Four summers ago, I was preparing to start an MBA program in Social Change. It blended some much-needed practical business knowledge with a core interest of mine, and I was offered a fellowship, so it seemed like a smart move. At the same time, I was doing a training program to mentor a child in South Africa. I was curious about the experience and excited to expand my cultural horizons. As I quickly became buried in price elasticity graphs, I began weekly webcam chats with a shy, insecure, funny high school student in Johannesburg named Mtuseni.
Maybe because I’m more of a humanist than a businessman, learning about Mtuseni and his life was more interesting than contract law. Although logically the MBA would provide concrete knowledge and career options, I decided to leave the program after the first semester and devote more time to Mtuseni. As our relationship grew, so did my commitment to him. Within a year I made the momentous decision to put him through college. Several times I’ve opted to pass up good job opportunities so I would be home in the afternoon for daily chats with Mtuseni… sort of a virtual stay-at-home dad.
These decisions and others meant that I sacrificed a lot over the past few years. The financial pressures of paying Mtuseni’s tuition and expenses while the economy collapsed have been enormous. The stresses of keeping a teenage boy on the right path — compounded by the challenges of his deep poverty and South African cultural differences — has added lines to my face and a few pounds to my waist. It’s not that I bit off more than I could chew, but that I had no idea of the challenges I was taking on.
I also had no inkling of the benefits and rewards. I’ve had the distinct privilege of watching Mtuseni grow into a mature, confident, articulate young man ready to finish college. With my support, his life is truly changed. But surprisingly, so has mine. I have learned so much about myself. About tenacity and patience and resilience. About love and commitment and what really matters. Witnessing the struggles Mtuseni, his family, peers, and community face has opened my mind to new meaningful career paths approached from a more hands-on perspective. And having this person in my life who fills me with pride, drives me nuts, pisses me off, and has made my heart grow bigger than the Grinch’s is a return on investment that no graph can accurately measure.
So in the end, giving up the books in favor of helping one kid half a world away was the best decision I ever made. And waking up to this email confirms it.