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Get to Know International Student Ambassador Xihlovo Mabunda

The South African student talks about adapting to life in the U.S., finding a welcoming community at Villanova and how a childhood experience shaped her career choice

Xihlovo Mabunda, Graduate Studies International Student Ambassador

VILLANOVA, Pa. – This year, the Office of Graduate Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences created a new position to help support the needs of and build community among the College’s international graduate students. In her new role as International Student Ambassador, Xihlovo Mabunda ’19 MS, plans social and professional development events, serves as a liaison between the international student community and the Graduate Studies Office and other University offices, and helps with admissions-related tasks for international students, among other duties.

Jim Mack, the Director of Communication and Marketing for Graduate Studies, met with Xihlovo to learn more about her background, her time at Villanova and her plans for the future. What follows is a recap of their conversation.


Jim: Let’s get the basics out of the way … What are you studying here at Villanova? Where did you go for undergrad? What was your major?

Xihlovo: I am in the Master of Science in Counseling program, with a concentration in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I went to Kutztown University and majored in psychology.

Jim: I know you are from South Africa … what part of the country are you from?

Xihlovo: I was born in Limpopo Province, which is in the northern part of the country, but my family moved to Johannesburg, which is the biggest city in South Africa, when I was 2 years old. I still have a lot of family in Limpopo, and we visited there often when I was growing up. Limpopo is warm and dry; the temperature is about 90 degrees in the summer. It’s the part of the country where people go on safari. We moved to Johannesburg because there are more job opportunities.

Jim: How does the weather here compare to South Africa?

Xihlovo: Oh, the summers are worse here in Pennsylvania. It’s so humid!

Jim: How did you know you wanted to go to college in the United States?

Xihlovo: I’ve been to the U.S. several times because my dad came here for business a lot. One of the greatest things about the U.S. is that there are so many different places in the same country. Kutztown is rural, but it is beautiful. I love New York and D.C., Boston, Maine, California, Florida … so many parts of the country are drastically different, the food is so different. I wanted to experience as much as I could. Also, the U.S. does a great job of marketing … “Come here and you can do whatever you want to do …” We had college fairs at my high school, and a lot of U.S. colleges were there. Kutztown seemed very welcoming, and they spoke a lot about the strength of their international community. There were 150 international students in my class at Kutztown.

Jim: What is your dad’s business?

Xihlovo: He’s an auctioneer, and he works in South Africa and in the U.S. He owns the largest fully black-owned auction company in South Africa.

Jim: An auctioneer?  Like the guys who talk really fast, or like an expensive art auction?

Xihlovo: Both! He does the fast talking stuff and the high-end auctions.

Jim: What was it like coming to the U.S. for college? Was it drastic change?

Xihlovo: It was a huge culture shock! Like I said, I’m from the city, and Kutztown is so rural. I also had to get used to the change in climate, and the people are so different!

Jim: The people are different than in South Africa?

Xihlovo: Yes, but Americans are more diverse, too. South Africans all seem the same. In the U.S., there seems to be so many differences between people. It seems to me that where a person is from and their financial status makes such a difference.

Jim: Please forgive me, but I just read Trevor Noah’s book, and while it is not my only reference for South Africa, it is fresh in my mind so I can’t help bring it up. Did you read his book? Is he really popular in South Africa?

Xihlovo: We love Trevor Noah! I read his book. It’s great. He is very popular in South Africa.

Jim: What was your neighborhood like growing up?

Xihlovo: I didn’t really live in a neighborhood. Our house was gated. I didn’t know … I still don’t know my neighbors.

Jim: That’s how Trevor Noah describes it!

Xihlovo: All the houses are gated.

Jim: He also writes that there are a lot of carjackings in South Africa. Is that true? I ask because I only know one other person from South Africa, and she was carjacked.

Xihlovo: I got carjacked. It is not a regular occurrence, but it does happen.

Jim: What?! For real? Can you tell me about it?

Xihlovo: I was 12 years old, and my mom was driving. My sister and cousin were also in the car. We pulled up to the gate in front of our house and another car pulled up behind us. Four men got out of the car. They hit my mom in the head with a gun and pulled her out of the car. They pulled all of us from our car. Two of the men took us away in the other car, and the other two guys took our car. They took us out to a wooded area, and then they started arguing about if they should kill us or not. Eventually they decided that they were not going to kill us, and they asked us where we wanted to be dropped off. We asked to be taken to a part of town near where my dad worked. Everyone has trackers on their cars, so the police caught the guys before they were able to remove the tracker.

Jim: That is crazy. That must have had a tremendous effect on you.

Xihlovo: I went to therapy briefly after it. I was looking over my shoulder all of the time. I was wary of other people. I was more aware of my surroundings. At the time, I didn’t realize how much of an effect it had on me. I was young, I didn’t understand why I had to go to therapy.

Jim: So this had to influence your undergrad major and your decision to go into counseling.

Xihlovo: Psychology is still stigmatized in South Africa. People pray on things.

Jim: That’s what Trevor Noah says!

Xihlovo: My mother even had a hard time getting my brother treated for ADHD. I want to help change that. I plan on getting my clinical counseling license in the U.S. and eventually open my own practice in South Africa. I want to help people. I want to be a counselor because so many people are misunderstood, and people do not know how to deal with what has happened to them. I want to help educate people about the importance of mental health.

Jim: Why did you choose Villanova for graduate school?

Xihlovo: I knew I wanted to stay in Eastern PA. I started researching programs, and Villanova’s website was easy to navigate and had a lot of information. When I visited, I felt really comfortable here. Also, my mom is Catholic, and she was very happy to hear that Villanova was a Catholic school. When she visited here after my graduation from Kutztown, she fell in love!

Jim: Can you tell me a bit about your Villanova experience?

Xihlovo: Villanova is a very welcoming community. My advisor, Dr. Stacey Havlik, is wonderful. She is like a good hug on a bad day. Dr. Terence Yee has also been very helpful. As an international professor, he is nice to talk to since I am the only international student in my program. The university has so many resources … the librarians are great. There is just an “open door” feeling. I don’t feel like I am just another student. I am acknowledged as a person and a part of this community. I’ve made some really good friends, and not just in my program. I feel like I am building a network that will be there for me throughout my career.

Jim: Before we wrap this up, let’s switch gears a bit and talk about your hobbies or what you like to do in your spare time.

Xihlovo: I like to read. I love athletics. I ran track at Kutztown. I did the 100- and 200- meter dashes, but I got injured in sophomore year and wasn’t able to compete anymore, so I turned my focus on my academics and the counseling community. I also enjoy watching soccer and love netball.

Jim: What’s netball?

Xihlovo: It’s kind of like basketball. You don’t play it here; I miss it so much! I was also on the national cheerleading team in high school.

Jim: South Africa’s national cheerleading team?

Xihlovo: Yes. I loved cheerleading! We went to the international cheerleading championships in Florida.

Jim: How many languages do you speak?

Xihlovo: Three: Tsonga, English and Afrikaans. Tsonga is the language of my clan, the XiTsonga people.  

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.