One Step at a Time

10.11.12

As a teenager growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, Agnes Matlebjane dreamed of one day earning a college education. But for Aggy, as she’s known to friends, the path to achieving that dream wasn’t always so clear. Hailing from the dusty roads of Soweto, the Kean student simply couldn’t afford the tuition. Besides, no one in her family had ever taken that journey.

After graduating from high school, Aggy immediately took a job to help support her family. Even with the additional income, there was little left over to pursue a degree. But all wasn’t for naught. In time, she became quite proficient at counting on – and believing in - herself. “I did what I had to do,” said Aggy. “But I never gave up hope.”

At 26 years old, Aggy finally found the opportunity that she was looking for – and pushed open the door. It was then that she was introduced to Au Pair in America, an organization which teams au pairs throughout the world with host families in the United States. She recently chronicled her experiences serving as an au pair in a book, titled Footsteps: My Life as an Au Pair, published by Xlibris Books.

Upon arriving in America, Aggy was welcomed by the Rances family in Maplewood, N.J., entrusted by parents Nancy and John to care for their sons Ethan and Ty. From the outset, the family treated her as one of their own. She recalled being introduced to neighbors and friends not as an au pair or an employee, but simply as “Aggy, a new part of our family.” In time, she grew to be like a sister to the boys, evident in the Zulu names she gave them – calling Ethan “Sipho,” meaning “a gift,” and Ty “Jabulani,” meaning “happiness.”

Realizing her passion to earn a degree, the Rances made a deal with her – if she worked for them for two years, then they would sponsor her to obtain a student visa and stay in the United States to study. “I had to be patient,” recalled Aggy. “They had promised me something that I had always wanted.”

When the time finally came, Aggy was more than up for the challenge. She used the limited $500 stipend for education – typically used to study a foreign language – and took her first course in writing for film and television. As her studies continued, she supplemented her time in the classroom as a writer and subsequently as managing editor and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, Essex County College Observer (ECCO). Aggy also somehow managed to teach African dance at Irby’s Dance Center in South Orange, N.J., as well as work two additional babysitting jobs for families in South Orange – the Mitchells and the Trotters.

As a daily reminder of what lay ahead, she printed out and posted a photo showing a girl dressed in a graduation gown. “I didn’t even know her,” recalled Aggy, “but I thought, ‘That is going to be me.’”

As she juggled work and school, Aggy steadily continued to adjust to American culture. She recalled having to get used to making eye contact when talking with others – a sign of disrespect in her native culture. Moreover, she was admittedly not used to a family life comprised of a mother, father and children, nor one where parents share every family affair with their children. Likewise, she recalled being in awe to see how excited the boys got, running to greet their father, when he arrived home from work. “My experience here has really changed the way that I think in many ways,” said Aggy. “Now I am really open to many more things.”

Aggy completed the first leg of her journey, graduating from Essex County College with an associate’s degree in liberal arts, in May 2011. With her every step of the way, Aggy’s host family held a graduation party for her, and Ethan and Ty presented her with a necklace with the inscription “BFF” – which, for the uninformed, means “best friends forever.”

Though the path seemed at times to be anything but smooth, she had proved once again the unbridled power of believing in oneself.

First, and probably most importantly, be self-reliant. Know who you are, where you come from and where you heading. As rough and tough as it may be, define your inner self accurately, so that the outer self can be an inviting gift to the world. Without fail, when your inner life grows beautifully, it constantly shows from the air you breathe. In the same way, when you don’t let it grow powerfully, undoubtedly, others will grow it for you reprehensibly and it won’t be fulfilling. Only you can be in charge of your inner life. - Aggy Matlebjane

Upon graduating, Aggy enrolled at Kean to pursue a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. Building on her past success, she was recently named editor of The Cougar’s Byte. Among her most memorable, eye-opening experiences at Kean, she recently spent a day interning for alumna Michelle Gadsden Williams, managing director and global head of diversity and inclusion for Credit Suisse. “I learned the countless ways in which a communication degree can be used in the business industry,” she said, adding, “Meeting Michelle was also a great opportunity to see what it means to be successful, yet well-respected and down to Earth. I thought to myself, ‘This could be me.’”

Aggy continues to make great personal strides as well. In July, she married her husband Douglas Green. Her host mother, Nancy, served as her witness.

Citing the words of Henry David Thoreau, Aggy continues to go confidently in the direction of her dreams, living the life that she always imagined. “I see where I am now and where I plan to be,” she said. “If you put your mind to something, then you can achieve it.”

 

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