I AM UAA: Mutale Pauline Bingley

May 23, 2012

Master of Social Work ’12
Hometown: Lusaka, Zambia, Southern Africa
Fun Fact: Came to the U.S. with $120 and a dream

One hundred and 20 bucks and a dream are what Botswana-born Mutale (pronounced Moo-tall-ee) Pauline Bingley brought with her to the United States in January 2001.

I AM UAA Mutale Bingley

While her childhood friends had posters of boy bands adorning their bedroom walls, Mutale’s décor of choice was a giant National Geographic map of the United States of America. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life in Zambia,” she says, “but I knew what I wanted to do with my life in the United States.”

After graduating from high school, Mutale would often visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in her hometown and peruse books on U.S. colleges—that’s where she first learned about Chatham University, a small liberal arts school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She applied and was awarded a $4,000 scholarship, which was plenty for Mutale to set sail on her American dream.

Her mother sold her childhood home in order to pay for Mutale’s airfare to the States. The money leftover from the sale—that $120—was to be used for emergencies. “My mom is a very brave woman to put me on a plane to a country where I knew no one, not knowing what would come of my future. She told me, ‘You have a dream and I want you to live it.'”

Moving from Africa to Pittsburgh came with its fair share of hurdles. Though she spoke English (thanks in part to American TV shows), Mutale admits to being very naïve about all things American. “I looked at the world with virgin eyes,” she says. “When I landed at the airport, it was a very cold winter day and all I had was a flimsy coat—it was through the kindness of people that I got through that winter.”

Another example is when Mutale went to Walmart to purchase a radio for her dorm room. “All the other girls had a radio so I wanted one, too. The cheapest one I found was $19.99, but when I went to pay the cashier told me my total was $20.85. I said, ‘No, there must be a mistake; the sticker said $19.99.’ But the women replied rudely, ‘plus tax!'” And when she went to the grocery store to buy grapes, the cashier in the checkout line quickly said, “Debit or Credit,” but Mutale didn’t understand what he meant. “Luckily the person in line behind me explained that it was a method of payment.”

Mutale studied at Chatham for a year before the financial burden of a college education overcame her. “My scholarship was not nearly enough to cover the tuition and my family couldn’t afford it,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t understand how much an American college education would cost me; I ended up choosing a college I couldn’t afford.” Mutale worked babysitting jobs to slowly chip away at her student loans before transferring to the Community College of Allegheny County and eventually to Duquesne University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in media communications in December 2005.

“It was a very emotional time for me,” she says. “It was a struggle. Throughout the course of working toward my degree, it didn’t seem like I would ever get there, but I did. There were so many people—strangers, people that I met in church, people that I met on campus—that really helped me to become the person that I wanted to be and I remain indebted to them for my success.”

Soon after earning her college degree, Mutale married Kevin Bingley and the pair moved to Reno, Nevada, and then on to Stanford, California. While Kevin worked toward his master’s degree in civil engineering at Stanford University, Mutale got a job in the university’s Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

In 2008 when Kevin finished his degree, he and Mutale followed a job to Alaska. “That news was a bombshell to me,” says Mutale. “I knew very little about Alaska; I had no idea what kind of people I would meet, whether I would fit in or what would become of my life. I came kicking and screaming—it took me a little while to figure out my place.”

As Kevin settled into his new job as a public health officer for the U.S. Public Health Service, Mutale started working at the University of Alaska Anchorage as an academic advisor for the TRiO Educational Talent Search program. Mutale admits to feeling lost when she first arrived in Anchorage, but it was this job that gave her the opportunity to reach out and get to know her new community.

Part of her job required that Mutale work with students at Anchorage’s East High School—many of them first generation, low-income students—to help them achieve their goal of attending college. As an advisor, Mutale helped students develop educational plans, provided skill development and test preparation workshops and opened doors to leadership opportunities.

“I was able to make an impact in the lives of young people,” Mutale says. “Through my own story I was able to inspire them, encourage them. Even the little things made a difference, just letting them know that they could aspire for a higher education.”

It was her work with these students that led Mutale to want to go back to school. She applied to the UAA School of Social Work and was accepted. Now, three years later, Mutale can call herself an alumna of the program, holding a hard-earned Master of Social Work degree.

“It was a challenging program in that our professors and peers expected us to bring our best,” she says. “Through that experience I have grown and matured, and I am still growing. So many doors are opening for me right now.”

Mutale says that UAA is the place where she has really grown into herself. She put herself out on a limb and learned to speak up, which was a difficult adjustment for her, growing up in a culture where you were to listen respectfully to elders or anyone of authority. “Part of my growth came with recognizing myself as someone who has something important to say,” she explains.

She appreciates that she and her classmates were able to challenge some of the ideas presented by their professors: “It would lead us to engage in meaningful conversation.” She’s also grateful for the relationships she built with UAA’s faculty and staff. “They treated me like a professional, like a colleague, and I value that respect.”

During her graduate studies, Mutale interned at the Anchorage Pioneer Home and with the Domiciliary Care for Homeless Veterans program. She walked into these experiences rather daunted, thinking, “Here are all these people with wisdom, people who have served their country—what do I know?” But she found it rewarding when they welcomed her and were willing to listen to what she had to offer.

Mutale plans to continue making a difference in peoples’ lives. “I want to be able to share with others that if I can do it, they can reach for their dreams also. We can help our community grow by getting to know each other, by understanding each other’s stories. Truly, we are more alike than we are different and we have the power in us to make a difference.”

Mutale and Kevin have two daughters, who were both cheering on their mommy as she accepted her degree at this spring’s commencement ceremony on May 6. Mutale is proud to show her children the power of education. “I want them to know that, through education, they can make a difference in the world. I want them to be the best they can be and even more than I have ever achieved—I want that for my kids.”

Mutale is now living her American dream along with her mother, who, through Mutale’s citizenship, is a permanent resident of the U.S. “Throughout this journey, my mom has been my cheerleader,” says Mutale—one of six children and the first in her family to earn a college education. “My mom is very proud.”

“I am so blessed that my dream came true,” she says. “I love this country with a passion. I love the opportunities that it has given me. And the struggles that I have gone through have just made me a better and stronger person.”

The day after earning her degree, Mutale was back on campus and on her way to the UAA Campus Bookstore to buy a UAA sweatshirt so she can continue representing her alma mater. “I’m proud to say that I am UAA,” says Mutale. “I am immensely grateful for what UAA has offered me. Now I plan to go out and do the best I can with the degree I received at UAA, and give back.”

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