For someone so young and having faced so much hardship and struggle in his life, UJ alumnus Xolani Mzileni is nothing short of exemplary, a shining example of courage and leadership in the face of adversity.
Xolani, 29, graduated from UJ in 2018 with a BTech (Hons) degree in Quality Management, being awarded the Engineering Faculty’s top student. The following year he began his amazing US journey. Xolani is currently studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
He was a USA Student Exchange at Appalachian State University in 2019, and currently, he’s doing a full-time Master’s in Public Policy and Administration at the Institute of Technology in Illinois, to be his home for the next few years before returning to South Africa to share his knowledge and skills.
“UJ paved the way for me and created so many opportunities, including the opportunity to participate in organisations like the Golden Key International Honour Society (where Xolani served as co-vice president in 2020), the Engineering Council of SA, and the Industrial Engineering and Operations Management International Society (where he was president in 2020),” he says. Furthermore, one of his crowning achievements was as the Marketing Director of the Engineering Council of South Africa NGO in 2021.
Early life and overcoming obstacles
But there were years of terrible uncertainty and anxiety along the way. Born in Katlehong, Johannesburg, Xolani grew up in a community that had no essential services such as running water, healthcare facilities, and housing. He failed Grade 11, repeating it in 2011. “At one point, I was told it was the end, but I just prayed about it and moved on,” he recalls.
After completing his matric, Xolani couldn’t go on to college or university. “I was forced to take a gap year in 2014 because I had a problem with my ID document, and I had to work on informal construction for long hours with a daily rate of R80 ($5.50).
Nonetheless, he and two friends in matric started a programme called Life Sciences Movement, to teach life sciences and geography to high school students struggling with these subjects. “We grew from two students to over 250 students in more than 10 high schools around Katlehong,” he says.
UJ’s impact on Xolani’s life
Xolani then applied and got admitted to study for a Diploma in Management Services at UJ. In his second year, he hit another snag. “I had no funding, but giving up was not an option. I decided to do whatever it took to continue with my studies; I slept on the floor in the lecture halls for three months with no food, blankets, clothing, or money to look after myself. I would go to Gift of Givers (GOG) where I received free breakfast and lunch.”
He would wake up at 5 am every morning and wash in a basin inside the toilet facility, with cold water and tissue paper. Despite this, in 2015, Xolani was awarded UJ’s first-year top achiever award, and for his 2016 first semester, he got no less than 80% for all his modules, passing with an average of over 85%.
In 2016-2017, he became a member of the UJenius Club, which recognises the top 1% of UJ’s students, appeared on the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment Dean’s honours list, and was awarded the best student in the faculty.
In 2018, the year he graduated (with distinction), he was named by Golden Key International Honour Society as one of the top 15% of students at UJ, based on his outstanding academic performance, and also best tutor of first years at UJ.
But again he had to halt his education plans, due to lack of finance and because his father was dying. “I went back home to look for employment and find ways to be productive. And my father was sick. Being the eldest son, I had to step up and provide for my family. It was very hard when he passed away,” he says.
During this time, Xolani did an internship and got a job at Epiroc SA mining company, but he was intent on furthering his education, so in 2020 he started applying for scholarships and to study at universities abroad. He says he received invaluable guidance from education advisor and immigration specialist, Claire Powell, at this time.
In 2021, he was a finalist in the EducationUSA Opportunity Funds Program, and was also announced as one of the Top 100 most employable students in South Africa in the DHL GradStar Awards.
Fast forward to 2023, and already Xolani has made an impression in the US job market. “I’ve received numerous offers from US government. These are opportunities to gain work experience. Then I will return home and implement what I’ve learned, and invest in my NPO, South African Renewers of Hope. I hope to continue collaborating with UJ, to expose more young people to opportunities, both back home and abroad,” he says.