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South African grad draws on lessons his mother taught, desire to work with people

‘I learned to help them identify and cope with their issues and walk on their journey’

Barnard "Bennie" Mthembu, spring 2024, Outstanding Graduate, School of Social Work

Barnard "Bennie" Mthembu, spring 2024 Watts College Outstanding Graduate, School of Social Work. Courtesy photo

April 22, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

Born and raised in South Africa, Barnard “Bennie” Mthembu grew up with four sisters, a brother and a single-parent mother. She taught him about the struggles often associated with getting ahead in life.

“When we were kids we always saw her working so hard so we could have food. She never disciplined us, but called us when we did something and asked us, what did we do and to think about it,” said Mthembu, the spring 2024 Outstanding Graduate from the School of Social Work, part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

“Then she would come up with a punishment. If you didn’t take accountability (for your actions), you had to go clean the house or clean out the gutter.”

Mthembu, who is Zulu, learned three African languages before learning English. He played rugby, earning a scholarship.

Later he went to Namibia, where he tried to figure out his future while helping the less fortunate.

“I wanted to work with people but wasn’t sure how,” said Mthembu, who earned a Bachelor of Social Work degree. “I met with some people from the Peace Corps. They invited me to the U.S.”

He lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he met his wife, a doctor, while she was studying medicine and he was working in the University of Utah Hospital. The couple moved to Tucson, where she is a physician, and he attended classes at ASU’s Tucson location.

Read on to learn more about Mthembu’s ASU journey.

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I worked at the psychiatric hospital at the University of Utah with doctors, social workers and case management. I had a hard time understanding how some physicians acted with patients, but was impressed with how social workers worked with patients with sympathy and empathy. I learned to help (patients) identify and cope with their issues and walk on their journey. That made me feel happy that I found my purpose.

I was amazed at how the ASU social work program aligns with my ethics and values. The mission and values of social work is to help and advocate for the vulnerable and less fortunate. This is what made me say it was my “aha” moment. I want to do this with all my heart. There is no greater feeling than doing something that you are passionate about while getting paid. I am also amazed at how the program teaches students about the many opportunities this degree can offer. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: The professors were so understanding and treated me with respect and felt like I belonged and not just identified by a student ID. The professors always let me know how appreciative they were when I challenged them on topics that they taught. They allowed me to explain how I saw things from my perspective and how they fit in with the class topics. They respected my perspective on things and culture and embraced that I’m unique.

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lessons while at ASU?

A: (Assistant Teaching Professor) Alison England. She was the first professor at ASU who made me feel good about pursuing a social work degree and that I would be successful. She is the most genuine human being/professor, and her style of teaching is unique. She took time to understand who I was, the way I did things and how it connects to my culture and norms.

This made me want to do extra things in her class because of how she treated me. What she taught me will be a great skill to have in social work and life: To take time to understand people and help them to the best of your ability doesn't cost any money. 

Diana Jimenez-Young, Guadalupe Martinez and Matt Ignacio, as well as Alison England, all taught me to always go for the things I want and make me happy, speak my mind and remain true to myself as I work with different people and organizations. I find this very freeing and helpful when I need to make decisions. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Get involved and don’t rob yourself with opportunities to learn and explore your true passions by interacting with others and partaking in school activities and classes. Life can get too busy but keep showing up to class it will pay off in the end. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will start the Advance Standing Program for a Master of Social Work degree this summer. It is a yearlong program. I want to do clinical therapy and assessment and diagnosis, which is challenging for me. By next May I’ll be done. I want to work at a hospital for a while, but my goal is to one day have my own clinic. I want to give back. I want to offer 20% of the therapy I do to those who can’t afford it, who have little or no insurance.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Healthy food. Starvation and obesity both affect the health of many people, directly or indirectly. The more we work on improving people’s health, the less we will need to require or pay for medication, which is also expensive. I would provide healthy food by gardening and buying within local farms, then distributing the food to those in need.

I would give this money to lower and middle-income families in South Africa and America, especially in rural areas where they do not have fresh produce. I would have a mobile truck/trailer that would accommodate these communities. I’m a firm believer that charity begins at home. I would have a nonprofit organization that will handle all this. I would also invest some of the money, so that the nonprofit organization could support itself.

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