Even though Kevin Thwala was born in Maryland, his childhood was spent on the other side of the world, splitting time between Swaziland and South Africa before returning to the United States to attend college. Thwala’s hometown of Durban, South Africa, is a coastal town and may not seem too different from a typical suburban town in the United States: semi-urban, with both malls and residential areas all within a five minute driving distance.
“I moved from Swaziland up to Jozi, which is a nickname for Johannesburg,” Thwala said. Thwala lived in Johannesburg, which translates to “the city of gold,” for about seven years until the age of thirteen, and it is a time that he remembers fondly. “I liked the city and the vibe.”
While Johannesburg may have been where Thwala spent the first years of his life, he moved around quite often, but in Durban he stayed put. “[Durban is] very chill and less stressed…I can go to the beach, lighthouse, or play soccer on the field,” Thwala said. “It is more laid back while Jozi is more like New York…there’s more urgency.”
To describe a perfect day in South Africa, Thwala would love to wake up in Cape Town and go shark diving, which is pretty popular in the area. He would also make his way to Robben Island and walk through the prison Nelson Mandela was held in for more than 30 years.
For someone visiting South Africa, his first piece of advice is to eat the food. According to Thwala, “South Africa has some of the best food in the world.” Thwala also suggests watching a local soccer or rugby game in either the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban or Soccer City in Jozi. Thwala also recommends taking a side trip to a less urbanized area to see an entirely different culture than what can be found in the cities.
Kruger National Park is his personal favorite. The park is a city-sized piece of land that is fenced off and home to Africa’s Big Five: lions, leopards, buffalos, elephants and rhinos. The park is also home to hippos, giraffes and cheetahs. The national park is something that Thwala describes as “uniquely South African.”
While Thwala loved growing up in Durban, he did miss the city spirit of Jozi. Searching for a similar atmosphere, Thwala was drawn to both the hard grind of New York City and the city that never sleeps mentality. Thwala was specifically drawn to Manhattan College because of engineering.
“My parents’ influence and Mandela’s impact on us [South African] kids have been big factors in me sticking through the tough engineering regiment,” he said. “Sometimes you just want to give up and go home but regardless of what happens [I] never give up.”
Thwala speaks highly of Mandela. “I wouldn’t be who I am, have the rights [and] freedoms I have today if it weren’t for him. He believed education is the most powerful weapon that can be used to change the world.”
Having citizenship in the United States also gave Thwala a unique advantage over his classmates.
“When I was in high school I saw this as an opportunity a lot of people don’t get,” he said. “I come from a place where a lot of kids don’t have [a lot]… I’m in a position where I do, and I’m lucky for that.” Thwala is planning on earning a degree in computer engineering, and he hopes to work for a company that does software solutions for other public and private companies.
And while he has easily found a home in New York City, Thwala does not forget his roots.
“South Africa is coming out of the phase of Apartheid…our generation is very open and caring and neighborly… and even though there are headlines here and there of crime… I think all countries have that,” he said.
If Thwala has changed since attending school in the US, he said that “maybe it’s made me appreciate the little things a little bit more.”
“Being exposed to American culture and a variety of influences from different people and different backgrounds helped round me… exposure helped broaden my thinking [and knowing] what I could achieve.”
Thwala’s entire family is back home in South Africa, but homesickness is generally avoided because he keeps in touch through email, Facebook and phone calls. “It doesn’t hit me as much except move-in day and family weekend,” he said. But when the opportunity arises, Thwala is thankful for his friends, who welcome him into their homes.
He celebrated his first American thanksgiving in Pennsylvania with a close friend and his family, and went to a fraternity brother’s home for Christmas in New Rochelle. The families of his friends were “so selfless, warm and inviting,” Thwala said, “and at Christmas they even got me some presents.”
Even when he’s away from home, Thwala carries the Zulu phrase with him wherever he goes, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which loosely translates to “a person is a person through other people” which Thwala explains is how you learn about yourself through your compassion for others.
“From the time I have spent in America I have met some of the most inspirational, smart…fun, diligent, interesting and all-around admirable kinds of everyday people,” Thwala said. “We all have our ‘American dream’… we relate that way and I’m really enjoying the journey thus far.”