The Mbaki brothers: Studying abroad in Utah

From left: Lawrence, 25, and Kevin, 23, at their home in southern Utah.

Story and photos by TAYLOR THORNTON

The idea of leaving home always intrigued Lawrence Mbaki. The world and all of its corners seemed to call him for exploration. 

It was a long flight from Cape Town, South Africa, to Salt Lake City. One deep breath reminded him that his life would be forever different.

The hot desert air was unlike what Mbaki was used to from the Mediterranean climate back home. Stepping off the plane reaffirmed that his dream to travel the world had just become a reality. 

It was a giant leap. He had never left his home country alone. It was an opportunity that he, an adventurer at heart, had to take as it came to him. However, he didn’t expect that something would threaten the progress of his international journey later on.

“I always wanted to study abroad,” Mbaki said. “The United States seemed like a very nice country where the program I wanted to study was better than elsewhere.” 

Early years in Cape Town

Mbaki had always had a passion for the performing arts. From playing pretend with his two younger siblings to participating in extracurricular activities in school, he has presented himself as a performer and a creative.

Mbaki decided to participate in evangelical work in Johannesburg a few years after graduating from high school. Bubbly and always joyful, it was not hard for him to make friends while there. Among those were several friends from the United States who later helped him find university study opportunities. 

The day finally came in early August 2019. Mbaki packed his bags and made the courageous leap for a new beginning. 

Mbaki began his educational pursuits at Southern Utah University the fall semester of his arrival. He soon reunited with his brother, Kevin, who also moved to southern Utah for school opportunities in early December 2019. 

Lawrence (pictured on the left) and Kevin Mbaki at their home in Cedar City, Utah. In the images below: Lawrence is an ambassador who helps other international students at Southern Utah University; SUU is home to international students from across the world.

“I’m only here because of Lawrence,” Kevin said in a phone interview. “I don’t really have a motive behind being here, besides the fact that Lawrence is here.”

While Lawrence has been pursuing his passion for the arts, Kevin has found a new love for computer science and security while studying abroad.

Things seemed to be going well for the brothers as the spring semester kicked into gear. Suddenly, with the coronavirus pandemic’s appearance in March 2020, a fear of returning home early from their studies abroad hung over their heads.

A contributing factor to an international student’s ability to study in the United States is the number of face-to-face credits they take per semester. The ratio of online to in-person classes can vary due to an institution’s policy. An international student, however, must be registered as a full-time student.

This requirement posed a massive problem for international students as universities and educational institutions began to close their doors and move to a fully online class schedule. 

“I was very fearful,” Kevin said. “I didn’t want to go back to South Africa.”

Fearful as they were, they took to action to maintain their education.

Lawrence has been an international student ambassador at Southern Utah University from his first semester of attendance. He and his fellow ambassadors met with the department heads to decide which course of action to take. 

Would it be best to send the students home to their mother country? Would the current and rapidly changing travel restrictions allow for such a move?

Jamie Orton is a director with the International Scholar and Student Services Office at Southern Utah University. That office has the primary purpose of advising, supporting, and providing aid to international visitors attending SUU. These services include providing students with proper travel advising, employment opportunities, immigration maintenance, and so on.

She worked directly with Lawrence and other ambassadors during this time. 

“[We] held an emergency meeting for all international students in March, right before the drastic adjustments were made due to the pandemic,” Orton said in an email interview. “We encouraged students to consult with their parents and families to make the best decision regarding staying in Cedar City or traveling back to their home country.”

It was a time of thoughtful consulting and rapid decision making for students and university leaders. After speaking with their families, half of the international student population decided to return home due to the coronavirus’s fearful circumstances.

Lawrence and Kevin were not among this group of fleeing students.

A view of SUU’s campus from on top of the student center.

As the situation continued to change, Lawrence said he and his fellow ambassadors worked with the school, in conjunction with the government, to adjust the regulations that are tied to international student visa requirements

The conditions for study set in the visa documentation, as mentioned above, stated that to stay in the country, a student must have an equivalent of nine in-person credits or more and a maximum of three online credits. 

With in-person lectures no longer available to students, the school worked to override the requirement so international students could maintain their visas.

The university succeeded in waiving these conditions after a time of uncertainty. Lawrence and Kevin said they were excited to remain at Southern Utah University.

With eased restrictions, they have both attended hybrid courses that allow them to continue their education and extracurricular activities safely.

Lawrence said he hopes to take his knowledge and experience from studying abroad and open a school for performing arts in his home town Cape Town.

Kevin is enjoying his time in the United States. He said he plans to increase his knowledge of computer science and cybersecurity and someday work in U.S. national security.