Ten minutes after entering the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization office in Fairfax, I broke the law. In the excitement of wanting to document my daughter-in-law's naturalization ceremony, I scooted around the room, snapping photos. My friend pointed to a sign that forbade photography.
I quickly sat down beside Monika, a native of Poland, and waited until her name was called for the swearing-in ceremony. Having first come to the United States in June 2001, she married my younger son, Jason, in 2005.
"I learned of Work & Travel in America, which allows an international student to obtain a J1 visa to visit the U.S., usually during their summer break," Monika explains.
Making money was Monika's primary goal, wanting to help her parents pay for classes at the private college she was attending. Hired by Paramount's Kings Dominion, she worked as a clerk in a Scooby-Doo toy store.
"I often worked 76-hour weeks during those four months, saving as much as I could," she recalls. "I didn't plan to stay, but I wanted to see the real America, which I knew only from movies. Europeans are fascinated by the U.S., so it was a great opportunity to see it for myself."
Monika met Jason just six weeks before she was to return to Poland.
"Some friends asked me to go out with them. They invited Jason, too. I didn't consider it a date. I had a boyfriend in Poland, but Jason's friend didn't tell him that. I needed a favor a few days later and asked Jason to help me out. After a few hours with him, I started to like him and met with him again and again," she adds with a smile. "He wanted me to stay, but I hesitated, not knowing whether he was serious, so he proposed."
After Kings Dominion, Monika went to live with my friend Diane Dillard, whom she and Jason met on a visit to Richmond. Diane was facing ankle surgery and needed help, so Monika moved in as a favor. Her visa was extended, but after several bumps in the road, the engagement was called off. Monika returned to Poland in July 2002 to complete her graduate degree.
Unknown to Jason, she returned the following June and began working as an au pair in Philadelphia, a position she held for two years. While there, she decided to visit Diane. I joined them, delighted to see her again.
Monika explains her return: "I saw the U.S. as a country of opportunities. In Poland, graduates with master's degrees couldn't find jobs. I was more optimistic here, but I didn't think Jason and I would ever speak again."
Jason still missed her. It was hard, but I didn't mention seeing Monika, believing that my job was to love them and leave the rest to fate. As fate would have it, Jason saw Diane a few months later, and Diane gave him Monika's number. I simply told him, "Follow your heart." He did — and they were married on June 25, 2005.
Unfortunately, Monika's degree was not recognized for licensure in Virginia. While working full time as a mental health therapist, she re-enrolled in college, receiving a master's degree in counseling and development from George Mason University in May 2011.
Standing beside Monika as she lifted her right hand and said the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time, along with about 50 people of different nationalities, brought me to tears.
"Growing up in a communist country, I wasn't used to simple people having any power. Despite wanting to be here and liking America, I want to keep the good parts of Poland, the customs, traditions."
She and Jason told me recently that Monika is carrying a new little life, a brand new American to celebrate.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2012. All rights reserved.
Note: This article has been corrected since publication