The first time I met Ewelina, in the autumn of 1996, she was a nervous wreck. She was a frail young teen. We didn’t talk much because she spoke only Polish.

The last time I saw Ewelina, a week ago, she was a  successful young business woman, confidently seated in the jury box at the U.S. Federal Building in Davenport. It was the jury box because spectator seating had overflowed for the 35 people — of all ages and from all nations — about to become United States citizens.

OUR EYES MET across this crowded courtroom Ewelina smiled. I don’t think she saw me blow her a kiss. By coincidence I was there to speak, something I do with hesitancy because I can easily put my foot in my mouth when talking.

Ewelina (pronounce that Ev-el-een-a) gratefully went through all the steps of becoming a citizen. The affecting ceremony, held several times a year, is something everyone should attend.

It is “God Bless America” emotional to watch the new citizens from far-away places — like Sudan and Ukraine and closer-in Mexico — clutch little American flags and smile at their triumph.

“This is my big achievement,” Ewelina said, with tears and much humility. “It has been a journey.”

IT HAS BEEN a remarkable journey. In the beginning, Ewelina raised her hand at school in Poland for permission to become a foreign exchange student, travel to America and learn English. The teacher raised her eyebrows. No one else in the class showed any interest. The teacher thought the dream of Ewelina Liguz to be incredulous.

At the U.S. embassy, Ewelina was refused a visa because she spoke no English. Determined, she returned a week later. She remembers a woman at the embassy telling her, “I will give you one chance, a visa for a year. After that? We’ll see.”

She landed in America on Aug. 13, 1996. First, she applied to Davenport West High School, where the quota of foreign exchange students was filled. Central High School welcomed her with warm arms. Her first assignment was an American history paper, but she could read no English.

“Word for word I went from Polish to English with a translation dictionary,” she remembers. She was such a whiz in advanced geometry that, most hesitantly, she would correct the teacher’s work on the chalk board. Fellow students used calculators; Ewelina worked out problems in her head. The assistant principal, Tom Voorhees, told me one day, “We have a genius in Ewelina. Write about her.”

I did, and we became close friends. Her American godmother was the late Lynda Modlinski. Together, they would sit nightly on the floor in front of the fridge, working with a set of child’s magnetic letters to teach her English. 

Ewelina sailed through Central — not without a few struggles — with a 4.0 grade point average. She worked her way through St. Ambrose University, sometimes three jobs, graduating at the top of her class with bachelor and master’s degrees.

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Along came marriage to David Bergert and a son, Jonathan, now 4. Then, a job at Quad-City Bank & Trust where she has been promoted to credit administration officer.

“I could see stars in her eyes,” says William Tank Jr., executive vice president and chief credit officer of QCR Holdings, parent company of the Quad-City Bank operation. “Ewelina is now training our youngest bankers.”

Dr. Ted Woodruff, a professor of economics and one of Ewelina’s teachers at St. Ambrose, says of her new citizenship and achievements: “It is a truly American success story, a classic accomplishment.”

Speaking assuredly, Ewelina says, “Only in America would I have such opportunities.  I have been able to create my own path. Where else would this be possible?”

Contact Bill Wundram at (563) 383-2249 or bwundram@qctimes.com.