Opportunities for Spouses of International Students: Lessons Learned from Listra Lubis

Listra Lubis and her husband, Sulis, and their daughter, Pembayun.
Listra Lubis and her husband, Sulis, and their daughter, Pembayun.

As a spouse and a mother, Listra Lubis did a lot of preparations before coming to the US to accompany her husband, Sulis Gigih Prayogo, who is now finishing his master’s program at Duke University. With their daughter, Listra dan Sulis have been living in Durham, North Carolina (NC) for one year now. In Durham, she does a lot of things: she takes care of her family, she works, teaches a course about Indonesia, and she even joined the Duke Chapel Choir. Listra, who is currently taking temporary unpaid leave from her office at the Ministry of Finance, shares her story about her life now and how living in the US is helping her reinvent herself.

How did you do all the preparations before coming to the US when you were still in Indonesia?
My husband and I did all the preparations together. We double-checked every piece of information we had. We asked our colleagues who used to live in Durham about school for kids, health insurance, how to apply for my working permit, and some survival guidance. We also read a couple of people’s blogs about living experiences in the USA. However, we didn’t find a story that specifically covered living experience in NC.

As for my daughter’s school, we applied directly to the authority that is responsible for the education of children under the age of 5 years old, Durham Partnership for Children. Then for the next year, our daughter needed to be in Kindergarten, so I did some research about the public-school system in NC.

It turned out that there are three kinds of public schools available, each of them with their own purpose: magnet school, charter school, and public school. As for the magnet and charter school, the admission process is through a lottery system, which takes place months before the school year even begins. I put our daughter’s name in five charter school lotteries. The results were varied, some of them gave her a wait-list spot, and we weren’t lucky at some schools, but then, by the Grace of God, we got a spot in one of the leading charter schools in the Durham county.

Before coming to the US, Listra and her husband did all preparations together
Before coming to the US, Listra and her husband did all preparations together.

Are there any programs for spouses offered by the university?
Duke University has an International House Spouses group which is a group for all the spouses of Duke students to gather and do a lot of fun things together. Almost every day of the week they provide an event to keep us busy, make friends, and to help us improve our English. They have a cooking club, a book club, an English club, an International Cafe, a Duke baby’s playdate, and an art club.

You do a lot of things in Durham. Could you talk more about your activities there?
Joining the Duke Chapel Choir was my first involvement with the Duke community. I’ve always been a singer in a choir and to get into one of the most prestigious University Choirs in the country was an honor to me. I feel grateful to be among people who have a passion for music and mastered them seriously. I learned a lot from them, not only technically but also socially.

Joining the Duke Chapel Choir was Listra’s first involvement with the Duke community.

Speaking about my job, I consider myself lucky to get a job as a server in the Duke Dining hall as the benefits are more than just earning a paycheck. I got to interact with all of the students and faculty of Duke University and also people who work at the Duke Hospital. Aside from that, as a tourist attraction in North Carolina, Duke Dining is visited by people from across the country. I often meet Indonesian brothers and sisters who lived outside the state of North Carolina.

Listra works at Duke Dining.
Listra works at Duke Dining.

You also teach a course about Indonesia at Duke…
One day I got an email through the International House Spouses listserv (an electronic mailing list), that Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Duke is looking for an instructor from one of the International Spouses to give a course about their country or language. I didn’t want to miss out on this chance, even though I don’t consider myself a good teacher. I didn’t think this opportunity would come twice, and that’s what drove me to contact OLLI as soon as possible.

Long story short, after a couple of weeks of preparation, from creating the course proposal, communicating with the board of OLLI and completing the contact, I got a course in OLLI at Duke. I gave a course called “Indonesia!” in the Spring term. The course was a six-week course with six loyal attendees. If there’s something l learned about this course, it’s not really about giving a lecture or leading a discussion, but the fact that I knew so little things about my country. While preparing my materials, I forced myself to read more than I used to, talked to people that have expertise in the area and of course, a lot of browsing and double-checking.

In terms of maintaining a social life and family life, I didn’t think about it that much. I guess it just comes naturally. At home, each person has chores to do to keep everything balanced. I supposed it’s just a matter of communication. As for the social life process, I hold on to one advice I have: always try to be a good listener. People love a person who listens.

Listra teaches a course about Indonesia at Duke. She has six loyal attendees.
Listra teaches a course about Indonesia at Duke. She has six loyal attendees.

In your opinion, how useful are these experiences for your life when you return to Indonesia?
All these things I experienced in the past year and this current year, I believe will shape me into a better person. You can learn a lot from people’s behaviors, the good and the not-so-good. I learn a lot about different cultures, the do’s and don’ts. I try to build a good relationship with everyone. There has to be something useful left inside of me when I get back to my country.

What is the most meaningful experience you’ve had in the US so far?
The most memorable experience would be every time we are on a road trip. I feel like it is the closest we get to each other as a family. We have deep conversations while driving miles and miles, trying new cuisines and getting bloated later together. It contributes to our quality time as a family. Not to mention that it is very convenient to plan a road trip in the US. Simply because the public infrastructure is great and reliable, you drive on the smooth and clear highway, you have a lot of rest areas and gas stations all over the country, then you arrive in a whole new city and state and start to dig in more to know more. When you live in the US, going on a road trip is a must!

Could you share some tips on optimizing life while living in the US as a spouse and a mother? How do you see this “Life in the US Experience” strengthen your family bonding?
Here are some tips, and I hope it works for other spouses who would like to accompany their partners studying or living abroad: get involved as much as you can. Explore as much as you can. But the most important thing is to know your purpose before you depart so you can build a plan that works for you and your family.

This experience has taught my family in every aspect, psychologically, mentally, financially, religiously, and spiritually. When you are living in a foreign country, that’s the time when you surrender the most to God. You begin to realize how you need the guidance more than you ever needed.


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