From college to City Council to college

Grand Forks City Council member Katherine Dachtler will get her bachelor’s degree next week, some 14 years after first enrolling at UND

Some 14 years after first enrolling at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks City Council member Katherine Dachtler is graduating this month with a bachelor’s degree in general studies. In January, she begins her master’s studies in social work at the University. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

In the last 14 years, life happened for Katherine Dachtler. She married, had three kids and found good jobs in Grand Forks.

She also got elected, first to the Grand Forks School Board and then to the Grand Forks City Council, where she still serves.

And across all those years, Dachtler also kept pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of North Dakota.

“I actually started my college career back in August of 2005,” Dachtler told UND Today. “It is now December 2019, and I’m just finally getting around to graduating. But life isn’t linear.”

Dachtler, who’s also a student records specialist at UND’s Office of Extended Learning, has a relaxed, cordial demeanor that puts a smile on her face even as she recounts life’s ups and downs.

Maybe that’s because after more than a decade of searching, she’s now confident in her own skin.

Years ago, Dachtler would feel discontent and perhaps a tinge of shame for not finishing college in four years. But then, she learned to revel in the journey on life’s twisting path.

Today, Dachtler shares her philosophy with fellow women in leadership positions as well as students, speaking to Honors and leadership classes at UND.

She has a mantra that guides her actions: “Listen someone powerful.” Grammatically, it’s awful, she admits, but the deeper meaning resonates with her.

“In order to empower someone, in order to make them feel like they belong or that they have the ability to change something, you have to listen,” Dachtler said. “You have to listen to them to empower them.”

Thus, to understand Dachtler, one needs to know where she comes from and where she is headed to.

Life has a way

Dachtler was born in South Korea, but the last time she was in the country was more than three decades ago. When she was only three months old, Dachtler was adopted by an American couple living in Fergus Fall, Minn., where she grew up.

“There were years when I struggled with it,” she said of her adoption. “But for the most part, now, I’m at peace with that, and that it’s just always going to be a question mark.

“It gave me experiences and insight that maybe other people weren’t able to have and that will help me serve people better in the future. I’m grateful for that.”

In 2004, Dachtler finished high school. That fall, she landed in Ecuador for a one-year Bible college, where she met her husband, Dylan Dachtler.

Dachtler tries on her UND cap and gown a week before commencement. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

The couple then moved to Grand Forks, Dylan’s hometown, and Dachtler enrolled at UND. They lived in an apartment off campus, an arrangement that offered few opportunities for Dachtler to make friends outside the classroom. “I wasn’t rushing any of the Greek life,” Dachtler said with a laugh. “I wasn’t looking for a date at any party. It was really hard to meet people. And, it was lonely because the winters are cold, and you have to get yourself invited over to see someone.”

By 2008, Dachtler had managed to foster a community for herself by getting involved with a local church and working. But that year ushered in some changes: Dachtler gave birth to their oldest daughter, and her husband graduated from UND and secured a job in California. The family moved, and Dachtler paused her studies at UND.

In the Golden State, the Dachtlers grappled with a new challenge: their baby daughter’s sickness.

“We didn’t have any family that was close by, and we were always in the hospital,” Dachtler said. “We were really young. I had just turned 22 and Dylan was 24, and we had a kid who was sick all the time. We needed to go back.”

So they did. Dylan enrolled at UND again, pursuing a second bachelor’s degree. He is now a science teacher at Elroy Schroeder Middle School in Grand Forks.

In 2010, the family had another daughter, and Dachtler opened a home day care. Then she began working with the Salvation Army before joining Lutheran Social Services as an employment specialist and later as the organization’s refugee resettlement coordinator.

Dachtler also returned to UND. But her schedule of classes, a demanding job and a growing family proved onerous. She made the hard decision that school could wait.

The Dachtler family. Courtesy of Katherine Dachtler.

In 2015, with a baby son in the family, Dachtler ran for a position on the Grand Forks School Board. By then feeling truly at home in Grand Forks, “I felt empowered from learning and meeting other people who had done it and were like me,” she said. “They didn’t have a picture-perfect story of their education or of their profession or anything like that. They were just regular people who cared.”

Dachtler concluded a two-year term on the board before seeking election to City Council. Today, as a council member, she represents Ward 2, a swath of town to the north and east of UND’s core campus.

“It’s been a trip,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve learned a lot. I’m still learning a lot. But I do enjoy the work I do. I like being able to help people in whatever way I can.”

The desire to help has defined Dachtler’s career. It has also pushed her to come back to UND, this time with a clear notion of where she wants to go next.

The future awaits

Drawing on her personal and professional background, Dachtler wants to open a consultancy with a focus on unconscious bias training, and diversity and inclusion education.

“I have to finish school first, but I would like to add counseling services specific to identity pieces and how important they are, especially for adoptees, potential adoptive families, and adoptive families,” she said.

To fill that void, Dachtler is first furthering her education. In January, she is to begin her master’s studies in social work at UND.

Before that, however, she’ll cross the commencement stage on Dec. 20 with her bachelor’s degree in general studies, complemented by minors in communication and nonprofit management and a certificate in diversity and inclusion.

“You can’t be in school that long without having a handful of other things to go along with it,” she said with a laugh.

Until recently, Dachtler thought she’d skip the graduation festivities on campus. What was the point, after all? Her bachelor’s degree has taken so long. Moreover, Dachtler still has three years in the master’s program before she is really done with college.

But then Dachtler’s younger daughter, who’s 9, asked about going to the commencement ceremony. When she heard her mom say “no,” her face seemed to fall, Dachtler said.

Dachtler wants to be a role model for her kids, so she reconsidered. Her children will see her, dressed in a cap and gown, receive her diploma.

“I want my kids to go to college,” Dachtler said. “But more important, I want them to be proud of who they are and the work they do. At this point in my life, I also understand that you don’t have to go to a four-year college, and you don’t have to take four to five years to finish it. You don’t have to do any of these things to be successful and love your life.”