounted their experiences in the group some 20 years earlier.
As clinical social worker Jessica Barton took over the program—soon joined by Tassi, who would eventually become director—she initially viewed her role mainly as a supportive presence. “We thought we’d just oversee the groups, purchase snacks for the meetings, and see what happened,” she laughs.
Soon, though, it became clear that they could give the women so much more—and vice versa. Barton began solidifying the program’s offerings, drawing on her background in social work to better address the women’s cultural, family, and professional concerns. “I discovered that many members found it difficult to talk about problems they were having with their spouses, or with anxiety and depression,” she says. “We learned that we couldn’t always address these issues head on, but if we couched them in terms of the effects of cultural change, women were open to discussing them.”
Barton and Tassi found themselves benefiting from the women’s experiences, as well. “Working with the international spouses and partners enhanced my work in private practice,” says Barton, who left the program in 2007. But members have also had a lasting influence the group itself, which was renamed MIT Spouses & Partners in 2001 to better reflect its inclusivity. While professional development has always had a role in the program, it has become even more prominent within the last decade. Today, members enjoy a wealth of resources, from skill-building events to volunteer opportunities that provide valuable U.S. work experience.
“I have a background in software development, but didn’t have a work visa when I first arrived here,” says Lazarova. “Working on the program’s website gave me the chance to build my resume in this country.” Her new acquaintance, Stoyanova, now works as a human resource administrator at MIT and says she helps inform fellow group members openings at the school—another way international spouses support each other.
“It is most rewarding to see these highly qualified individuals with no prior work experience in the U.S. succeed in finding jobs that put them on the track for career success here,” says Stoyanova. “For some of them, the opportunity to interview is all they need, and they take it from there.”
On the horizon
As MIT Spouses & Partners celebrates four decades of helping women acclimate and thrive in a new environment, Tassi hopes that future changes will take the experience to the next level for its nearly 400 members. “Family support issues affect everyone—not just women—and our programming and services are for all spouses and partners and MIT couples,” says Recklet Tassi.
“We would love to have alumni spouses keep connecting with each other after they leave MIT,” she adds. “Not only do many of our members form lifetime friendships with each other, but some express interest in mentoring other spouses or even establishing similar programs at other universities.”
With the continued support of the MIT community, that wish list may someday become reality.