Today we are super excited to bring you a story that we hope will inspire you. We interviewed Abisola Otesile, who worked with McKinsey & Company in Nigeria and just completed a Master’s Degree in Advanced Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College.
In case you don’t know, the Chevening Scholarship is the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. It is funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner organisations. Chevening offers two types of awards – Chevening Scholarships and Chevening Fellowships – the recipients of which are personally selected by British Embassies and High Commissions throughout the world.
Enjoy the interview!
How did you hear about the Chevening scholarship?
In August 2014, I was posted to Lagos State for my National Youth Service Corp, and I was so excited as I really looked forward to having a lot of fun. I had heard that Lagos Camp was the centre of fun, so I was well prepared and had even saved in order to have enough money to spend. After the first couple of days, we had endless orientations, most of which were centred around the skills acquisition and entrepreneurship development program. Quite frankly, I started to lose interest in NYSC camp by the fourth day because I wasn’t really interested in learning skills such as sewing, bead-making and so on. Coming from a mechanical engineering background, if things like setting up your mechanical workshop, or starting an engineering firm were talked about, perhaps I would have been more interested. So, during one of my “whining” sessions about how camp orientations were so skewed towards only entrepreneurship, I expressed my discomfort about how the NYSC program did not focus on the academics. Later that evening, I recall one of the other NYSC corpers, who is now one of my closest friends, beckoned to me and told me she wanted to speak to me in private. She mentioned that she heard all I had complained about and she also felt the same way too and was already working towards going to the UK for further studies after the NYSC program. As if about to tell me a top secret, she asked me to look at her phone and showed me her Chevening application which she had begun…and that was how I knew/heard about the Chevening Scholarship.
How much research did you put into understanding how the scholarship works?
Naturally, I asked my friend how to go about the application. She gave me a long list of things to do and immediately, I felt discouraged for a number of reasons. First, I did not have my degree certificate and I had not completed NYSC which was a requirement. Second, the schools I was interested in at that point were yet to begin the application process, and because I had to also apply to the schools at the same time that I applied for the Chevening, I was left in a quandary as I could not immediately begin to apply. About a month later, my friend called me and told me that she was almost done with her application, and in fact, the application was not difficult at all. Upon hearing that, I decided to research online by myself to see how I could go about the application process. I visited the website www.chevening.org and there was very detailed information on the website on how to go about each stage. The FAQs were also very exhaustive and covered most of the clarifying questions I had. Surprisingly, I discovered that to submit by the application deadline, I was not required to have all the documents I had initially thought were bottlenecks, so I decided to give it a go. Also, at every stage, I contacted my friend to discuss any concerns.
How did your academic and professional background contribute to you getting the scholarship?
A huge chunk of the application had to do with writing essays. These essays basically revolved around academic, leadership and professional experiences. Also, Chevening is interested in how you will use your experiences coupled with the Chevening scholarship to impact your home country. It is worth noting that, Chevening requires that you have at least 2 years working experience, both voluntary and non-voluntary. I graduated with a First class degree in Mechanical Engineering and also had the Best Final Year Thesis award, which I think helped in showing I had good academic potential . Also during my undergraduate days, I held a number of leadership positions which I used as examples of leadership experiences for the essays. I also had the opportunity to go through several internship in some local and multinational firms which helped me gather some professional experience.
Having attended a federal university, there were series of strikes and I spent over 6 years to complete a degree which would ideally have taken 5 years. During the strikes, I used to teach secondary students Mathematics, and I used the experience to supplement my other professional experiences.
Did you make any strategic decisions to increase your chances, such as choice of course or university?
In order to increase my chances, I realized I had to have very strong references (particularly academic), both for my university applications and my scholarship applications. By strong I mean, high-ranking academics who would give a detailed summary of you, your achievements and vouch for you. Unfortunately at the time, my department did not have any professors. However, I had taken a course from a different department in my final year, where the lecturer was a Professor and at some point the Faculty Dean. I made a call to the Professor, and told him about the scholarship. In addition, I sent him a very detailed CV of myself, including the course he taught me and what I gained from the course. He was so impressed and offered to write a great reference for me. During the interview with Chevening, I was asked about the reference, and my relationship with him. I was able to give a good description, because I had communicated effectively with him.
What does the scholarship cover?
The scholarship covers visa application costs, full tuition, a return ticket to the UK, a monthly stipend of over a thousand pounds (if your school is in London), thesis allowance, arrival allowance, excess luggage and departure allowance. It is a FULL scholarship in every sense of the word.
Can you share links to any websites or forums that assisted you with your application?
You should check out the following pages www.chevening.org, www.chevening.org/fellows/faq, www.chevening.org/scholars and www.facebook.com/officialchevening/ .You can also follow @cheveningfco on twitter.
How have you found the experience?
My Chevening journey has been the second life-changing experience for me since getting “born-again”. It started with the elation of being selected and treated like a “superstar” before leaving Nigeria. Also, the network of other scholars, both in Nigeria and beyond our continent is immense. Scholars always found time to connect either through social media and competitions or events which were organized by the secretariat. Today, I am assured that if I need anything in any part of the world, there is always someone to reach out to easily. More importantly, I was able to learn more about my course of interest and sharpen my tool-kit as an engineer and I hope to use these skills to impact Nigeria. Most interestingly, I was able to visit 8 European countries which was something I wanted to do since I was a child.
Even after the sponsorship ends, the secretariat still keeps in touch. In November, the Alumni in Nigeria is having the maiden Nigeria Chevening Summit to further discuss how we can drive impact in the various sectors. With this I have to say, Chevening is not an experience in my past, but a lifetime journey and it still continues.
Are there any other scholarship opportunities that are available for Africans?
There are a lot of scholarships available, kindly check www.opportunitiesforafricans.com/category/scholarships/.
Can you share additional tips that may be useful?
Chevening was not the only scholarship I applied for, I got to the interview stages of Commonwealth scholarship and NLNG, but was disqualified from both commonwealth and NLNG because I did not have an NYSC certificate. The learning here is that you need to be prepared and you must have all necessary documents. Also, do not apply for only one scholarship.
High academic grades help a lot. Most scholars in my cohorts had finished their undergraduate university degree with a first class. This is not to say other grades do not count, as people with other grades are also awarded scholarships, however, it is important that you strive to get the best grade so that you can have a better chance at obtaining a scholarship.
Finally, keep asking questions and have a support group to review your essays before sending them in. Do not be a silo!