Updated: May 17
Scholars Spotlight is a weekly series by GetInedu that explores the stories of successful grad school applicants and their journeys to securing scholarship offers for graduate school. We discuss their reasons for applying, the peculiar challenges they faced, their application strategy, and their lives post-application success.
The subject of today's Scholars Spotlight is Millicent Akayesi, a 2020 Bootcamp Alumni. She is a 21-year old architect from Ghana who won the fiercely competed MasterCard Foundation Scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, and at least 5 other full-tuition scholarship offers across North America, Europe, and Asia. She talks about applying during the heat of the COVID pandemic, being strategic about her pre-application activities, and her motivation for applying to several schools, despite receiving multiple admission offers.
Nice to finally get to speak with you, Millicent. Last we heard from you, you were the poster girl for grad school and scholarship success. Having won multiple fully-funded scholarships, you were literally the most sought-after applicant during the 2020/2021 application cycle. How was that experience for you?
LOL! Well, it was a really exciting moment for me, considering that I had applied to many schools and put a ton of effort into my applications. I felt happy knowing that out of a ton of applicants, my applications were favoured by the various admissions and scholarship committees. It made me cherish the value of the information, skills and effort I put into the process.
Amazing! Let's backtrack a bit. Can you give us a snapshot of your background and profile?
Oh, sure. My name is Millicent Akayesi. I was born and raised in Accra Ghana, a country situated in West Africa. After high school, I proceeded to study Architecture at the Kwame Nkrumah University, Ghana, where I finished with First Class honours and was in the top 1% of my cohort. As a student, I was involved in some extracurriculars on-campus and interned in some architecture firms like Archxenus, a female-led architectural firm in Ghana. These internships helped me to understand the architectural practice and apply my knowledge to solve real-world problems. Before leaving for my Masters, I worked as an Assistant Architect at Office546, Ghana for about a year. I am currently a Master of Architecture Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, on a full-ride Mastercard Foundation Scholarship.
Your profile is amazing. Well done! You have put in a lot of work to attain these academic and professional achievements.
Thank you so much!
So in total, can you tell us how many schools you applied to and how many fully-funded scholarships you won?
Eh! I can't count! LOL!
Are you serious?
LOL, to be honest, I never actually counted. I just kept applying.
Again, you understand my reason for asking "God when?". So, spill. Tell the GetIn fam the details.
I secured offers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, University of Idaho, Louisiana State University, University of California Berkeley, University of Reading, New Castle University, the University of West of England, Seoul National University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong National Polytechnic, Southeast University, China. I secured fully-funded scholarships at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of California, Berkeley, Louisiana State University, Seoul National University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong National Polytechnic, and Southeast University, China. I received fully-funded scholarships at multiple universities. I cannot remember all of them at the moment.
I AM SCREAMING! This is no small feat. What was your motivation for applying to these number of schools? What gave you the ginger to keep going?
I decided to "kill myself" on the matter because I knew what I wanted! My goal was to acquire an international education from a top school and the best professors in architecture. I knew it was important to my career trajectory, so I decided to give it my best shot. I was working an 8-5, but I still had to make out time for my applications either before or after work. On some days, I would sleep as late as 4 am just because of my applications. I had to dedicate time to my goals. No excuses. Of course, I got tired and overwhelmed because I had to adapt my applications to fit the profile of each school. However, I knew that not going to school wasn't an option. I needed to cast my net wide because I could not tell what the outcome would be. I just wanted to have more options to choose from to avoid being stranded in the end. My mind was made up and I decided to give the applications my best shot. Also, because I had reached out to some schools to request application fee waivers, I could not waste the opportunity to send in my applications for free.
The real definition of ginger! I am sure our audience is curious about how you secured these offers just barely within a year of completing your undergraduate studies. Did you have to take the IELTS exams, GREs or any exam for that matter?
Not at all. I was particular about programs that did not require me to take any further examination before applying. Also, since I applied during the heat of the pandemic, several schools waived the GRE requirements and other examinations.
Interesting. Lucky you! Did you at any point have to do anything as a student to make yourself competitive for future opportunities? To win the Mastercard Foundation Scholarship to a top 10 institution in the world, you must have put in the work to optimize your profile. What was that like for you?
For some time during my undergrad, I never really thought about going for my master's or even a master's outside Ghana. However, in my third year of studies, I realised that I needed more out of my career and life in general, so, I decided to give it a shot. Asides from maintaining stellar grades, I began participating in more competitions, volunteering and doing anything to add value to my future applications. Anytime I identified an opportunity that could make me competitive for my future applications, I went ahead to participate in it. For example, during the COVID pandemic, I contributed to the healthcare of communities in Ghana by providing health education and personal protective equipment to those in need. Furthermore, I participated in a Market For All competition which involved designing a market space to meet the public health needs of a market. Unsurprisingly, I was asked about what I had been up to since the start of the pandemic during one of my interviews. Guess what? I had a lot to say based on my volunteer experiences and online competitions.
I am sure our community members are jotting things down. Take notes, guys! Talk about determination and strategic planning! How was the waiting period for you? For many applicants, the wait between an admission offer and a scholarship offer can be very daunting. We've seen students become anxious about how to raise their fees and other living costs. How did you cope, considering that you had to wait for your funding offers on multiple occasions?
To be honest, it was a very scary moment for me. For multiple scholarships, I had to wait for several months to hear back from the schools and funding bodies. On some days, I questioned if I had wasted effort on the process because I did not know what to expect. It could have been rejections or offers. However, I realized that I needed to look forward and take the next steps in my life just in case my funding did not come through. Around that time, I decided to consider job applications but did not push through with them. Eventually, I continued researching more scholarship opportunities and kept applying for them. I wanted to go to school and rejection was not an option for me.
Wow. You had no plans to give up. Did you have strong support systems?
Oh yes, I had support systems. And I am grateful for them. My family, of course, my twin sister, Nseobong from GetIn (the person interviewing me now), haha.
LOL! It feels like a full-circle moment. I recall how invested you were in the MasterCard application process. I am really glad all your effort paid off!
Thank you so much.
Can you tell us about the moment you won the MasterCard Foundation Scholarship? How was that moment for you? I am sure you must have received multiple offers already. Were you still thrilled?
To be honest, I was actually sleeping when the offer came in. I had set my alarm for 4:30 am to prepare for work. And because I was working on applications, the first thing I always did upon waking from sleep was to check for any new emails or updates on my applications. That morning, I woke up before my alarm and decided to check my email. Lo and behold, the first thing I saw was "Congratulations!". I jumped up from my bed and ran to my parent's room screaming! My mum was so scared and thought something was wrong. Lmao. Everyone was so excited about hearing the good news.
That must have been surreal. I can't imagine how proud your family must have felt. I mean, you won a full-ride to the University of California, Berkeley.
Yes, it was such an exciting moment for everyone.
How did you navigate applying within your work environment? We hear about stories of bosses who become toxic when they find out that their employees are applying to graduate school.
Oh, my employer already knew I was applying.
Ehn? Wahalla oh! Was that not a problem?
Not at all. My firm was very supportive. My boss would regularly send me a list of schools and scholarship opportunities to apply to. He even helped out with my recommendations and encouraged me every step of the way. I am glad to have gotten the support I needed every step of the way.
That's amazing! Speaking of recommendations, a ton of students struggle with securing referees for their applications. Many students complain of having to speak with lecturers with whom they have no relationship or lectures even failing to submit their recommendations before their deadlines. How did you navigate that?
To be honest, because of my academic track record, my lecturers already knew me. However, way before I started my applications, I reached out to my referees and discussed my plans with them. I ensured I communicated what was expected from them based on what was taught in the Graduate School Application Bootcamp and gave them ample time to draft their recommendations. Thankfully, my referees all submitted in good time. I understand how distressing it may be to prepare a competitive application but miss out on an opportunity just because of a late or weak reference submission. No one should have to go through that.