My Spouse, My Rival, My Fellow Winner

George Mason U.

Rita Chi-Ying Chung and Fred Bemak
June 17, 2013

When married couples in academe collaborate, and even compete, sometimes they both win.

Rita Chi-Ying Chung and Fred Bemak each had a distinguished career when they met at a small, invitation-only conference in the early 1990s. Now married for 17 years, they are tenured professors at George Mason University and world travelers who have developed and used their original counseling method in post-disaster areas across the globe.

They're also the first spouses to each receive two of the American Counseling Association's top awards. At the association's conference this year, Ms. Chung received the Gilbert and Kathleen Wrenn Award for a Humanitarian and Caring Person, an honor given to Mr. Bemak in 2011. He won this year's Kitty Cole Human Rights Award, which Ms. Chung earned last year.

The "culturally responsive" approach to counseling that the couple developed considers a person as part of a larger family and community, they say. They worked in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005; Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis, in 2008; and Haiti after the earthquake there, in 2010. During a shared telephone interview, the two of them easily take turns talking and expanding upon each other's points. "We know what our strengths are, and we play to them," Ms. Chung says.

"The challenges came early on in terms of figuring out each other's work style," Mr. Bemak says. "Now we have a full acceptance of how each other works. We very rarely need to sit down and discuss what we're going to do and how we're going to approach it."

Ms. Chung, who is of Chinese origin but was born and raised in New Zealand, first went to the United States in 1990 for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California at Los Angeles and has worked extensively with refugee and immigrant mental-health issues In November 2008 she gave a speech at the United Nations on her studies of commercial sex workers.

Mr. Bemak's career, too, has concentrated on multicultural and social-justice issues. He has worked in 55 countries and founded the nonprofit Counselors Without Borders, which sends counselors to post-disaster emergency areas. Ms. Chung is a senior partner in the organization. After they arrived at George Mason, in 2000, the couple revamped the curriculum of the counseling-and-development program to emphasize social justice, multiculturalism, advocacy, and leadership in a global context. Last year Sage Publications released their book about the approach, Social Justice Counseling: The Next Steps Beyond Multiculturalism.

Their accomplishments come partly from a shared commitment to a balance of work and relaxation, they say.

They have also learned to accept each other's personality traits, like Ms. Chung's desire for structure and Mr. Bemak's less formal ways. "I sit and bang out a first draft, and then I'll give it to Fred," she explains. "His work style is a little annoying to me. He's looking out the window, and I'm going, 'What are you doing?'"

Another award-winning couple in academe have also had to adjust to each other's work styles. Juli Gibbs-Davis, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Alberta, says she works best under pressure, with "a magic hour" for productivity around 11 p.m. "That makes me crazy," says John P. Davis, her husband. "I have to submit things a week early."

This year Ms. Gibbs-Davis, who is 35, and Mr. Davis, an assistant professor of physics at Alberta, who is 34, each received a $50,000 fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The foundation hands out 126 of the awards a year to up-and-coming scientists, mathematicians, and economists in North America.

Mr. Davis found out first. ("He checks his e-mail more religiously," Ms. Gibbs-Davis explains.) "I called her and said, 'I won the Sloan!'" he says.

The two often swap professional advice and had read each other's application essays, Ms. Gibbs-Davis says, so she hadn't felt very competitive until that moment. "My first thought was to be really excited as his wife," she says. "My next thought was to be like, 'Crap, I didn't get one.'" Then she checked her inbox.

The "two-body problem" is a challenge, Ms. Gibbs-Davis says, but they given a high priority to being together.

"People say there are these rules," like making sure there are enough prestigious institutions or researchers on your CV before focusing on living close to your spouse. "But I think you can break them as long as you try to do good work. For us, it never felt like a bad compromise to keep each other in mind when we were trying to navigate life."