Tholakele Khumalo, a young professional from Zimbabwe, interned with HHS Intellectual and Developmental Disability and Behavioral Health Services as a Mandela Washington Fellow this August.
For a month, Khumalo visited offices that provide mental health and substance use services in the Austin area and took part in workgroups and advisory committees. Khumalo has a lifetime goal to better the lives of those with mental health disorders, so she was placed with like-minded people in the Systems Integration Team.
"I got to go on many site visits," said Khumalo. "I saw equine therapy, cooking therapy and a 'pets in prison' program in action. There are so many things we can do to help patients in addition to medication, and I'm excited to bring that knowledge home."
Khumalo is on an ambitious path as a nutritionist, a relatively new interest in Africa. She recently left a practice to purse a solo career, and she's joined five other young Zimbabweans to start a nonprofit aimed at improving care at Bulawayo's Ingutsheni Hospital, the largest standalone psychiatric hospital in the country.
The IDD and Behavioral Health Services division began an internship program last year. Khumalo participated this year along with Robbie Epstein from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, who she shared a cubicle with in the Brown-Heatly Building in Austin.
"I joined a great team,” said Khumalo. "I've learned from HHS employees' personal experiences and got to ask them what fuels their passion and motivates them to provide care for others. Initially it was daunting to join a big establishment compared to the work I do at home, but I was integrated into everything and felt very welcomed and comfortable from my first day here."
Khumalo came to the U.S. after a 45-hour trip from Zimbabwe. She attended a program at Rutgers University in New Jersey and then stayed in Washington, D.C. for a week with 700 other people from sub-Saharan Africa aiming to develop professional skills as Mandela Washington Fellows. Funded through the U.S. State Department, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders started in 2014 to empower young people to further their careers.
"This journey has been a lot more emotional than I imagined," Khumalo said. "I don't feel as isolated anymore. I'm now part of a network of people who have wonderful dreams, and I know there are people in the U.S. who are ready to help."
While Khumalo enjoyed her time in Austin eating barbecue and swimming in Barton Springs, she looked forward to going home to Zimbabwe and contemplating her experiences at HHS.
"Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, and I have to say the weather is much cooler than here," she said. "We have our challenges, but that doesn't define us. I believe in our generation, and I think we're on the right track. We might not make all the needed changes, but we're creating variables that will make change."