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Helping international families navigate life and language in Williamsburg

  • mona_parents_photoset2.jpg
     The Reverend John Calvin David and his wife, Shakuntala, the year they were married.  Courtesy Mona David-Starman
  • david_family_sofa_web.jpg
     The David children, circa 1971-72, in the U.S. L-R: Sherry, John, Mona holding James, and Asnath (Ozzie).  Courtesy Mona David-Starman
  • mona_parents_photoset1.jpg
     The Reverend John Calvin David and his wife, Shakuntala, in Lincoln, Nebraska in 2018  Courtesy of Mona David-Starman
  • starman_m_photoset.jpg
    Mona David-Starman    Reves Center photo
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By Kate Hoving

You need to call a mechanic to schedule an appointment for an oil change. 

You need to write a note to your son’s teacher excusing him from class.

You need to describe a symptom to the nurse at Urgent Care.

Your children want you to order pizza for dinner.

These are interactions that make up our days. But imagine for a moment that you are new to Williamsburg. New to the United States. Your spouse is a scholar or visiting researcher at William & Mary, and you’ve accompanied them. Perhaps you have school-aged children. Your spouse goes to class and work, and you have to find your own way.

If you’re lucky, you will have had English classes before your arrival. If you’re very lucky, you have studied English for years and have a good facility with the language, an maybe a good, passive understanding.

But even with some language classes under your belt, managing everyday conversations while also navigating life in an unfamiliar environment can be challenging and intimidating. [And why do people use phrases like ‘under your belt’?]

In 2019, William & Mary welcomed 176 international scholars, faculty and staff, from more than 30 countries. Scholars are foreign professors, researchers, short-term scholars, and specialists who are invited to the U.S. on a temporary basis by academic department or units at W&M and VIMS. They, in turn, brought 152 dependents (spouses and children).

The International Students, Scholars and Programs (ISSP) Office at Reves has long focused on supporting families with programs and activities and outings. Mona David-Starman, has worked tirelessly over the last few years to expand the programs. She manages the International Family Network (IFN), a resource for the family members of our international students, scholars, faculty, and staff, and the Global Friends Program, which matches international students with members of the local community in an effort to foster cross-cultural friendships and understanding. Both programs are vibrant and have large memberships.

And yet two years ago, when a wife of a scholar asked David-Starman for help talking to her garage mechanic, Mona realized something was missing. “I had for a long time felt the need to do something. I would often hear from the spouses in the IFN group, that they didn’t speak well, and because of that, they did not want to come to the events.” David-Starman decided she needed to create not so much a language class as a safe space where these spouses could make friends, practice speaking and learn about life in Williamsburg.

David-Starman launched the English Conversation Club (ECC) in spring 2019. That first semester started with a small group. “There were six to eight people who attended—mostly IFN members—moms with children,” David-Starman recalls. In order to generate conversation, David-Starman will choose a theme or topic for each meeting. It may be discussion of an “American” holiday or using idioms or asking questions at a doctor’s office. “For the last meeting, I invited the group to my home, to celebrate them and their achievements.”

Word got around, and in fall 2019, there were 14 attendees. This past year some scholars joined the IFN mothers and children. A few community members who are part of the IFN group also attend, and the meetings have continued over the summer and into this fall.

Before the pandemic, the group met twice a week, for an hour and a half, in the Student Diversity Room at Campus Center. “It has a nice big table and area for children to play, as some of the mothers will bring toys for the children to play with. It was beautiful to see the scholars enjoying the children.”
The pandemic has brought increased risk of isolation, but the meetings have continued. They meet for a Zoom chat on Tuesdays from 10am-12pm, and ECC meets Thursdays from 9:30am-12pm. One unanticipated benefit is that more members of the family can join the chat. “It has been wonderful to see not only the members of the English Conversation Club, but also a few of the new scholars, who would not have been able to join before, due to other commitments on campus.”

David-Starman is sensitive to the busy lives of the members. “Parents are busy with the children and all the other activities based at home now, but I feel the one hour a week is good for them to do something for themselves. A few of them have told me they look forward to our Zoom time.”

Although they have had to suspend the usual weekly IFN/Scholar events and outings, David-Starman has consistently stayed in touch with all of them, emailing suggestions for virtual activities and safe, socially distanced activities as they become an option.

The Global Friends Program has also stayed active throughout the summer and into the fall. “The Global hosts are emailing to let me know they are still in touch with their student,” David-Starman reports. “My Global hosts are spectacular people; I am not surprised they are in touch with their students, even in the quarantine. Many of them keep in touch with their students after the students graduate.”

David-Starman remains committed to continuing the conversation club. “Language is the main issue for the spouses who do not come to events; I am trying to find a way to help them feel more comfortable. I see their confidence building as their language skills improve. They can also enjoy their time here more and make new friends.”

Adjusting to Zoom has been a challenge for everyone, and the ECC members have had their own hurdles. “Some ECC members are not connecting through Zoom because their spouses are using the computer and they need to entertain the children. I know last week, one of my group members had to leave early because her spouse needed the computer for a meeting.”

David-Starman thinks there might be some hesitation in talking in a different language on Zoom. “I know when we met in our group, in person, they would ask me about talking on the phone, because it is uncomfortable for them. So we would write things down.”

David-Starman encourages the university to remember the family members who come with the students and scholars, to offer support and care. Her biggest wish when the campus reopens fully is to find a stroller-accessible room to hold the ECC group meetings where they have the privacy to have lively discussions, “around a big table so we can all sit together facing each other.”

In an academic institution and during a pandemic, there are going to be competing priorities. That’s to be expected. But David-Starman is committed to advocate for those members of the William & Mary community who may not be top of mind, but who are vital members of the community.

Why does this matter so much to her? She is clearly a sensitive, empathetic person. But there is also a personal connection that draws her to the stewardship of a sometimes forgotten community and makes her uniquely qualified to be an advocate.

Her father, The Reverend John Calvin David, brought Mona and her family to the United States when she was a child. He was born in Lahore, Punjab, India, and earned his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity. After ordination in Punjab, his faith carried him to Chicago in 1966, where he knew no one; but he was confident in God and the path he chose. Not too long afterwards, his wife, Shakuntala and their four children (David-Starman was the eldest) joined him in America.

David-Starman remembers vividly her arrival in the U.S.: “When we arrived in Chicago, on a cold January day, I was eight years old. I was with my mom and my three siblings. We disembarked from the plane and walked on the tarmac, all bundled up, and entered the airport. Our first home in America was an apartment. I remember looking out the window—seeing the people, cars—and they looked like they were toys—so small. And there was snow on the ground. It was my first time seeing snow.”

Mona lost her father in 2020, but his dedication to service and the experiences of her family moving to an unfamiliar place, continue to inform her actions, her instincts, her passions, and her dedication to the mission of the Reves Center.

Perhaps a future ECC class might explore an idiom that epitomizes the empathy that motivates Mona David-Starman at ISSP: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.