With her ever-changing hairstyles and ever-present smile, Neo Mokgwathi ’15 is a bright and friendly presence on campus. She was a beloved Junior Advisor (JA) to last year’s Willy F, and serves her class as a senior class officer and agent this year. The Record enjoyed a long chat with Neo as she regaled us with tales from her unusual journey to Williams, gave us her take on Botswanan national history and shared an incident in which her high school soccer team was invaded by some porcine opponents.
Are you enjoying your last year so far?
I am! I was a JA last year and so it’s funny because a lot of the people who go abroad come back and are like, “I have this new appreciation for Williams.” And people don’t expect JAs to say that because we’ve been here the whole year, but I have such a new appreciation for Williams! For being at Williams and for just being responsible for myself. [Laughs.] But I love my frosh, I love my entry, Willy F. I think that the greatest gift that they could have given me as a JA is that they got along with each other. And they’re all amazing people. So interesting. Gosh, I miss them so much. The fun thing about senior year is that I get to run into all my frosh and still see them and hang out with them, sort of. I love seeing them and I want to hang out with them, but I’m also like, you guys are so cool, go hang out with people who are not your JA! Because it’s kind of like hanging out with your mom, right? [Laughs.] And they obviously don’t just hang out with me, they have lots of friends, because they’re so cool. [Laughs.] I definitely do miss the entry for sure.
You’re from Botswana. What brought you to Williams?
So the high school that I went to in Botswana was started by Americans. One of the headmasters of Hotchkiss was one of the first headmasters of my school, I think. I hope I’m getting that right. It was started by Americans, and they kind of noticed how difficult it was for graduates to apply to universities in America, because the process is hard enough when you’re here, and it’s a million times harder when you’re out of the country. Like, I had no idea what an SAT was in my last year of high school. So, I did a PG [postgraduate] year at The Hill School in Pa., which was really interesting because most Americans who do a PG year do it for athletics. It was football players, lacrosse players, all these athletes and me. And I was one of three girls. They were great, though; we had a good PG class. You’re kind of bonded by the fact that you didn’t go through the last three years like everyone else. But, yeah, I would say it was a very important experience because I was directed toward Williams by my college counselor. And how I decided to come to Williams was that my friend [from Botswana] who was at Catlin Gabel [School in Portland, Ore.] – we were talking about the schools we got into and she was like, “I got into Williams!” And I didn’t want to say it first, but she said it first, and I was just like, “Oh, cool, I got into Williams!” And we were like, “We’re going to Williams!” [Laughs.] That year, it was really important because I think I got all of my culture shock out before I started college. One thing that I noticed a lot about myself that year is that I would crave speaking Tswana, my native language. I would just be like, “Oh my gosh, I need to speak it!” And I would sort of start speaking it to people and then be like, “Wait, they don’t know what I’m saying.” And in my head, I’d think, “I’m losing it, I’m losing it! I’m forgetting how to speak it!” This was my native tongue! I should never feel like I’m losing it, right?” And so that was another important decision for us both me and my friend Mmaserame Gaefele [’15] in coming to Williams. We didn’t want to miss that anymore. And it’s so fun because every time we see each other, we speak to each other in Tswana. And sometimes we’re kind of rude. [Laughs.] Because people don’t know what we’re saying. But we can’t help it.
Have you tried to teach Tswana to any of your friends?
No. So, I’m like the worst international friend to have, because first of all I learned a lot of my conversational English from watching American TV, so I had a little bit of an American accent just coming in. And then on top of that, I’m the type of person who, when I speak to people, I adapt to how they speak. It’s so involuntary! And I’m like, no! What do I actually sound like? It always happens to me. I feel like I’m a terrible international friend because I’m always speaking to people how they speak, so they are just like, “Well, she just talks like me so I guess there’s nothing to learn there.” And no one wants to learn Tswana; it’s not a… pretty language, I must say. It’s not the prettiest. It’s also really hard to learn. But it’s really not pretty. I mean, I love speaking it, don’t get me wrong. I love Tswana, but when I hear people speaking it, I’m like, ugh.
Can you tell us more about growing up in Botswana?
My mom is South African and both my parents grew up in South Africa. I was born in Botswana. Most of my siblings were born in South Africa. Two years after I was born, my mom moved back to South Africa for work. So I grew up between the two countries. It was a very fun experience, especially because the two cultures are so different. Botswana is very laid back; everyone in Botswana is chill. And that is not the case in South Africa. I am a History and Political Science major so I love how history explains our societies today. Botswana is a very chill place. It is about the size of Texas, but only a population of two million people. People were able to live in small groups over the country without clashing. We don’t have much of a warrior heritage. We don’t fight. We were just chilling. The British left pretty easily when Botswana gained their independence. Prince Charles gave this speech on Independence Day of how poor we are and how bad things would be as this tiny country entered the global sphere. “They will be dirt poor and no infrastructure and it’s going to suck.” But, we discovered diamonds the year after, so sucks to suck, England! [Laughs.] We’re going to be rich now! Britain couldn’t do anything about it. It was hilarious. Our history is pretty easy, compared to other nations. We have no history of war. We got wealthy from our diamonds. Our transition was so easy, so we are so chill. South Africa resembles the West a lot in terms of being really busy with the cities. One thing about the culture shock I had to deal with when I came here was like saying hi to people on the streets. It is so rude to not say hi to someone. You are taught that everyone is family. The unfortunate part about it if you are a kid is that every adult has a right to parent you if you’re up to no good. But Botswanan people are so friendly
One last thing: we’ve been told you have a story about warthogs?
We used to make fun of our high school because it was such a bush. We were in the city, but basically the second we stepped foot on campus we would be in the bush. It was so the school could preserve the wildlife. One day there was a soccer game against what could be considered our rival school, even though rival schools are not such a big thing in Botswana. Everyone turned out. A huge amount of people were there. Behind the field, all of a sudden from this line of bush, this line of warthogs just emerges and just starts charging the field! [Laughs.] All the soccer players started running off the field. We were like, yup, we go to school in a game reserve.