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From Swaziland to New Hampshire: Dartmouth student makes a difference

Thabo Matse distinguished himself by topping Swaziland’s exam scores rankings at a young age, eventually earning him a scholarship to attend the United World College – USA in New Mexico.  Now in his junior year at Dartmouth College, Thabo is pursuing a degree in Economics and Engineering with the aim of applying his knowledge at home – which he is already doing through extracurricular projects.

What is your current academic focus? Why did you choose this area?

I am doing a double major in Engineering Sciences and Economics. I was attracted to engineering because of the problem solving nature of the field and the inherent critical analysis skills. I went into economics because I was interested in development.

What advice would you give to students who wish to pursue a similar field?  Did the IB prepare you for this work?

The IB at UWC-USA was a time of self-discovery for me. I came in thinking that I would be a doctor, so I did Biology and Chemistry Higher Level. While I enjoyed these subjects, I had the unique opportunity to challenge my childhood dreams and all that had been impressed upon me growing up — all this in a safe learning environment.

UWC is a place that offers lot of opportunities for engagement outside the classroom, and the IB is a very rigorous curriculum; when I got to college, I found that I had been well prepared for the challenge of having to juggle many engagements in little time, but also that I had in my IB years cultured some maturity to hold on to what mattered as I learned from everything else.

My advice to IB students would be to dare them to not be afraid to learn. We tend to resort to what we are familiar with, but there is true value in pursuing one’s passions beyond what is comfortable. It is okay to stand outside yourself and look critically at the way you have always thought, to look yourself in the eye and challenge your own norms — it is okay to learn.

What would you say was the most difficult thing about settling in at university?

I did my IB in a United World College, a movement whose mission it is to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable peace. I got passionate about my own place in the creation of solutions to challenges much larger than myself, having cultured a sense of idealism and enthusiasm. In college, these values are very much encouraged and my school has a myriad of resources in that direction. However the priorities are slightly different; the major focus is on academics, which are rather rigorous. It can be challenging to think about such things amidst midterms and problem sets.

What was the most difficult thing about transitioning to the United States?

There were many encounters of culture shock in my first months in the states. Among them, it seemed to me that there was a strong culture of individual living—that most people here liked to keep to themselves. In Swaziland, when you meet someone in your way, you stop and greet them, you ask them how they are doing and take the time to listen, and you give an honest answer when the same is asked of you. We believe in ubuntu – a general understanding that one belongs in a community of individuals with similar desires and fears, that each member of the community has an obligation to their fellow. It took me a good amount of time to navigate that in the new space and culture.

What kind of University experience have you had outside of the classroom? (clubs, sports, music, hobbies, etc?)

I like singing, and I am a member of X.ado, a Christian acapella group, and Jabulani, an African singing group. I am also a member of two other cultural organizations: Students for Africa  (Dartmouth African Students Association), and the International Students Association. I recently joined the Thayer Consulting Club, and Social IQ, a consulting club that brings together medical, engineering, graduate and undergraduate students to employ their skills and experiences to solving challenges faced by not-for-profit organizations in the area.

I have also had the opportunity to utilize the resources available in my school to develop my own community in Swaziland, I think that is amazing! Last summer with the help of the Davis Projects for Peace grant, I started a farming project to sustainably grow food for orphaned children in my area.  The summer before that, I travelled to Tanzania with Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering, a student run organization, to study water sanitation and to implement healthier, more energy efficient and environmentally friendlier cook stove technologies in remote villages. I will say that I am blessed to attend a school that avails opportunities for engagement in all the things I care about, from intramural soccer and singing, to consulting and development.

Is there anyone in particular that inspired you while you were an IB student?

I would say that everyone was inspiring on many levels. My peers were teenagers who had not only left their families, but also their cultures, and some, their countries and continents to establish a new family and a new culture. One can only admire such dare from such young individuals. My teachers were people who had to engage a diversity of opinions in the classroom. The staff at my school had to put up with behavior inspired by different cultures and norms. Everyone was outside his or her comfort space, and everyone worked towards building a common understanding.

Tell us about your CAS project and/or extended essay? Do you still have an interest in these projects/research?

When I was doing my IB in UWC, I was part of a successful African Chorus and had an amazing time; when I got to college, I missed singing African songs and thankfully, I wasn’t the only one, so the Jabulani African Chorus was born.

I did my extended essay in economics exploring the implications on local businesses of the import cars industry in Swaziland. Several years later, I am still studying economics with a focus on international and development economics.

How have you changed since graduating from the IB programme?

I believe that exposure is the greatest avenue for growth and self-discovery. Outside my IB and UWC experience, I have encountered the American college culture, more rigorous academics, and many other challenging experiences that have helped me grow.

What are your goals for the next year and a half?

I have a few things on my mind to do after graduation: consulting and economic development stand out.

In December 2012, I attended the British Council’s Global Changemakers Global Youth Summit in London, being one of 60 selected out of 3400 applicants—young people between the ages of 16-21  involved in activism, social entrepreneurship and various efforts of social change in their communities. I am looking forward to building a stronger understanding of social entrepreneurship and its role in creating positive social change and lasting economic development.

Would you like to see an incredible alumnus you know featured on the IB community blog? Send an email to alumni.relations@ibo.org.