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Temvelo Matsebula is Africa's Tomorrow's first woman scholar and first graduate. She serves youth who are wards of the state, an incredibly vulnerable population of children. Temvelo shared with us a bit about what it's like to be an essential worker and international graduate during the Coronavirus pandemic.
What is working in the US like for an international student, and for an international graduate?
So, I feel like working in the US for me, entering the work industry, I had to prove myself to my coworkers - I had to prove that I am capable. More than Americans would have to. It's easy for people to think, "oh, she's international, she got hired because she's international, she will struggle to understand the basics of the job, we'll have to explain the basics." People tried to baby me. I had to prove that, yes, I need help, but I have the basic skills that this job requires. It's a challenge to show people that I am capable and earn their trust. It's easy to trust an American with a task like interviewing a kid who is getting admitted, but people doubt I am able to do it because I might not have experienced what they are going through, but I do have personal experience and I have also studied it.
In my field, it's a lot of proving yourself, that you are capable. But is' also amazing, as an international scholar, to apply the knowledge that I've gained throughout college, to put it into practice on a day-to-day basis, not just in an internship. That's exciting and fulfilling for me.
How has the COVID pandemic changed your work and your life outside of work?
When it comes to my work life, I have to a lot of self-screening to do before I go to work. There's this spreadsheet I have to do at home about whether I'm sick, then when I get to work I have to take my temperature and log it before I can interact with coworkers or kids, for example. There is so much email coming from people higher up and I am stuck in the office for at least 30 minutes before I can even start work.
As for my social life, I pretty much cannot have a social life anymore. I have to tell my supervisor everything about my life, like the people I live with if I travel I have to report it. I have had to stop having a personal life. Because I work with kids, the things that I enjoy doing I had to stop. And it sometimes feels like an invasion of my privacy to have to report everything to my supervisor, but I signed that contract and I work with kids, so I have to do that to protect the kids.
It's hard, every day, there are these long emails I have to read and I have to make sure to do those things. Like, if I see someone coughing I can't just give them a cough drop, now I have to investigate their sickness - I am like a health inspector now, I pass meds, but now I'm investigating, like, "when did you start coughing?" It's a new set of responsibilities.
How is your experience similar to other Africa's Tomorrow scholars, and how is it different?
In my case, I still have to physically go to work, I can't do anything at home. I have to physically travel to work and some others can do their work at home, at their own time, at their own comfort. That's a big difference.
Something that is similar is I still have to get the job done just like they have to get the job done.
I have to carry a letter that says I'm required, I'm needed…I have to carry it everywhere I go now. I think, "what's the point?" I even have to carry it to the store, but other people don't need to do that! Everybody goes grocery shopping! But my employer says, "in case you get pulled out...." They are taking extra precautions because they need us. They need us to come to work.
I know you are an essential worker - what is that like?
Personally, since I'm an essential worker, it does really mean I have to stay healthy. I take more supplements, get more sleep, take more fluids. I'm no longer worried about myself, I'm worried about my clients. It's a big requirement mentally, it can be a challenge. It's like what if I am the one who gets sick and brings it to my kids? Other people are mostly concerned about their own health. Because I am required to go work, thinking I might be taking all the precautions that are needed, but one of my coworkers are not, I have to deal with that. I promised these kids to be there at all times. What if my coworker puts me at risk? And my kids at risk? It's a whole community I have to worry about and that feels different than those people who are not essential workers.
What do you worry about most in your work and home life?
The thing I worry about most at work is just the fact that we still have to take care of the kids and make sure they go through therapy and right now at work I worry about the kids discharging and their families not using the necessary precautions and so they get sick, or a kid being admitted and having been exposed, so then everyone here gets exposed.
At home, I'm thinking, when is this going to be over? And for people in other countries, people that I love and care about, I'm thinking when is this going to be over? How can I be sure they're going to be safe? Some aren't really taking the necessary steps and it's like, I love you! Please take the precautions, even if you don't think it's serious, can you do it for the people around you? Can you do it for me?!
In what ways has the pandemic changed the way you think about work?
I feel like for me, work was mostly providing the service to the clients, but now the pandemic made me think it's no longer just about the kids, it's about me, my coworkers. We are literally doing therapy with each other. We are more involved in each others' lives. The pandemic has created this family-oriented environment. Before it was like, this is work, it's not personal, but now it feels personal.
What else should people know about what it's like to be an Africa's Tomorrow scholar related to jobs and access to income?
People should know that, especially right now, we …this pandemic is affecting us in a different way. If you don't have a job, you are risking your [immigration] status - if you are an OPT student [Optional Practical Training, a temporary work authorization for scholars to gain practical work experience in the US after graduation] or laid off, you have to worry about what's next while you are still worrying about your own health. It's really a struggle right now, most Africa's Tomorrow scholars have to worry about, if we don't go back to school next semester, how am I going to maintain my status? How is my school going to help? How am I going to afford it? Am I going to be able to make it? What am I going to do? Is going home an option? If I go home, I will be quarantined for 14 days, then still won't be able to get a job right now! If I lose my status I'm at risk for being deported and then I won't be able to come back to this country for 10 more years, and we don't really have a platform to get answers. We aren't just worried about money, we are worried about our status.
I'm thinking of my [OPT] extension - all the [government] offices are closed right now - how am I even going to do my application? When is it going to be reviewed? What if it doesn't get reviewed in time? I'm trying to apply to graduate school programs, but what if I can't apply to programs? But still the pandemic is here, so should I be going out to look for a job? What am I going to do? I feel like that is what people are worrying about. That's what I am worrying about.
What if I can't stay here and I don't have enough money for a plane ticket? Is Africa's Tomorrow going to help me? Like, if my mom gets sick or passes away, even if I go there, I may not be able to be with my family, I may not even be able to attend the funeral, so is it really helping for me to go there? There are so many steps to be taken and we need help navigating those things. What is the sustainable plan that we can make? Us international students, we need to think about the crisis plan now because the decision in the moment could be the wrong one - what if being with them isn't going to help?
To our community, we can just ask them to pray for us and trust that God will support us in any decisions we have to make.
Want to learn more about work access during the pandemic in other communities around the globe? Explore stories from our partners: