Nataliya Dorweiler’s long Ukrainian odyssey
By Chuck Nowlen
Chance has played a fickle role in teacher Nataliya Dorweiler’s life.
A lottery system won the Ukraine native the green card that brought her to America in 2002.
A much crueler twist of fate came not long after: Her first husband, also Ukrainian, died in a car accident, leaving her alone in South Carolina, where she worked in copy shops and restaurants, and cleaned houses and factories, trying to feed their two young kids. She spoke almost no English at the time.
Yet another twist came three years later: Dorweiler met the Hudson-area man she would soon marry when a woman slipped and fell on the factory floor she’d just mopped, bringing an ambulance, the police and demands for accident reports in a language she still barely knew.
“He was standing nearby, and he said to me, ‘I can help you. I saw what happened,’” Dorweiler recalled – now in perfect English -- from her office at Hudson Middle School, where she teaches English as a Second Language. “That’s my husband Mike – what a typical American name. He’s the guy who brought me to Wisconsin.”
At the time, Mike Dorweiler, now a controls engineer at Preco Laser in Somerset, just happened to be hopping between Wisconsin and South Carolina every few weeks, working as needed at Nataliya’s factory.
Late last year, of course, came the most recent twist in Nataliya Dorweiler’s life: Her family back home, who lived for many years in relative comfort in Ukraine’s western region, suddenly found themselves living in one of the hottest hotspots on earth.
“I worry about them,” she said. “I worry about them a lot.”
Still, said Dorweiler, when she first laid eyes on the Hudson area in 2005, she knew right away that she’d come to the right place. It happened on Labor Day. She and Mike had just started shuttle-dating between Wisconsin and South Carolina.
“It was an unbelievable feeling – I just cried and cried when I saw it all here,” she remembered. “Everything, everything I was seeing – the people, the trees, the lakes, the rivers, the change in seasons, everything I saw. I thought to myself: This is just like home -- finally.”
By October, Dorweiler had moved here permanently. She landed her first teaching job in 2007 while taking classes at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls -- as an assistant at Willow River Elementary School, where she still teaches English as a Second Language a few days a week.
After earning her bachelor’s degree at River Falls, she went on to get her teaching certificate in 2010, adding a master’s degree in 2013. She and Mike now live in New Richmond.
The hard part
There were a lot of obstacles before that, particularly time management and learning English during her early years in the United States.
Dorweiler had been a teacher in Ukraine, but her diploma there was useless in her new country. At first, English seemed impossible for her to master, especially while working several jobs at once.
She kept at it on her own, though, both in South Carolina and later in Wisconsin.
“I wanted to learn English so bad, but it didn’t seem like I could do anything about it,” she explained. “So I bought a used computer and started reading all the newspapers and magazines I could find.
“Then I would translate them, everything I read. I had a Ukrainian-English book and I would translate – word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. I was so anxious to communicate with Americans too. When someone spoke, I would write every word I remembered down. Then I would repeat it and use it in a sentence.”
In South Carolina – Dorweiler lived in state- capital Columbia – there were many Russians and Ukrainians around, and while that helped her communicate day-to-day at her part-time jobs, it wasn’t the best environment to solidify her English.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, meant a total leap into a new language and culture.
“There were no Ukrainians or Russians here to talk to, but that forced me to speak English all the time,” she said. “I probably learned more English my first year here than all three years in South Carolina.”
Her husband also persuaded her to enroll at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College to begin chasing a US teaching degree. Along the way, she even got a boost from fate where money and local speaking partners were concerned.
“I got a job my third day in Wisconsin,” she laughed. “I went to the County Market in New Richmond. I was speaking to someone there who said they needed a baker, and they hired me right away. So then I was set. I had a job. I could study the language on my own, and I could talk to people at work. I also had my classes at technical college.”
She enrolled at UW-River Falls about a year-and-a-half later. One of her classmates worked in the Hudson School District.
“One day, she approached me in class and asked if I would like to be ESL assistant,” Dorweiler said.
Real-world lessons for her students
Dorweiler’s parents and sister, meanwhile, still live in Chortkiv, Ukraine – on the far western edge near the Polish border, around 350 miles from Crimea. They’re safe there, but far from untouched by Russia’s annexation of the valuable peninsula and gateway to the commerce-rich Mediterranean Sea.
Dorweiler keeps in touch by Skype, normally on weekends because of the eight-hour time difference.
“At the peak of all the protests in Kiev (Ukraine’s capital) last fall, my sister Skyped me and said something’s happening here in Chortkiv,” she recalled. “There were a lot of new cars in town that nobody recognized and a lot of new people. So people knew that something was going on, even that far away.”
Dorweiler’s mother just returned home after a brief visit to Wisconsin. Her father has no intention of moving. Her sister Oksana, though, hopes to move to America too someday.
Meanwhile, Dorweiler’s experiences and her contact with her family have proved invaluable in her classrooms.
“Many students are always asking me questions about what’s going on in Ukraine.”
She explained, adding with a chuckle: “At first, they’d hear my accent, and when I’d tell them where I’m from, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s part of Russia.’ I guarantee you that they don’t say that anymore.”