Dr. Toluwalase Awoyemi Shares the Story Behind Winning the Rhodes Scholarship

Updated: Aug 4, 2021


Undergraduate degree

Medicine and Surgery, with distinction, university of Ibadan

Graduate degree

DPhil in progress, University of Oxford

Introduction

There is not much to say honestly, I went to medical school at the University of Ibadan from 2010 to 2016. Medical school had sweet and bitter experiences for me, the sweet parts are the friends I made along the way. Shortly after, I started my internship at the University College Hospital, Ibadan followed by NYSC. I was initially posted to Wailo Camp, Bauchi which was my first experience in the north. I enjoyed my stay there; I met some amazing groups of people who are doing extremely well right now. I ensured I participated in as much activity as I could and have an immersive camp experience. I particularly loved the Man O’ War drills. Anyways, I was subsequently redeployed to Ido-Ekiti, Ekiti state where I did the rest of my memorable service year.


Inspiration to Pursue Graduate School

This is a tough question; I have always been interested in research, but I was not sure at the time that a medical specialty/sub-specialty training would offer me that opportunity. Even then, a master's degree was what I was interested but was convinced to apply for a Ph.D. in addition to the master's degree. As of then, I didn’t know it was possible to do a Ph.D. without a master's. However, as fate would have it, I was fortunate to secure admission into a Ph.D. program at the university of oxford.


The Road to Grad School: Overcoming the Challenges of Inadequate Mentorship and Securing Solid Recommendation Letters

The first would be the inadequacy of mentorship as regards graduate school admission. I did not know a lot of Oxford alumni, so it was a bit difficult to imagine it was possible to get in.

In addition, obtaining letters of recommendation or rather obtaining quality letters of recommendation was quite challenging. I learnt to chase referees, a skill I am extremely proud of. I have since learnt that most referees are typically very busy people with little time to read the lengthy letter of recommendation requirements. I had to look for the best ways to summarise the documents, discuss my personal statement and walk them through my resume within a short period of time. Most of the time, I would meet an empty office and revisit them, sometimes two to three times before I eventually get across to them. Finally, securing my transcript and university certificate while working as a house officer at the extremely busy UCH. I do not want to get started on how stressful that was energy and money-wise. It was like participating in a steeplechase while running backwards. I overcame them mainly through the ‘Nigerian hustling’ spirit, and ‘we die dere’ attitude.




Winning the Rhodes Scholarship

Yes, I got the Rhodes Scholarship before I applied to the University of Oxford. The process has since changed but I would relay my experience.

When I applied, the Rhodes scholarship was just returning to Nigeria after a twenty-four-year hiatus, so we had no predecessors to help guide and refine our application process. The cherry on top was that there was only one slot for West Africa.

In fact, I was close to self-exclusion because of the competitiveness. In addition, I applied precociously, a year before I intended to apply just so I would understand the application process. Not in my wildest dream did I think I would win it, at least not in my first attempt. We had to submit a lot of documents for the scholarship after which they shortlisted sixty-five amazing students for the semi-final interview. At the semi-final interview, I was characteristically dressed in an oversized suit, best referred to as a coat. A suit that has served me through thick and thin. We were warmly welcomed by the selection committee and I had an interview with an amazing professor from one of the top universities in Nigeria then.


I waited anxiously for about two weeks then I got a message like hot amala and abula on Christmas day. I think I was at the antenatal clinic attending to patients when I got the message that I had made the fifteen-person shortlist. I then showed the message to Dr. Ayokunle Adenipekun, to prove to myself that I was not hallucinating. I travelled to Lagos on December 1, World AIDS Day. It was a stressful journey that was only brightened by the extraordinary memories created during the two days of the interview. The first night was a cocktail and dinner where we as finalists interacted with ourselves and the interviewers. The second day was the interview where we told and presented our unique story for fifteen minutes. After the interview, we waited for a couple of hours before the winners were announced. I was extremely happy when I was announced as one of the recipients of the scholarships along with the brilliant Ghanaian statistician Emmanuelle Dankwa.


Practical Points I will like to share with Aspiring Rhodes Scholars

The quality of all the finalists was top notch and to be fair, there was no real differentiating factor I can think of now. However, I would say all applicants found a unique way to express themselves. I know this is not want you want to hear me say so I would state some practical points.

  1. Do not be too unilateral with your career goals especially while you are still young.

  2. Try to explore and discover new aspects of yourself. This can be in form of volunteering with an organization or your religious group, being a part of a society or club, leading a small group or sub-group in your class, developing skills by participating in online courses and hackathons, participating in sports competitively otherwise, the list has no end.

Useful Resources for Aspiring Scholars

One source that was and remains pivotal is www.oportunitydesk.org


How the Rhodes Scholarship Shaped My Career

As expected, this scholarship has been transformational, it has opened doors of all weight and dimensions for me but beyond that, it has given me an opportunity to represent my country and continent at a global level. I have by the nature of this scholarship been able to form connections between the UK and Nigeria and I hope to continue to do this if I can


The Next Steps

This is the only simple question, immediately I would like to explore my country for a couple of months, discover new places. And render my services as a health professional and education advocate to those who can’t afford this Ultimately, I would be pursuing subspecialty medical training after this.


Advice to Other Africans Considering a Fully-funded Graduate Degree

Do not self-exclude, give yourself a shot. There is more to gain from trying than you would lose


Eye-opening Moments while Studying Abroad

Well, the first is the fact that cars do not unnecessarily hoot, that was eye-opening for me as someone whose last Nigerian city was Lagos. I didn’t even know that was possible. The next would be that a society can be built on trust, you know sometimes you order something from Amazon or other stores and it is the wrong thing or damaged and you can ask for a refund as simple as brushing your teeth.



Dr. Toluwalase Awoyemi, an Oxford DPhil student was recently recognized as one of the UK's Top 10 Black Students. He is also the co-founder of The Ganglion Initiative, whose aim is to make education accessible to the marginalized.⁣⁣


 

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