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From Zimbabwe to Sesame Street
Author: Suzanne Pardington
Posted: September 26, 2013

Hardship has never held this student back from realizing her ambitions.

Zanele Mutepfa lost her dad to cancer at age 5 and her mom to heart disease at 11, but she forged a new path for herself—from Zimbabwe to a top media internship in New York City.

A junior at Portland State, Mutepfa someday hopes to host a talk show, write books, and found a women's empowerment organization, using the power of the media to reach as many people as possible.

THIS SUMMER, she took a big step toward that goal with her "dream internship" at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces Sesame Street and educational programs in more than 150 countries.

Mutepfa remembers watching Sesame Street as a girl in Zimbabwe—singing, laughing, and learning that it's OK to ask questions from her favorite character, Big Bird. In her internship, she went behind the scenes to help research literacy programs for beginning readers in Bangladesh.

How she got there is a story of resilience, persistence, and family ties across decades and continents.

IT ALL STARTED in a village in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), where her grandparents helped care for the children of American missionaries. When her grandparents were killed in a traffic accident in the 1970s, the American family took in their five children, including Mutepfa's mother.

In 2003, Mutepfa's mother died, leaving a second generation of orphans: Mutepfa and her three older siblings.

Paul Thomas, the eldest son in the family that raised Mutepfa's mother, got a 6 a.m. call that she had died, and he knew instantly that he needed to step up to care for his sister's four children. He and his wife, Maiya, soon adopted Mutepfa and her siblings, expanding their family from five to nine children.

The large, loving and multi-cultural Thomas family helped Mutepfa heal from the loss of her mother and find her footing in Portland.

"While there were moments of grief and tearfulness about her mom, she was a focused, hardworking young lady who would do whatever it took to learn what she needed to learn," Paul Thomas, a Portland pediatrician, says.

Mutepfa's networking skills were impressive from the start. She was "such a networker that at times we would take her phone at night to help her not network all night with friends," Thomas says with a laugh.

She made close friends with women in her church, including many who called her their daughter. She was Lincoln High School's Rose Festival Princess in 2010.

At Portland State, she is majoring in communications and minoring in business and Black Studies. She received the University's Diversity Enrichment Scholarship, which supports outstanding students with diverse backgrounds and life experiences.

The memory of her mom has inspired her all along the way.

After Mutepfa's father died, her mother moved the family to New Hampshire and worked three jobs as a nurse assistant. She had two master's degrees in education and business, but she didn't have a green card, limiting her work options. Before she died, she had multiple heart attacks but couldn't afford medication.

"I saw her work triple shifts for 24 hours, take us to school, clean, cook, go back to work and do it all over again," Mutepfa says. "My mom was super smart, but because of her status, she couldn't obtain the career of her dreams."

MUTEPFA'S ADOPTION made it possible for her to become a U.S. citizen and pursue her goals in a way that her mother could not. (When her mother was a girl, Rhodesia did not allow foreigners to adopt Rhodesian children.)

"My mom didn't have the piece of paper that I have, but we have one thing in common: love and passion for people," she says. "There's no way I won't make my dreams and her dreams come true."

To learn more about the media industry, Mutepfa set her sights on an internship in New York and put her networking skills to work. She sent out 2,000 letters and emails to media professionals, including producers, authors, directors and on-air personalities, asking them to "believe in a stranger."

More than 30 people responded, six agreed to meet with her, and she bought a ticket to New York City for informational interviews.

There she met Anne Kreamer, a former executive vice president and worldwide creative director for Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite. Kreamer turned the tables on Mutepfa by asking her questions and taking notes. The result was a February article in the Harvard Business Review about how Mutepfa broke into the New York media world by blanketing it with blind email messages.

Kreamer became a mentor to Mutepfa and helped her connect with executives at Sesame Workshop, where she was offered an unpaid internship. She had only a month to find the money to go.

Mutepfa raised $2,200 by asking for sponsors and holding garage sales, church fundraisers, and a benefit dinner. She also borrowed money to help pay for the summer in New York.

"This was just another example of her ingenuity," Paul Thomas says. "Never say never to Zanele."?

Suzanne Pardington, a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications, wrote "A Kinder, Greener Classroom, in the Winter 2013 Portland State Magazine.

Caption: Zanele Mutepfa spent her summer interning at Sesame Workshop on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The offices are decorated with chalk murals of Elmo and other Sesame characters.