Sasol employees come together to help a young exchange student find his path in life
Pam Briscoe had hosted foreign exchange students before, a tradition she carried on from her grandmother. But this time, she had a specific request for the agency that coordinates host families.
As an employee of Sasol Chemicals, Briscoe asked to host a student from South Africa. She could gain some insight into South African culture, while offering a young South African the opportunity to learn about life in the United States.
That decision was life changing for Alwyn Rae from Johannesburg, who turned his 10-month experience in Houston into a college scholarship from Sasol and now, a new job with the company in South Africa.
But it was also life-changing for Briscoe. “We are family now,” she said.
It was 2014 when Alwyn Rae and Johannes Kjaer Bach from Denmark came to live with Briscoe, a Facilities Services Coordinator in Houston. The two students, both 15-year-old sophomores, attended Cy Woods High School in northwest Houston and became fast friends.
“Alwyn and Johannes came from two very different cultures and lifestyles,” said Briscoe. “But they quickly became brothers.”
Adjusting to a new life
Alwyn, who grew up in one of Johannesburg’s toughest neighborhoods, wasn’t sure what to expect from his visit. Like many young people living outside the US, his knowledge of American culture came mostly from Hollywood movies.
“There were a lot of things that I wanted to experience,” he said. “I wanted to try Starbucks and all the different fast-food places. And I was hoping to meet some real-life cowboys.”
One of Alwyn’s first questions was, “Where are all the Sasol petrol stations?”
“Alwyn was used to seeing Sasol gas stations everywhere,” Briscoe said. “And he knew I worked for Sasol, so he didn’t understand why there weren’t any stations in Houston.”
An introvert by nature, Alwyn was determined to be more outgoing at school. He joined the wrestling team and even went to a high school dance. He and Johannes enjoyed hanging out together and Briscoe’s coworkers and neighbors provided plenty of opportunities to meet new people and experience American life.
“Alwyn was very brave,” said Briscoe. “He wasn’t afraid to try anything.”
One of the highlights of Alwyn’s visit was a trip to the Grand Canyon with a friend’s family.
“My stay really forced me to get out of my shell and learn to be more extroverted,” Rae said. “That’s something that will definitely help me throughout my life.”
Lessons to remember
Alwyn believes his time in the US helped him recognize that adaptability is important – a strength that will serve him well in his career.
“I learned to adjust to new surroundings and to not be overwhelmed by change,” said Rae. “It also taught me to appreciate different cultures. I realized I shouldn’t say that someone is wrong because what they do contrasts with what I am familiar with. It’s not wrong; it’s just different.”
And of course, he recognizes the role that Sasol has played in his life – from a lifelong relationship with Briscoe, her family and Kjaer Bach to his scholarship and now employment.
“Sasol changed the whole trajectory of Alwyn’s life,” said Briscoe. “I am so proud to say I work for a company that can make such a magical story become a reality.”
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