Swaziland native sets course through GTCC toward career in medicine

Published on: December 8, 2022
Nontsikelelo "Barney" Dos Santos, GTCC student ambassador.
Nontsikelelo “Barney” Dos Santos, says, "I knew medicine was what I wanted. I knew that I came here for medicine, no matter what it took."

When Nontsikelelo "Barney" Dos Santos arrived in the United States from Swaziland, her sights were set on becoming a veterinarian. After six arduous and frustrating years, medicine remains in her future, but not how she planned.

Dos Santos' sometimes rough road in the United States brought her to Greensboro and Guilford Technical Community College just over a year ago — and with that move came a settling in and a purpose.

Dos Santos immigrated to Rochester, Minn., six years ago, from boarding school in Swaziland. She enrolled in a community college to begin her dream of practicing veterinary medicine. But life alone in a foreign country began to take its toll.

"I came (to the United States) by myself. The first year I was very confident, but there was a lot to learn. I went downhill from there," said Dos Santos, whose mantra in life comes from the quote 'don't give anyone the pen or pencil to your life.'

"It was really hard in 2018. I couldn't sustain myself. I had to find courage at some point. I had to remind myself why I came here and what I really wanted out of life. It took me a whole year."

She bounced back, earned her associate degree from Rochester Community and Technical College and went to work as a vet tech. It wasn't what she expected.

"When I left home, my dream was to become a vet. That was the initial goal," she said. "How we treat animals here and in Swaziland is different. I started work as a vet tech and it just … I couldn't do it anymore. I wasn't getting what I wanted out of it. It didn't meet my expectations.

"When I was working at the vet, I had to figure out a lot. I had told myself if I ever do go back to school, I'm going to do it the right way."

That was about the time Dos Santos and her fiancé got married and moved to the Greensboro area for her husband to complete his education. It was a life-changing decision.

"I decided to go back to school for what I really wanted and that turned out not to be a veterinarian. I wanted to do human medicine," she said. "I knew medicine was what I wanted. I knew that I came here for medicine, no matter what it took."

Life is hectic but rewarding for Dos Santos these days. She is in GTCC's Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP) and is on track to receive an Associate in Science. She has already been accepted in UNC-Chapel Hill's biomedical engineering program through C-STEP. She works two jobs, one as a nutritionist assistant at Moses Cone Hospital and a similar job at a nursing home.

Dos Santos is always up for a challenge. When she received an email stating she was eligible for the college's Student Ambassadors program, her interest was piqued. She investigated, applied, went through the interview process, and earned a spot in the prestigious group.

"The email said that if selected I would get a scholarship. I thought that sounded interesting," she said.  "COVID was lifting, and I said 'let's get involved with the school. Why can't I give back?' "

The Student Ambassadors program is comprised of select students who provide core support to the college while gaining access to professional networking opportunities.

"It was a win-win. I would get a scholarship and help the school at the same time."

Ambassadors are paid for working up to 15 hours a month and receive $500 per semester from the GTCC Foundation to go toward tuition, fees and books.

She began her ambassador duties this fall, mostly giving tours to perspective students and their families, but what has been rewarding, she says, is that it has helped her understand she is on the right path.

"This makes me realize I love to work with people and that there are so many different ways to work with people," Dos Santos said. "When I look at the high school students taking the tours, I understand that back in my country, I would have never been able to do something like this."

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