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Searching for meaning through education

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Naledi Mthembu is a 19-year-old international student who traveled all the way to the United States on a spiritual journey to find out who she is as a person, as well as pursue a college education.

Mthembu was born in the small town of Standerton in South Africa. She described her hometown as “very secluded and very segregated.” After spending the first 12 years of her life there, she attended a private boarding school in the much larger and developed town of Durban.

“My parents were very serious about education and they wanted the best for me so they sent me to boarding school at a private school in Durban,” Mthembu says. “My dad doesn’t have a degree but he wants more for me than what he’s had in his life.”

While she felt like she didn’t have the room to grow as an individual, her parents sent her to Durban so she could be presented with opportunities that she wouldn’t have in Standerton.

“Race is still a thing,” Mthembu says about her hometown. “There’s a lot of hate and (you don’t see) a lot of mingling between social classes.”

She’s had two different types of experiences growing up in South Africa. In Durban, she could be herself and not what her parents wanted her to be. Whereas in Standerton, she felt as if she couldn’t be productive and make the most out of her life.

However, she would experience another huge shift in her life when she came to the United States for the first time in 2014 on a school tour when she was in high school. Over the course of two weeks, she spent time in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas and even visited the Grand Canyon in Flagstaff, Arizona.

During the few days she spent in San Francisco, she immediately fell in love with the atmosphere and knew that she wanted to go to school in Northern California.

The stars became aligned when she met Wissem Bennani, the International Student Program (ISP) manager of Skyline College at an education summit in South Africa. It was in that moment that she knew she wanted to attend Skyline because of how close it is to San Francisco.

“When I heard about (Skyline), it sounded like a good school,” Mthembu recalled. “There was also a scholarship opportunity, so why not take it?”

Upon arriving in California last fall, the ISP was able to set her up with a homestay program where she lived with an elderly Filipino couple before moving out on her own.

“I wanted to move out within the first two months of being here but finding a place was really difficult,” Mthembu says.

Although she stayed with her homestay family for longer than she had expected, she didn’t mind it. She was able to experience a different lifestyle by eating Filipino food for the first time and enjoyed listening to stories of the immigrant couple.

Despite not knowing anyone or having friends in a foreign country, Mthembu was able to create friendships with other international students. Although one of her best friends transferred to a university in Miami, she was presented with the opportunity to travel to Miami over spring break.

“The ISP helped a lot as well because they held parties where I was able to mingle with other international students,” Mthembu says. “I made a lot of friends within the first month because of all the different opportunities (the program allows for students to be social).”

Unlike other international students who experience a language barrier in a new country, that wasn’t the case for Mthembu because she has been speaking in English all her life. But she was surprised when people older than her would talk to her as a friend rather than someone who was inferior to them.

She currently works as a student assistant with the ISP and works closely with other international students to assist them with whatever they need.

“Working with other international students is my favorite part of the job because I genuinely like to help people, that’s just who I am,” Mthembu says with a smile. “It makes me feel good to help people figure out what they want, especially students with a language barrier who aren’t able to speak English very well.”

Mthembu originally chose to be a business major but then changed it to journalism instead. She mentioned that her ability to change majors was a major difference in education between the United States and South Africa.

“If I did that back at home, I would have to start all over,” Mthembu says. “The major difference here is that there’s a lot more freedom to choose and change (majors)… I like being able to put my hand in different pots to test (things) out.”

Mthembu believes that her purpose in life is to tell other people’s stories and be the voice of people who aren’t able to share their stories. She’s currently writing articles for Skyline Speaks whenever the ISP hosts an event.

She has a penchant for traveling and wants to do a lot more of it in her life and mentioned that she sees herself as a nomad in the next ten years.

“I want to continue exploring,” Mthembu says. “I want to live a life where I’m constantly being challenged to grow… I can’t see myself living in one place (for the rest of my life).”

Her desire for travelling the world stems from her grandfather working on ships in South Africa, allowing him to travel the world. The love of moving from place to place was passed down to her, it’s in her blood.

When asked where she wants to go after Skyline, Mthembu was unable to give a concrete answer. She’s given it some thought but isn’t pressuring herself to pick a school because she wants to explore America and learn about the world.

“I’m an explorer at heart and I love learning new things and meeting new people,” Mthembu says. “I think the best way to do that is to immerse yourself in their culture.”

Mthembu seems to be a free spirit and goes with the flow of each day that passes her by. She isn’t focused so much on what tomorrow will bring, as opposed to what the current moment has in store for her.

“I am a searcher,” Mthembu says. “My life is a long search for something and although I’m not sure what I’m looking for, I like it.”

She’s extremely grateful for the doors that have opened for her since she’s come to the United States and there’s no doubt that other doors will continue to open for her.

“I hope I can be an inspiration for other people,” Mthembu says. “If you want to do something, you can do it.”

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Searching for meaning through education