How a Russian doctoral student became part of my family

International Friends

You can find anything at Walmart. Nine years ago, I found a Russian. 

Mind you, that’s not why I went to Walmart. 

It was the night before our youngest daughter Sydney’s birthday. My husband, Greg, and our older daughter, Taylor, were picking out a toy for Sydney while she and I shopped in a different part of the store.

It was Aug. 11, 2010 and international students were arriving at Notre Dame. Like any college students, many found their way to Walmart to pick up supplies. 

Friend From RussiaPictured above is Iogann Tolbatov. The feature photo, from 2012, includes Iogann in the top center, Natalie on the top left, Greg on the top right, Taylor in the center and Sydney to her left. (Feature photo taken by Joanne Green.)

Iogann Tolbatov was one of them. He approached Sydney and me, asking for help. After much gesturing and reaching for words on his part, we figured out he wanted to buy a bucket. I asked him how long he had been in the States. 

“I have been here yesterday,” he said with a very thick Russian accent. I imagined what it must be like to be at a new school in a new country. 

Greg and Taylor found us, and introductions were made. Our conversation continued, including talking briefly about Sydney’s upcoming birthday. I gave Iogann (YO-gun) my number. “Call me if you need anything.” 

The next morning, my phone rang. “I am calling to congratulate you on the birth of Sydney and I wish for her much health and happiness.” That began my lessons in Russian culture and what would turn out to be a long relationship with the young man who would become “my Russian son.” 

Our relationship grew with phone calls about things that Americans largely take for granted — Do I need to make an appointment with the manager of Walmart to return an electric razor that doesn’t work? Should I buy this brand or that brand of boot? Is this a good price? It became more apparent just how alone he was. When I was a child, my mother hosted many holiday meals celebrated with people I had no relation to, by blood or marriage. I invited Iogann to our house for dinner.

Dinners turned into church and baptisms and birthdays and holiday celebrations, in Indianapolis with my family and in Nappanee with Greg’s family. We had many, many family game nights. And there were the Michiana winters, something that Iogann loved — including sledding, something he had never done before. We even taught him to drive.

Before we knew it, it was 2015 and Iogann had received his Ph.D. in physics. It was time for him to return home. Yet we remain connected with Iogann. He remembers all of our birthdays and American holidays, and keeps us apprised of his successes. 

Our first meeting nine years ago, though purely incidental, led to one of our family’s most rewarding relationships. That’s why I remember the date we met.  

I share this personal story because International Student and Scholar Affairs is seeking families and individuals to participate in the Family Friendship Program for the 2019-20 academic year. The program pairs international students and scholars with members of the local community to help them learn more about American culture and make the most of their time at Notre Dame. While this is a wonderful opportunity for the international student, you too might walk away with something special to look back on. 

The deadline to sign up is Sunday, Sept. 8. A kickoff dinner for participants is Tuesday, Sept. 24, at a to-be-determined campus location. 

Update: Three years ago Iogann won a postdoctoral fellowship for the European Space Agency where he continues to focus in the fields of computational inorganic chemistry and organometallics. “Notre Dame has taught me not to pigeonhole and to develop in various directions,” says Iogann. “I do trekking, alpinism, salsa dancing and fencing. I miss Notre Dame very much — the awesome professors, hardworking students, top research facilities, snowy winters and beautiful campus.” 

About the writer: Natalie started in her position as managing editor of NDWorks on Aug. 26. This is her first story for NDWorks Weekly. You can reach Natalie at or 1-0445. She’d be glad to hear from you.