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Adapting, exploring and finding belonging

The Coffee and Conversation Club meets on Monday mornings to practice speaking English, talk about their week and share tips for adjusting to life in Chapel Hill.

On Friday mornings, a small group of friends often can be found chatting as they sit on couches tucked along a window-lined wall in the FedEx Global Education Center on Carolina’s campus. Conversation flows in varied accents from across the globe.

They found each other thanks to their spouses and partners.

“It’s really boring staying at home,” said Arthur Ko, whose wife is a graduate student at Carolina. “This group—we have similar experiences.”

Over the last year, the UNC Spouses and Partners Group has more than doubled in size. The Coffee and Conversation Club meets on Monday mornings to practice speaking English, talk about their week and share tips for adjusting to life in Chapel Hill. During the rest of the week, there are other similar gatherings based on the group’s interests.

Then on Fridays, the whole group meets with the same goal: give spouses and partners of international students and scholars a sense of community in a new place.

“I moved here with my husband,” said Yulu Qu, who is originally from China. “He’s a Ph.D. student and he’s really busy with his work.”

Group facilitator Lola Tasar had a similar experience after moving from her home country of Uzbekistan with her husband. While he pursued his career as a history professor, Tasar accompanied him to several different universities.

She would often struggle adapting in a place where everything was different — from enrolling children in school to picking out cereal at a grocery store. The experience, she said, could be lonely, frustrating and even embarrassing at times.

“For newcomers, it’s a big challenge,” she said, remembering the rush of nerves that can wash over a non-native just ordering a coffee in a bustling café. Not understanding the menu, the price, how to swipe a card to pay – it can all be intimidating as a line of people grows behind you.

Those experiences led Tasar to Elizabeth Barnum, director of International Student and Scholar Services. Working together, they crafted a plan to engage accompanying spouses and partners and help guide them into their new community.

“We have surgeons who suspended their practice to accompany their spouses here — lawyers, social workers, people who need intellectual stimulation outside of their home,’’ Tasar said. “This provides them a base. It gives them a sense of belonging.”

Said Barnum: “Spouses, partners and children often have a harder time finding entre into the community because they’re not going to school or to work everyday. It’s helping with student and employee retention at UNC-Chapel Hill because if the families aren’t happy, they’re not going to stay.”

While the main gathering for the group is Friday morning, a cooking club and book club are also now in the works. With an expanding calendar of opportunities to learn and explore with friends, participants like Ko said this group is a gateway to exploring Chapel Hill.

“The people in the group will inspire you, and you will become more happy,” Ko said. “And if you become more happy, your family will become more happy.”