Updated: Jun 14, 2019
Scholar: Omotola Akinsola
Undergraduate Course and Grade: Social Work, First Class
Undergraduate University: Columbia College, Columbia. United States
Graduate Course and University: Social Work, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
I always knew I did not want to have my university education in Nigeria due to the experiences I saw growing up surrounding strikes and how rigid and inadequate our education system can be. I also realized that I was not interested in being a medical doctor although I was in science class throughout my senior secondary school years. After realizing my interest was more in social development and enhancing lives and communities, I went online to look for a career path that fit my interest after some discussion with someone I considered a mentor. He encouraged me not to settle for being a doctor just because my field of interest was not popular or considered a top paying field. Through Google, I learned about Social Work and I fell in love with what it was about and knew this was what I wanted to dedicate my life to doing. I started telling everyone who cared to listen that I was going to go abroad to study, I was not sure where but kept hammering on it to anyone who cared to listen. I reconnected with a friend who was already studying in the United States for her bachelor’s and she gave me some tips and told me what I needed to do. My friend also connected me with a couple who had experience in processing undergraduate admissions for international students.
At this point, I was taking A level’s classes so I dropped out and instead, spent one month studying rigorously for SAT and TOEFL. I sat for SAT and TOEFL and applied to four schools through the guidance of the couple that provided guidance for secondary school students interested in studying in the United States. I got accepted to three of the schools I applied for with varying degrees of scholarships. The key things that helped were my willingness to ask for help and seek guidance from someone who was already where I wanted to be. Beyond this, working hard on my personal statements with guidance from teachers and mentors as well as asking teachers who I knew could write outstanding letters of recommendation for me was very important. I did not do exceptionally well in WAEC, so I knew I needed to be strong in other areas of the application. I researched the minimum test scores needed from the various schools to be considered for admission and scholarship and tried to at least meet those scores. I reached out via email to the admission departments and asked questions regarding the school and the scholarship packages they had for international students.
"The key things that helped were my willingness to ask for help and seek guidance from someone who was already where I wanted to be."
Graduate School Journey
I finished my undergraduate in 3.5 years and got accepted to Columbia University, New York University, Syracuse University, and Washington University in St. Louis (Wash. U) for my master’s degree. I chose Washington University in St. Louis not just because their master’s in Social Work was rated number one, but because it offered a full scholarship with a graduate assistantship that would cover my living expenses. I received some scholarships from the other schools but when I weighed the cost of living versus their offers, I knew the best thing for me was to go to the school that I will not have to pay any school fees. Another important factor was choosing a school where I could connect with the faculty. I sent emails during the application process to the top two faculty members working in my areas of interest to ask questions and explore the possibilities of working together. The faculty at Wash. U were more receptive to me and that also played a role in making the choice to go there.
The things I did during my undergraduate that prepared me for the graduate opportunities I had revolved around taking advantage of every opportunity to either do an internship or volunteer for various organizations and take on leadership roles within my college. I looked for every opportunity to learn and sought out every volunteer opportunities or internships that were related to my course of study even though it was not required. By the time I was rounding up my undergraduate program, my resume was at least 6 pages long. It was filled with rich experiences of working, interning, or volunteering at various organizations that I was interested in exploring. Although I was coming from a "no-name" undergraduate school when you consider the standing, in comparison to the schools I applied to for my master’s degree, I still had a competitive edge due to going above and beyond what was required of me. I had invested in my educational experience beyond just the normal expectations of going to classes. I competed for various opportunities locally and nationally.
"I looked for every opportunity to learn and I sought out volunteer opportunities or internships that were related to my course of study, even though they were not required."
I knew what I wanted out of the graduate program and chose the school that I felt will equip me with what I needed to pursue the interests I was after. Another major component that made Wash. U attractive to me over the names and prestige of the other schools was the opportunity for interdisciplinary learning. It offered the best of both worlds where half of my courses were at the business school. I got to interact with executive MBA students and learn from the professors at the Business school while the other half of my courses were at the school of social work. The opportunity to learn in two different departments and forge my own area of focus was very appealing and it was what exactly what I needed to plan my next steps after the master's degree.
Tips for Future Scholars
My overall insights to prospective students are:
a. Your current educational status does not dictate your future education potentials: I repeated SS1 while in secondary school, but I did not let it stop me. Despite the history of struggling through secondary school and barely making credits for WAEC, I was able to reinvent my education history and worked hard at meriting admissions and scholarships. So, don’t feel discouraged if you are not where you want and hope to be in terms of your education report cards. Examine and evaluate where you are right now, identify what is not working, and then work towards making the needed corrections to get you to where you want to be.
Despite the history of struggling through secondary school and barely making credits for WAEC, I was able to reinvent my education history and worked hard at meriting admissions and scholarships.
b. Seek out opportunities: Beyond just going to class and trying to maintain a good grade, do more. Be proactive with your education and find other ways to learn and be an expert in your field of study. Seek out opportunities to gain experience beyond the theories you are learning in class. Volunteer if you must find and craft internship opportunities for yourself if none exist. Do not just sit on your hands and wait for opportunities to find you, go out and seek them out.
c. Craft out a 3-5 years plan of where you want to be: It is not too early or too late for you to start figuring out what you want out of life. Especially regarding your educational trajectory and career path. If unsure, seek out people who can provide insights and sound advice to guide you and help you figure out what you want out of your life.
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