UPWARD BOUND: Russian native finds her niche in the U.S.

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A University of Michigan grad, Inessa Nevelev is pursuing a law degree at WMU-Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills.

Photo by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

The field of law has offered a safe harbor for Inessa Nevelev, a Russian native who came to the U.S. in 1993 as a Jewish refugee from Latvia, one of the Baltic states of the former Soviet Union.

Like so many immigrants, Nevelev arrived in the U.S. with little more than a “dream” of a more prosperous life, never imagining that a journey that began in uncertainty and disillusionment could now offer the promise of a successful career in the legal profession.

“I came here not knowing hardly a word of English, halfway around the world from my friends and family in Latvia,” said Nevelev, now a 41-year-old married mother of a school-age daughter. “I was scared. I was lonely.”

And before long, she would be divorced from her first husband, cast aside in a strange land with a meager $40 to her name.

“I could barely speak English for the first two years that I was here,” Nevelev said. “I didn’t know how I could make it. All I wanted to do was cry.”

Instead, she persevered, enrolling in classes at Oakland County Community College to develop her English skills before earning admission to the University of Michigan where she would earn a bachelor’s degree in political science.

“I was working all the time I attended U-M, commuting from Waterford for nearly six years,” Nevelev said. “It was hard and I never really felt a part of the university because of the commute and my work schedule. But earning a degree from there boosted my confidence.”

While attending U-M, she worked as a Russian translator for businesses in the medical and legal professions, gaining first-hand exposure to the nuances of the law.

“Working with various law firms, I really developed a fascination for the law,” Nevelev said. “At first I didn’t think it was possible for me to attend law school, so I was encouraged to become a paralegal, which was a more affordable route for me.”

As such, Nevelev enrolled in the paralegal program at Baker College, a business school with 10 campuses across Michigan, including Auburn Hills. While a student at Baker, Nevelev served as an intern for former Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Colleen O’Brien, now a member of the Michigan Court of Appeals bench.

“I absolutely loved being in the courtroom each day,” she said. “It felt like home and everyone made me feel so welcome. It was such a positive experience.”

That trend would continue in January 2015 when Nevelev began work as a law clerk for Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Lisa Gorcyca.

“Judge Gorcyca is a fantastic boss and has been incredibly supportive of me in every way,” Nevelev said of the jurist who has been a member of the Circuit Court bench since 2009. “I have learned so much from her and consider her a wonderful mentor as I work and attend law school.”

Gorcyca, in turn, said it is a “mutual admiration society,” calling Nevelev “an inspiration” for all.

“I call her ‘my favorite Russian’ all the time,” Gorcyca said. “She is beautiful and brilliant, and has an awesome story to share about overcoming tremendous odds.”

Earlier this month, Nevelev began her second year of classes at the Auburn Hills campus of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School in quest of a juris doctor degree that may take her nearly five years to obtain.

“It’s tough to juggle classes at nights and on the weekends with work throughout the week, but I’m learning so much about time management and discipline. There simply is no time to mess up,” she said with a smile.

Especially when the demands of motherhood are added to the mix, Nevelev acknowledged.

“My daughter (Anastasia) is 10 years old and I want to be the best mother and best role model for her growing up,” Nevelev said of her fifth-grader. “She is such a joy and I want to spend as much time with her and my husband (Dmitri, a computer systems engineer) as I can. Our time together is very precious.”

Still, each day Nevelev carves out time to talk with her parents in Latvia, a country that reminds her “very much” of the beauty of northern Michigan.

“I FaceTime with my parents each day,” said Nevelev, who also has a younger brother. “It’s our way to stay connected and for them to feel in touch with their granddaughter.”

In her spare time, Nevelev enjoys playing chess online, but only allows herself “5 minutes” per game.

“I have learned how to be tired and how to still function,” she said. “Going to law school is a lot like having a newborn baby. You’re sleep deprived, hungry, and exhausted, but I have to admit that I love every minute of it.”

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