Her first taste of America wasn't all that great. She was an ocean away from home, spoke minimal, tourist-grade English, and her job as an au pair for the toddler of two affluent Boston doctors ended after a single week.
Fast forward six years: The Polish native Magdalena Tomaszewska, known to friends as Magda, was graduated from Central Piedmont Community College May 18 with her associate degree - a first professional step toward her goal of becoming a pediatric nurse. She has also settled in the Caldwell Station neighborhood in Cornelius with her Bogota, Colombia-born husband, Juan Carlos Zambrano, and her beagle/basset hound mix, a shelter rescue named Pluto.
Tomaszewska's American adventure began just after she finished high school in Poland. Unsure of what she wanted to do, she applied to an exchange program for au pairs and soon found herself matched with a family in Boston, Mass.
"The beginning was really hard. There was not a day I did not cry and want to go home," says Tomaszewska, a petite blond with an infectious spirit. The "overwhelming" homesickness and culture shock were only compounded by her home placement with two busy doctors who needed her to hit the ground running, despite her newcomer status in the United States.
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When, after a week, the family decided they wanted an au pair who spoke more fluent English, Tomaszewska's future in the United States was uncertain. The au pair agency was very supportive, though, and in two days found her another placement in Mooresville. This experience was much better. "It was perfect," says Tomaszewska, because the children were older and actually helped her learn English.
At the same time, Tomaszewska, 27, began taking English as a second language classes, which is when her life hit a real turning point: She met her future husband, Zambrano,32. Outgoing and eager to learn the language, Zambrano, a fluent Spanish speaker, typically sat in the front row while the more reserved Tomaszewska usually felt comfortable further back.
Then one day, Zambrano was late, and he found a seat next to Tomaszewska, who got butterflies in her stomach when he said hello. "He said 'hi,' and I was like, 'Oh my gosh'," said Tomaszewska. "I came home, called my mom and told her I met my first love."
"I would never have stayed [in America] if it weren't for Juan," Tomaszewska says. "I was marking the days, three more months and I go back home. Everything changed when I met him. When I met him, I started loving everything here."
Married since 2006, Tomaszewska and Zambrano have a way of adopting friends and neighbors as family. From bringing ice cream to the neighbor's toddlers to just offering friendly conversation to passersby, Tomaszewska and Zambrano have built a beautiful American life.