One of the founding principles of post-apartheid South Africa, “ubuntu” is a Bantu word that translates loosely into “I am because you are.” According to Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, the word captures a fundamental African belief that a person can only find fulfillment by interacting with and supporting others.
The Ubuntu Fund, which is fueled by donors to Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute, was inspired, in part, by a student whom Shaughnessy described as one of the top South African students he has worked with since the program began.
According to Shaughnessy, the student (who asked not to be identified) walked and hitchhiked more than 2,000 miles from Rwanda to attend college. He said the student has frequently been homeless and earns food money by hiring himself out to wealthy South Africans to watch their cars at night to make sure they aren’t broken into.
For graduation, the student put aside his torn jeans and hoodie for a rented suit.
“He is a very proud man,” says Shaughnessy. “He wouldn’t let the American students see his circumstances because, as he put it, ‘Those are just circumstances; they are not who I am.”