Thina Maqubela

1400 hours of tutoring leads statistics major to career at home

Story by Tony Dobies

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Photos by Scott Lituchy

Thina Maqubela has been a mentor and tutor since she could remember. As she says, “sometimes the jobs choose you. You don’t choose the jobs.”

During her undergraduate career at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she officially became a tutor – but she taught the same types of information to her peers.

When she started her master’s degree in statistics at West Virginia University in 2011, it was no surprise to those who knew her when she spent 20 hours per week tutoring for the Office of Retention and Research.

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For close to 10 years, Maqubela has never stopped mentoring and tutoring in some way.

It’s part of her. It’s what she’s known for – especially if you sneak a peek at her resume.

“I love to do it, because it just has something to do with realizing the need and realizing what you could give in terms of patching up what is needed,” she said. “It brings me a lot of satisfaction.”

She had a decision to make after her first year on campus – whether to stay in Morgantown for the summer or head back to South Africa.

She researched many campus summer programs, and WVU’s Upward Bound stood out. She applied and was hired to – in what shouldn’t be a surprise – tutor math to high school students in Keyser.

“I was involved with high school students. I helped take students from disadvantaged backgrounds and families and prepare them for college,” she said.

For seven weeks that summer, she helped prepare these students how to succeed when studying math. In addition, she had to develop an extracurricular learning activity, and she chose to teach the students how to complete a Sudoku. Maqubela was also given the opportunity to present about South Africa, an eye-opening experience, as most students knew little about the country.

“People are people everywhere. That’s the big thing that I took away,” she said. “Whether you’re in Europe, you’ll get someone who is in the same situation with the same background as someone in South Africa or the U.S.

While she has been tutoring and mentoring for years, never before had she done so with American, and specifically southern West Virginian, children.

I don’t know if I’m well-prepared, but knowing what I love and knowing what I love doing, I know I’m going to do a good job.

While in college in South Africa, she spent time in the townships of Cape Town – an area that’s economically poor in comparison to the suburbs – teaching math and computer skills to children. In the townships, it’s not uncommon for a child not to touch a computer until college, and that leaves them at a disadvantage compared to their peers from better economic areas of South Africa.

“The students that I taught in South Africa were the exact same as the students I taught in the U.S. in terms of the experiences that they go through and their family backgrounds,” she said, admitting that she wouldn’t have believed that before the experience with Upward Bound.

In addition to her tutoring, she is also an academic advisor for the Undergraduate Advising Services Center.

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All of that experience will give Maqubela the tools to be successful at her new job in South Africa. After graduation, she’ll have two weeks to return to her home country and get ready to lead the Future Leaders Program at the South African Ubuntu Foundation. She will teach 50 South African students from the townships the ins and outs of the language and any skills that they would need to bring them up to speed with other students in preparation for college.

“I don’t know if I’m well-prepared, but knowing what I love and knowing what I love doing, I know I’m going to do a good job,” she said. “Ubuntu knows where my passion lies, and that’s why I think they recruited me for the job.”

She graduated from the University of Cape Town three years ago. In South Africa, undergraduate degrees take three years to complete. At that point, students apply for what is called an honors degree, which is a one-year program.

The same foundation she will begin working for this summer funded her undergraduate education and helped her apply to WVU, as well. The South African Ubuntu Foundation intends to promote and foster the term “Ubuntu,” which is a South African humanist philosophy that says, “people are people thru other people.”

In 2010, her friend Maputi Botlhole had started school at WVU, so Maqubela applied and was accepted. With the help of Michael Wilhelm, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, she received a full scholarship and was able to come to Morgantown for the start of the fall 2011 semester.

“I wanted to be outside of what I was used to and expose myself. It’s good to diversify,” she said. “Our master’s in South Africa is completely research based. Here, it’s half research and half classwork, which is something that I wanted to do.”

Even though she won’t go into a career of statistics when she leaves WVU, Maqubela was able to find something else that would better fulfill her perceptions of a career.

“I’m good at statistics, but I don’t think sitting at a desk for a company in Virginia doing statistical analysis is going to give me the same type of satisfaction that this job will give me,” she said. “I had trouble writing what the job would give me, and I think that’s when I had to say, ‘at the end of the day, you have to get something back.’”