Faces Of Nantucket: Vessela Natcheva

Waverly Brannigan •

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Vessela Natcheva at Nantucket Elementary School. Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

Years on island: 26

Favorite things about Nantucket: The community and the beaches.

When Vessela Natcheva (Vessy) arrived on Nantucket in the summer of 1997, she was visiting on a J1 student visa from Pleven, Bulgaria, and knew nothing about the island. But she quickly found that Nantucket resonated deeply with her, and she decided to move full-time in May of 1998, one of the six original Bulgarian immigrants to settle on the island.

Now, Natcheva is an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teacher at the Nantucket Elementary School, the result of pursuing a dream of teaching English she’s had since she was six years old. And she is one of a large community of Bulgarian immigrants on Nantucket who have found success and a home on the island, even founding their own weekend school - the Bulgarian Education Center - at the Congregational Church on Centre Street.

Natcheva plays a key role in supporting the island’s future generations, especially connecting with those who have moved from other countries, as she did years ago.

Natcheva’s first summer on Nantucket was a mix of excitement and uncertainty, but that didn’t stop her from convincing her husband, Ilia, to come with her. The couple married in December of 1998, kicking off their new lives in the United States.

“I convinced him I fell in love with the island and we both decided to stay here and work hard,” Natcheva explains. “There was something about the island that's almost like a magnetic power that I was drawn to.”

She recalls during one of her final exams in American literature in Bulgaria, she happened to pick Herman Melville’s Moby Dick out of a random line-up of 20 books, which came to feel like fate when she arrived on the island and came across the Whaling Museum.

Beyond her love for the island, Natcheva’s passion for teaching and languages has driven her career. Holding a bachelor’s degree in teaching English as a foreign language and a minor in linguistics from Veliko Tarnovo University in Bulgaria, she continued to pursue further education in the U.S. In 2003, she earned her master’s degree in early childhood education from Wheelock College, now part of Boston University. Three years later, she completed her second master’s in literary processing theory at Lesley University.

“I chose the teaching profession and worked really hard to get to where I am right now because I know that…hard work and perseverance are the two things my parents always told me are important and that's how you get things in life achieved,” Natcheva explains. “There are no shortcuts.”

Since 1999, Vessy has served in various teaching roles, culminating in her current position as an ESL teacher for kindergarten through second grade. Over the years, she has taught students from diverse backgrounds on the island, including countries like the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Belarus, Lithuania, Brazil, and Thailand.

Fluent in Bulgarian, Russian, English, and Spanish herself, Natcheva uses her linguistic skills to connect with her students and their families. She emphasizes the importance of maintaining one’s cultural heritage while adapting to a new environment. Her personal experiences as an immigrant allow her to relate deeply to her students’ challenges and aspirations.

“They connect with me because I'm an immigrant and I know what they feel, just the fear of the unknown and the culture shock coming into another country,” she says.

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Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

Natcheva not only teaches her students English but also the values of perseverance and cultural pride. She often shares her own story of hard work and dedication, aiming to inspire her students to achieve their goals despite obstacles they may face. She affectionately refers to her students as “her kids” and highlights that their “secret power” is being bilingual – something she shares with them as well.

“They know that I'm an immigrant, and I constantly point that out as an advantage. I don't want them to feel ashamed. I want them to keep their language and keep their culture,” Natcheva emphasizes.

Natcheva’s connection to Bulgaria has remained strong throughout the years, as she typically returns there for part of the summer to spend time with her parents and keep her daughter connected to their culture, while also volunteering for kids in need.

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Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

Natcheva’s teaching philosophy is deeply rooted in connecting to everyone’s unique identities, focusing on the importance of all cultural values and heritages. Although teaching English, she is dedicated to creating a safe space for all students where they can learn at their own pace, share their own experiences, and learn from one another – creating a multicultural environment that celebrates diversity.

“I don't just teach [my kids] how to speak, read and write in English. The most important thing I teach them is to respect everyone and be kind and do the right thing when no one is watching, no one is giving you a prize,” she says. “I honestly hope that they see me as a model and they know that, wow, I can do this.”

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