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July 2nd, 2019

Alumna credits GC for 'enriching, eye-opening experience' in a 'home away from home'

Garrett College will 'always hold a special place' in Mahlati's heart

Venturing to an entirely new country presents its own challenges amid an array of excitement and opportunities. For Unathi Mahlati, she embraced the challenge, and her rich experiences have enriched every aspect of her life.

Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mahlati works as a program officer for Just Detention International-South Africa, an organization that seeks to end sexual violence in places of detention.

While many of her days involve coffee, maintaining the organization's presence on Twitter (@JustDetentionSA), and occasionally training officials of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), her primary responsibility is highly dependent upon her research and writing, two valuable skills she attributes to her time at Garrett.

GC Alumna Enriching Experience

Unathi Mahlati, a native of South Africa and an alumna of GC, is pictured (fifth from left) with her fellow coworkers of Just Detention International South Africa.

"My research and writing skills were honed at GC and I continue to use them every single day," she stated.

"Although I'm no longer pursuing a career in the sciences, most of what I do involves a lot of research and writing – just more social," said Mahlati. "I'm also able to interact with people from diverse backgrounds as a result of the rich international student culture I experienced at GC."

Presently, she is in the process of drafting a research proposal for the DCS to begin work in women's prisons.

"Most of what we know about the dynamics of sexual violence in detention is based on research conducted in South Africa's men's prisons, resulting in the disenfranchisement and invisibility of women inmates," noted Mahlati.

She is also very engaged in mobilizing psychosocial service providers for current and former inmates, a challenging process that involves delivering sensitizing trainings to the providers.

"This is challenging because of dwindling financial resources in many rape centers as well as an unwillingness of many organizations to work with inmates, who most view as an undeserving group," noted Mahlati.

"To some extent, this unsympathetic view is understandable because South Africa is a country grappling with rising levels of violent crime. Another challenge in this country is that men as victims of sexual violence is still a taboo," she said.

Although it has been a difficult obstacle in convincing the public to be concerned about the wellbeing of inmates, Mahlati has discovered a deep appreciation and motivation in the midst of her day-to-day responsibilities.

"I absolutely enjoy the trainings and observing the shift in attitudes of participants," she stated. "I also love engaging with the complex subject matter of prisoner rape and that I get to travel across the country, and sometimes outside the country."

Mahlati was the second South African fellow recipient of the Wilton Mkwayi International Fellowship Program to advance her studies in the United States. Her educational opportunity was made possible by a joint vision by former Garrett College President Steve Herman and the Coalition for Effective Local Democracy (CELD), led by Garrett County residents Michael and Vianne Bell.

As she reflected upon her time at GC, Mahlati expressed both appreciation and sincere gratitude to several individuals:

"Michael and Vianne Bell – my host parents through the Wilton Mkwayi International Fellowship Program – whose warmth, love and support made McHenry feel like home; Kim DeGiovanni and Robin Swearengen of the Office of Records and Registration, where I held my very first job; Judy Carbone for her support, guidance, and making my integration into a foreign land seamless; Nancy Priselac and Linda May, for their unwavering support; and Terry Kasecamp and Peter Skylstand, for making me fall in love with psychology and biology, respectively."

After graduating from GC, Mahlati transferred to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., graduating with a Bachelor's degree in neuroscience. She also pursued advanced media studies for a year, focusing on media as a tool for social change, at The New School in New York City prior to returning home to South Africa.

"I have a friend in every corner of the world as a result – what an enriching, eye-opening experience!" Mahlati stated. "Some of my best memories were made at GC and it will always hold a special place in my heart."