Last month participants in the Reves Center for International Studies' Link Program gathered in the Center's spacious Reves Room for one of their many group traditions, a monthly movie screening. That morning's fare was a quiet American flick called "Ramen Girl" about a young American woman who finds herself stranded in Tokyo, having to carve a niche for herself out of a foreign and unknown culture. The film's subject matter was nothing if not pertinent for its viewers. Of the 13 women involved in the Link Program, six are themselves Japanese, and all are making tremendous strides toward establishing their own place in American society.
The Link Program was established this year by the Reves Center to provide language and cultural education for the families of international students and professors. The program also functions as a de facto social network for many international spouses who are living in the Williamsburg area while their husbands work or study at the College.
Laurie Koloski, director of the Reves Center and an associate professor of history, said that the mission of the center is "to enhance teaching, learning, scholarship, and community engagement at W&M by adding an international or global dimension."
"To carry out that mission successfully, we need to be attentive to the cross-cultural and social issues, as well as the academic and intellectual ones, that come into play when a student or faculty member is studying or working in a different cultural environment. For most of our students and faculty, that foreign environment is overseas, but for some, it's right here, in Williamsburg" she said. "For our international students, faculty, and scholars, we work to ensure that they're getting the top-notch academic experience they sought in coming to W&M, but also that they and their families have the tools and the resources they need to thrive in a new cultural and social context."
She added, "That's one reason programs like the Link one are so important--they help provide the welcoming and supportive cultural and social environment that are integral to academic and intellectual success."
The Link program is the brainchild of the Interrnational Student and Scholars division of the Reves Center. The program was launched a few years ago, but was renamed and blossomed this year due in part of the dedication of the participants.
Debi DeBacco, coordinator of global education and services, was asked by Steve Sechrist, assistant director international students and scholars, to re-launch the program.
Having lived in many places including Australia with her husband and children, DeBacco did not hesitate to volunteer, saying "I could really see the need to have a social network to get together and make friends so... I was quite happy to jump on board and go as far with it as I could."
And considering the program has only been in operation since the latter days of August, that -- at this point -- is pretty far.
The group holds weekly meetings, usually on Wednesday mornings, where the spouses participate in a variety of activities. In addition to watching movies, they gather to share English travel and news articles from various sources, with the BBC being a particular favorite. The atmosphere in the group is downright jovial, with participants cracking jokes and making small talk with each other about some of the typically American activities they had undertaken in the last three months, including several excursions to Colonial Williamsburg, and what DeBacco describes as a "marathon tennis session" which lasted from 10 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon while their children played on the playground.
Also on the list of traditionally American activities the spouses and children participated in was the Reves Center's annual pumpkin carve in the days prior to Halloween. Some families even went the whole length of the tradition and donned costumes for the event, which resulted in a family of bumblebees and two separate pre-school-aged Obi Wan Kenobis, who wound up later engaging in a friendly inter-Jedi game of chase.
Following that in the succession of holiday celebrations the Reves Center plans to host a Thanksgiving pot luck for the Link families, complete with a whole Turkey and a traditional dish from each family's home country. That last part of the menu will pose no uncharted territory for the Link ladies however, as their Monday night cooking club has already introduced them to each other's culinary skills. Last week's bill of fare consisted of both Chinese and Korean style dumplings, marking the latest in series of intercultural exchanges which included Chinese lessons taught by Rui, a Chinese spouse who has been in Williamsburg since August 2008. Reiko, a Japanese woman whose husband is a second year MBA at the Mason School of Business has taken extensive notes on Rui's instruction, a process which she described as "cool." After demonstrating how one would count from one to ten in Mandarin, Reiko suggested "next time Japanese" with a smile.
Several of the women present at that meeting remarked that one of their favorite aspects of the Link program is the huge opportunity it provides for cultural exchange, something which the program's members have already taken full advantage of. With cultural backgrounds that include a Slovak woman whose husband is an applied science professor and a Chinese woman whose husband is one of his applied science students, the ability to trade language, practices and ideas is nothing if not vast.
The members' American cultural education is also coming along well according to DeBacco, thanks in part to the efforts of local "conversation partners" who meet up with the women at such traditionally American spots as Starbucks or Panera to shoot the breeze for an hour or two. Some have even invited Link members back to their homes for dinner. DeBacco said that she recruits these partners "any way I can" and so their membership ranges from proactive community members to a "couple of [DeBacco's] friends."
DeBacco said she is extremely thankful for the help of these volunteers, as are the members of the group, with one woman who goes by the name of Alice stating "it's a good chance to practice," and adding that it's "very helpful to be familiar with American culture."
DeBacco said she is immensely pleased about the success the program has already enjoyed, and is hopeful about the future. Even though about half of the group is married to students who will be graduating in the spring, DeBacco said she is optimistic because of the great strides the program has already made on efforts other than hers.
"The spouses themselves have really taken the program and are doing what they want to do," she remarked.
She said that the group thrives on the planning and enthusiasm of the people in it, adding, "They are all very interested, they want to make friends, they want to do things, they want to learn about American culture and they want to learn about each other's culture."