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Caps & Gowns: Syrian woman finds academic accolades and impending motherhood in Eau Claire

Danya Alnashaf has always dreamed of becoming a mom.

But first, Alnashaf wanted to feel like she earned it — like she was a person her child could be proud of.

Days ahead of her graduation from Chippewa Valley Technical College’s IT software developer program, Alnashaf feels as if all her dreams are finally coming to fruition.

Alnashaf is one of 318 graduates in 412 programs to graduate from CVTC on Tuesday. But not only is she graduating from a program that promises boundless career opportunities in less than two years and with a 4.0 grade point average, but she’s already started her first post-grad job as a developer at Menards.

And, perhaps most exciting of all, she’s expecting her first child.

“I didn’t want any help,” Alnashaf, 35, said last week. “I wanted to support my baby so that when he grows up he’ll be proud of me because he’ll have a successful mom. He’s already got a successful dad, but I wanted to be too. ... Now, I’m so proud of my journey here.”

But Alnashaf didn’t always have her sights set on a career in the high-tech world, let alone emigrating from her home in Aleppo, Syria, to the United States.

Love at first sight

From the moment Alnashaf met her now-husband Wail Dohni, she couldn’t stop thinking about him.

Alnashaf had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in Aleppo, but her best friend had been begging her to take an English language course with her.

To appease her friend, Alnashaf agreed to take it, though she didn’t want to.

But because her friend had tested higher on the evaluation test, she was ultimately placed in a class different from Alnashaf’s.

“There I was, alone in this class I didn’t want to take. I was so upset because I came here just to take it with her,” Alnashaf recalled, chuckling. “But that’s where I met him.”

The first day, Alnashaf noticed Dohni as she was walking into the classroom. She’d already set her belongings down at a desk in the first row, where she’s always preferred to sit.

“He was so handsome; I looked and got scared right away,” Alnashaf said, continuing to laugh to herself. “I prayed he wouldn’t sit next to me because I felt like I would be nervous. But then, guess what, among all the chairs, he chose the empty chair next to me.”

Immediately, Alnashaf wondered if he was too young. She wondered if he’d ever be interested in someone like her.

“I don’t know why I started asking myself these questions,” Alnashaf said, smiling at the memory. “I’d never been in love before.”

Dohni struck up a conversation immediately, asking Alnashaf to borrow a pencil. It turned out they were the same age, and they hit it off. Every day afterward, Dohni always sat next to her and mysteriously forgot a pencil and asked her to borrow one.

After the class, Dohni and Alnashaf kept in touch over email. Eventually, Alnashaf agreed to see him in person but insisted for two years that she saw him like a brother out of fear, convincing herself he couldn’t possibly feel the same way about her.

Long-distance love

When Dohni announced he was moving to the U.S., Alnashaf knew this was her last chance to tell him how she felt. Two days before he left, she finally confessed she loved him — and not like a brother.

“He didn’t understand what I meant,” Alnashaf said, “but it turned out he did love me like I loved him. So he came to the U.S.A., and we started our love story.”

He asked her to wait for him for a year; she said she’d wait for two. Alnashaf got a job as a science teacher and began studying pharmacology, “just to pass the time,” she said.

But their long-distance romance persisted for seven years, the couple staying in touch through email and Skype video chats.

But then, the Syrian civil war hit her hometown. For a while, Alnashaf had no access to the internet in Syria and no way of calling Dohni.

Eventually, Alnashaf’s brother helped her escape to Turkey, where she finally was able to call Dohni. They decided now was the time to get married and for her to move to the U.S. so that she’d not only be safe, but they could finally be together.

Alnashaf dropped out of her pharmacology program two semesters short of graduation — something that pains her to think about to this day, though she doesn’t regret it.

She and Dohni met in Turkey for 10 days — the first time they’d seen each other in all those years — and married on July 26, 2013.

On Oct. 1, 2013, Alnashaf moved to Eau Claire, where Dohni had been living since he moved to the U.S. in 2007. She joined him at Menards — he worked in accounting — and became an office assistant.

Though she enjoyed the work and was over the moon she was finally able to be with Dohni, Alnashaf wanted more. She wanted a real career before they considered growing their family.

While working on a project at work — creating a website — Alnashaf figured out what she wanted to do after researching the field and deciding it was a perfect fit for her career.

Why didn’t she pursue pharmacology? It’s a question many have asked Alnashaf. But ultimately it was too hard to think of what she was so close to accomplishing, and most of all she longed for a fresh start in her new country.

So with her husband’s support, she applied to CVTC’s IT program.

“I studied science ... I had never thought of doing computer stuff,” Alnashaf said, laughing to herself. “But I loved what I did so I thought I might make it and become successful doing it here in America.”

Second chance

It’s safe to say Alnashaf has been successful, as she’s graduating from the program in less than two years and with a 4.0 GPA.

Eric Wackwitz, an IT software developer instructor at CVTC who had Alnashaf as a student in several classes, said he was immediately struck by her work ethic.

The first assignment he gave his students was to create a PowerPoint presentation comparing different operating systems. The minimum slide requirement for the assignment was 12, but Alnashaf far surpassed his expectations with a total of 28 slides, Wackwitz recalled with a laugh.

“She was not only one of the best students I’ve ever had, but one of the best people I’ve ever been around,” Wackwitz said. “She’s just fantastic — motivated, a really hard worker. And on the personal side, she radiates positivity. She’s always got a smile on her face.

“She’s one of those students where the minimum is never acceptable,” Wackwitz added. “She always went above and beyond.”

But it wasn’t always easy for Alnashaf.

On her first day, Alnashaf said, she cried from 7 a.m., when her husband dropped her off at CVTC for the first time, until her first class at 9 a.m. The self-doubt she felt was crippling.

“I sat and cried like a baby when you drop them off at school for the first time,” Alnashaf recalled, laughing at the memory now. “I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I here?’”

But an hour in, she knew she would love it here and was determined to be successful, Alnashaf said, glancing around at the computer lab where her first class was.

Because of her hard work and her experience as an office assistant at Menards, which counted as her internship, Alnashaf graduated in less than two years.

But graduating is bittersweet.

Alnashaf loved her time at CVTC — her classes, her peers, her teachers and all the staff. The experience, Alnashaf said, gave her hope whenever she was down. It’s the place where her dreams came true — on her last day of class, she found out she was pregnant at the campus clinic. In her excitement, Alnashaf couldn’t help but tell her instructor.

“My teacher was so happy for me because he knew that was my motivation, to be a mom,” Alnashaf said, beaming. “I just couldn’t wait to tell anyone.”

As she prepares to speak at commencement Tuesday, Alnashaf said she’s been thinking of it as her chance to say thank you to the place in the U.S. that has become most dear to her.

“This is going to be my way of saying thank you to CVTC — thank you for giving me a second chance in life,” Alnashaf said. “They gave me a career and they give me hope that I’m going to be stable financially — I can have a baby now, I deserve to be a mom here. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Looking ahead, Alnashaf said she and her husband plan to stay in Eau Claire — a place that feels just as much like home to her as Syria.

“I love Eau Claire. I’ve traveled to many places, and when I got here I felt like this was my home,” she said. “I feel like I belong here.”