When Zandile “Pepe” Sibandze was growing up in Swaziland, a small country in Southern Africa between Mozambique and South Africa, she knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a pilot. While her sisters played with dolls, Sibandze dreamed of owning an airplane toy.
“Here in America, when a child is born, they have things of their own,” explained Sibandze, who is currently enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach campus and hopes to graduate with a major in Aerospace Engineering and a minor in Pilot Training. “As the fourth of eight girls, my mother just couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t just play with my sisters’ toys. My father would build me toy planes, but I wanted a real one so badly.”
Her mother eventually broke down and bought her the treasured airplane. Sibandze was ecstatic and played with it constantly.
“At a very young age, I had a passion for airplanes and knew I wanted to come to the U.S.,” explained Sibandze.
When she was growing up, Sibandze’s mother was on a mission for all of her girls to attend school. This was not an easy feat; however, she worked diligently to ensure they received an education.
“We lived in the countryside, so we had to choose schools that were nearby and affordable,” explained Sibandze. “They weren’t always the schools I wanted to attend; however, my parents were limited and did the best they could.”
As a young child, Sibandze spent most of her time with her father. He taught her many of the skills she would later use in life. However, in a shocking turn of events, her father passed away when she was only 11. Suddenly, her life was very different. She found herself with a significant amount of responsibility, taking on most of her father’s duties at home. In turn, she started to have a difficult time balancing schoolwork with household chores.
As a teenager, Sibandze worked as a housekeeper in South Africa during a temporary break in her schooling.
“I kept tinkering with his broken pool pump, and was able to fix it one day,” explained Sibandze. “When [her boss] returned home, he was shocked and asked if a man had come by to fix it. I explained to him that I had, and he started to take an interest in what I wanted to do with my life. He eventually helped me to get a job at an airport in South Africa that allowed me to save up money to complete my high school education.”
In 2014, Sibandze graduated from high school, coming in 6th position in the country for the Swaziland General Certificate of Secondary Education examination. That accomplishment led the way for the Ashinaga organization to award a scholarship that changed Sibandze’s future. Ashinaga is a nonprofit based in Japan that offers scholarships and support for orphaned young people.
“They only take one student from each country,” explained Sibandze. “There were so many students lining up for that scholarship. Being selected was like a dream come true.”
This opportunity opened the door for Sibandze’s future. After much consultation with Ashinaga, she selected Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach. She was impressed with the rave reviews from students and its impactful expertise within the aviation industry.
“I chose Aerospace Engineering as a major because I wanted something broad enough to work within the aerospace industry as more than only a pilot,” said Sibandze, who may be the first female from Swaziland to study Aerospace Engineering. “Being a pilot is so dependent on your health, but this allows me to do both.”
At this point, her favorite class has been Introduction to Engineering (EGR 101). “I’m a hands-on person, so the group projects to design an aircraft and satellite were really great,” said Sibandze. “I enjoyed the practical application of it and was able to really see myself as an engineer during that class.”
Sibandze also enjoys the extracurricular activities available at Embry-Riddle. She is involved in several clubs, including Engineering Without Borders, National Society of Black Engineers, and the African Student Association.
“Clubs are run by students,” explained Sibandze. “It’s a place where we can invest in ideas on our own and truly find where our interest and capability lies. Because it’s ungraded, clubs projects are something you do for yourself, not for a professor or a class.”
Sibandze’s secret to success is her own self-motivation and preparation.
“I consider myself an average university student,” explains Sibandze. “However, I know that if I work ahead, there is no doubt that I’ll be at the top of my game when we work on it in class.”
Her advice for girls and women who are interested in engineering is simple.
“Don’t just do it to balance the ratio,” she said. “If engineering is your passion, go for it. It’s doable, but you need to push yourself. Engineering is painted as a male industry, but with hard work and ambition, women can do it too.”
This week, Embry-Riddle celebrates National Engineers Week by showcasing women in engineering and the creative, collaborative engineering efforts that can change the world.
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