ST. LOUIS • The assignment in Susan Gobbo’s community college English composition class was to “write about something deep in your heart.”
It was 2013, and Gobbo, a native of Brazil, had been in St. Louis for five years, struggling to integrate. Her husband’s employer, Nestlé Purina, had assigned him to a position in St. Louis, and Gobbo, unable to work based on the visa she was issued as a trailing spouse, found herself isolated in a new world.
When she heard what the college writing assignment was, Gobbo needed very little time to think. In her heart was a longing to connect, to be a part of a community.
“While my husband was working ..., I was facing a totally different routine and dealing with the daily problems in a new culture, with a language I could not understand,” Gobbo wrote. With their small daughter in preschool, Gobbo found herself alone for large stretches of time.
“I felt (like) a fish out of water, trying to learn how to breathe in this new environment and suffocated with new rules and signs from the new culture.”
Through her husband’s work, Gobbo met Danielle Do Olival, also from Brazil. She was in a similar spot. Both women had set aside their careers so that their spouses could grow with their company.
Surely, there were more women like them in the St. Louis area, they kept saying.
In February 2016, Gobbo and Do Olival formed the St. Louis International Spouses Meetup, promoting it through a website with sponsorship and guidance from St. Louis Mosaic Project, an initiative by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and World Trade Center to welcome and retain immigrants.
A little more than two years old, the meetup group has 160 members from 40 countries. They hold monthly gatherings, from dinners to cocktail parties to outings to the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Art Museum.
Do Olival said it became clear quickly that there is an overwhelming desire “to know we are not alone, that you can talk to somebody who knows what you’ve been through.”
Gobbo had done extensive research on the subject of trailing spouses when writing the paper for her English composition class, at the Meramec campus of St. Louis Community College.
“I saw a world that nobody was talking about,” Gobbo said. One where uprooted spouses were having trouble acclimating to a new country. Like Gobbo, many spouses come excited, ready to try new experiences.
“At the beginning, it was not that bad,” Gobbo said. The novelty of new, the curiosity of the unknown.
“But as the time went by, without being aware about what was happening to me, negative feelings and unfamiliar behaviors started to appear in my new life. I was all confused and lost in the middle of this acculturation process,” Gobbo said. “But looking back today, I can clearly see that many of the negative aspects I had to deal with could be softened if I had had some previous guided information and orientation about the new country and its culture.”
Careers on hold
Many of the women who come to the U.S. with their spouses are leaving behind careers of their own, and find that once they get here, their education and experience is not recognized. Some have to start over.
Gobbo was a physical therapist and Do Olival a speech pathologist and university professor. But before they can begin talking about the careers they put on hold, they have to get past perceptions.
“People think you are dumb because you speak with an accent,” Do Olival said. When she told another mother at her daughter’s school she was unable to volunteer for an event because she was enrolled in English classes, the woman responded: “Oh, maybe now I can understand you.”
That did not sit well with Do Olival.
“This is my third language. How many do you speak?” Do Olival said to the other parent. “I think in their mind, they don’t realize you have a background, that we have a life we gave up to come here. If someone gets to know you more, they look at you from a different point of view.”
Annie Schlafly, a native St. Louisan, talked with Betsy Cohen, head of the Mosaic Project, about helping newcomers and soon found herself friends with Gobbo.
“I’ve long had a real interest in helping people moving to St. Louis, where we’ve had a bad reputation for years of not being inclusive to outsiders. Cliquish,” Schlafly said. “But I didn’t know how to find someone to help them integrate. It’s not like they have a sign posted on their head.”
Schlafly has started a mentor program as part of the meetup group. It links international spouses with local women. In addition to building friendships, the local women serve as navigators, helping the new residents get a driver’s license, shop for groceries and understand basic services such as garbage collection.
They also help link the trailing spouses to community college classes and volunteer opportunities, and introduce them to the city’s cultural institutions and to sports that may not be familiar to them, such as baseball and hockey.
“St. Louisans need to brag more about the city and how wonderful it is,” Schlafly said. This program is a perfect opportunity to do so, she said.
Especially when those coming here know nothing about the town, or know just what they have read during an internet search.
“When I Googled St. Louis, it showed a statistic about high crime rate so I was a bit scared before I came here,” said Yumi Urushihara. “But after I came here, I learned that I can live very safely here. It’s a comfortable city to live in.”
Urushihara moved to St. Louis in July. Her husband works for Japan’s central bank, which is paying for him to get his MBA at Washington University. With her connection to the meetup group, Urushihara has learned about cultures around the world, joined a candle-making class and has fallen hard for Forest Park, which is close to where she is living. Urushihara has befriended a Canadian woman “who makes me practice pronunciation.”
Gobbo said she would go to the movies and listen to the radio to work on her English and to glean snippets of St. Louis culture. But it was not enough. Having a group of women from across the globe who help guide one another into belonging is empowering and effective, she said.
Gobbo and Do Olival are learning as they go along that not every event works for everyone, however. For example, they cite dinners and cocktail parties.
“They force the conversation to be front and center, which can be stressful for those still learning the language and not confident in their English skills,” Gobbo said. Some women prefer a meetup at places such as the Butterfly House or the Art Museum so language can be in the background, she said.
Ambassadors for the region
Cohen, with the Mosaic Project, said companies are often making large investments when bringing an employee to the U.S., but very seldom do they put that same effort into the family in tow. The Mosaic Project is helping change that. Seventeen companies have committed to join the agency’s ambassador program, aimed at creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. That includes more community outreach to immigrant populations. Two more companies will be announced soon, she said.
“When you make the family happier and more satisfied, they become ambassadors for the region, especially for the company they came here for, and the word gets out that St. Louis is a wonderful place to be,” Cohen said.
For Urushihara and her husband, their stay in St. Louis will end when he is finished with his degree next year. She is glad her initial online search about St. Louis went deeper than stories on the city being one of the most dangerous places in the country. She also found the website for the St. Louis International Spouses Meetup Group.
“I was very fortunate,” Urushihara said. “Otherwise, I would be staying home for two years.”
So far, the group is women only, although about 20 men who followed their spouses here have expressed an interest in the meetup group. Efforts are underway to include them, but that will take a few more resources for a group growing faster than its founders could have imagined.