I had always wanted to do my master’s soon after undergraduate studies, but, well, two great jobs at two international organisations had other plans. Suffice to say, all the time I was working, I had an insatiable desire for a master’s degree. My dream was to do this master’s specifically in the UK. The area I was to specialise in (Geographical Information Science – GIS) is quite new and very few courses in Africa. Apart from that, I was attracted to the quality of education provided in the UK. The short time (1 year) it takes to complete a master’s at Cranfield University, the international culture and English as a language of teaching and everyday life were also contributing factors.
Well, the passion to do a master’s was there, but I also knew I didn’t have the money!
So initially, I knew about the Commonwealth Scholarships because of the people I admire in my country had gone through it. They were leaders in their respective fields. What I did not know was the different scholarships offered via this scheme. For me, the Commonwealth Scholarships seemed to be about government employees and some research bodies in my country. Until one of my closest friends was awarded the scholarship in 2019 and that was when I became interested. He enlightened me a lot about this scholarship, and I also spent a lot of time on the internet to find out more details. I was certain I qualified and that this was the scholarship I wanted to apply for. I noticed all scholarships still needed an application to be nominated. I planned to apply for the Commonwealth Scholarship via one of the nominating agencies in Malawi. After learning about the Commonwealth Shared Scholarships where the universities can also be the nominating agency I also planned for this application.
That was in 2019, the master’s programme ticked, finances ticked, universities ticked but how to apply was a problem. I remember starting three scholarship applications and never completing them! I was not lazy but my work also kept becoming interesting and made it difficult for me to leave. I procrastinated from that time until 2021 when I came across an advert for Commonwealth Shared Scholarships on the internet. This time around I quickly started the application process. I noticed the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship had three stages: application to Commonwealth Commission, application for admission to university (academic entry) and application to be nominated by the university. When I went to the Cranfield University Commonwealth Scholarship page, the instructions required me to write a development essay first for the International Scholarship team to decide whether they will nominate me or not. They made it clear that I will still have to be admitted to the master’s programme and then also confirmed by the Commonwealth Commission. After one week, the good news came, and I was successfully reaching the next stage!
Now, the team handling academic admission is different from the scholarship one, and I quickly started my application for admission of a place. Having graduated from a five-year programme with a distinction gave me some hope that I would have a chance, although I had fears concerning the equivalence of my undergraduate degree to the UK as well as English proficiency. In less than two weeks I received an email that my admission was successful! Step two of three was done. At this time, I knew I had a place, and that the University would nominate me for the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship, all I had to do was wait for the Commonwealth Commission decision. On the eve of my birthday, the Commonwealth Commission sent me an early gift and it was a scholarship award email! I was super excited; I knew it was a milestone. A lot of people apply for these scholarships and Cranfield University receives a lot of applications worldwide. There I was, on my first attempt and just a lad in a less known country being admitted a place in a top UK university and offered the full prestigious Commonwealth Shared Scholarship by the UK Government (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office).
The next challenge was Covid-19 and all the travel formalities! I should mention that the team at Cranfield University was very helpful in this process, they sent a lot of helpful emails informing me about my next steps and what is required. Most times they informed me before I even asked! I remember after checking the visa requirements for the UK and one of the required documents was a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) from the University. I was about to write Cranfield University when I saw a new email from Cranfield with the subject “Your CAS number for Student visa application”. Finally, I left Malawi on 29th September for the UK! I was picked up at the airport and taken to my quarantine hotel, by this time all passengers coming from Malawi were isolated for 10 days due to the Covid-19 outbreak. After 10 days, Cranfield University sent a cab to pick me up from the hotel to the University, the airport meet and greet team from the University was amazing and made my travel to Cranfield less challenging.
My first impression of the campus was the neatness, the greenery, and the tranquillity! Cranfield is in a rural setting, in a very calm environment that I find conducive to learning. I was also surprised to learn that there was an airport at the campus! I knew from my research that Cranfield is well known for aeronautics, air transport engineering, management, and training but I was not aware that they had an airport and aeroplanes! Probably the only University in the UK with an airport. I also found the campus a mixture of urban and rural infrastructure. The campus itself has a mixture of older buildings and then newer, fancy ones as well. The fact that I can hop on a train and in about one and half hours I can be in London is also exciting. It’s like having both worlds in one hand.
But wait, who are my classmates? Until this moment, I only knew one classmate from the Netherlands whom I met on the Cranfield Facebook page. Then, during my first lecture on the introduction to the programme, I had the chance to meet most of my classmates. It is a class of about 15 people. I am saying about because 12 people are full time and the other three are part-time and join us on specific modules. My classmates come from Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, the UK, France, Nepal, and the Netherlands. They all have various backgrounds from Geology, Engineering, Zoology to Computer Science. The class mixture is great for learning, both professionally and informally about their culture and countries. This is true for the campus as a whole; I have made friends with students from all over the world and academic backgrounds. Some have cooked me great Indian and Nigerian meals whilst others have been great companions in the gym!
At the end of the programme, I am looking forward to having gained the much-needed skills in GIS and Remote sensing that will enable me to take on more responsibilities and challenging work in my field. So far, I have already enjoyed modules in Remote Sensing, Programming, and the practical nature of the master’s programme. After the master’s, I will return to Malawi and continue working with the Government’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs to improve geographical information systems. As of now (3 Feb 2021), Malawi is experiencing Tropical Storm Ana and the need for GIS and Remote Sensing has already been expressed to support the Emergency Operations. I intend to use my newly gained skills in remote sensing and GIS to collect, analyse, manage, and interpret climate data. I will also nurture upcoming scientists from the Malawi drone academy on geospatial data analysis and interpretation. My long-term plan is to join academia (and likely to come back to UK for a PhD!) and continue to train more Malawians on applications of GIS for Sustainable Development Goals.