My name is Wema Meranda Mtika and I have just completed my master’s in International Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Oxford (pending graduation). This is my story.
Growing up, I always knew I wanted to impact people’s lives. Their health in particular. As a kid, I started out with a passion for medicine, or nursing. I was so obsessed with medical books and videos; surgeries, other procedures and what not; things a kid my age at that time typically shouldn’t have been doing. But I loved it! I actually still do this to-date. It comes naturally. As I grew older, I decided to enroll into a programme that was dealing with human health generally instead. At that time, public health resonated more with me with the career I wanted to pursue. Epidemiology and infectious and communicable disease control became my new passion. I was so enthusiastic about improving, protecting, and maintaining the health, wellbeing and quality of life for others. I wanted to be a change maker. I enrolled in the Environmental Health program at the Malawi Polytechnic. I developed the initial skills I wanted to gain, but I wanted more.
My postgraduate application journey was not so straightforward. It took determination, resilience, and a passion that never died despite the multiple challenges I faced along the way; rejections, rejections, and rejections. Three whole years…. I had all reasons to give up-I didn’t. My ‘applications journey’ starts in my undergrad years. Then, I knew very well that I wanted to go on and pursue a master’s degree. I told myself over and over that before I settle down and all, I want to have this achievement on my list. I desired it. I wanted to pursue a master’s in public health. At this point, two schools were in my mind: The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). I remember having started my application for Johns Hopkins, but somehow, I never completed it. I lost my drive along the way. I think this is because I had just graduated and was transitioning to work. I didn’t even know how to really go about the applications.
Enter London school and the Chevening scholarship. This was in 2017. When I first applied for these two, I did not have clear direction of the application process. I did not even know any one scholar- I had no guidance whatsoever. No one to even review any of my work (essays, personal statement etc.). I did not take much time to really delve into what the course and scholarship requirements were and how I aligned with them. To be honest, I didn’t even take much time to make sure my work was of good quality. Someone ever said I was harsh on myself when I ever said this statement about myself; “if I was an assessor that year, I wouldn’t have picked me either” ha-ha. I meant it though. I know it myself; it wasn’t a “good” application. I have learnt the importance of such elements as a good steppingstone to a good application, and I emphasize these to people that approach me on guidance to the school-scholarship application processes.
Anyway, back to the story. 2018 was a different year. I was very serious about getting a school opportunity and a fully funded scholarship. I dedicated most of my free time to explore such opportunities online. As much as I knew that I could ask other people to share scholarship opportunities etc., I realized I had to be proactive. Other people had to be there just to help what I already had going. My target was UK universities this time. I applied to several schools such as Strathclyde (MSc Environmental health Sciences), Cranfield (MSc Water and Sanitation), and Leeds (MSc Water, Sanitation and Health Engineering). I had applied for these programs because they resonated very well with the work I was doing in Malawi at that time. I got accepted in all these schools but was rejected in all respective scholarships I had applied for, except for Leeds which offered to fund just my tuition but I withdrew from the offer, as I only had a month to look for all other travel and living expenses before school stated. I couldn’t afford it. I still kept the school offers, planning to re-apply for scholarships in the following year.
Nevertheless, my heart was still dissatisfied. I still wanted to pursue a public health program, or something related. So, I decided to apply for public health programs and still apply for scholarships for the school offers I already had. I ended up applying for the public health programs at the universities of Aberdeen, and New Castle. Rejections. I decided to just focus on finding scholarships at this point. As I was looking for scholarships online, I bumped into one (Clarendon scholarship) under the University of Oxford. “Oxford”! I thought. “Perhaps Oxford?”. But who had studied there before that I knew? Wasn’t this some very high standard prestigious university? I was so intimidated. I went to the website anyway and started exploring the courses offered. International Health and Tropical Medicine. I connected so much with the course description; I remember feeling so emotional and having goosebumps allover. It was everything I had wanted. Multidisciplinary, focus on resource-limited settings, emphasis on research, and a great opportunity for leadership development. I had to apply. I was scared still. I now faced a battle of deciding on whether to apply yet again to a whole new university (prestigious for that matter) for a course I passionately loved or just focusing on the school offers I already had (although they weren’t exactly what I initially wanted). I saw that Oxford’s application required some application fee to it (some approximately £70 pounds)- now in Malawi that’s a lot of money! “why would I want to sacrifice all that money for something I probably won’t be selected anyway”? I left the application. I applied for scholarships for all the other schools I had offers for. I instead applied for the University of Cape Town and Malawi College of Medicine, for their public health programs and they selected me for both. Still, I had to find scholarships. I applied.
Oxford on my mind again. The passion was even stronger this time. I couldn’t resist. I decided to apply. My chosen referees provided great support in sending out reference letters and I really took time in the application process. I could come back home after a very tiresome day at work and put some 2 or so hours to it. At 4 in the morning, get back to it again. I did all this alongside IELTS preparation and exams; Oxford (the course’s) IELTS pass marks were higher than other UK universities (one needed a minimum of an overall score of 7.5, and 7.0 in listening, speaking, listening, and writing- it wasn’t easy). I sent in my application to send my IELTS results later when I got them. More intimidation. But deep inside something felt so strong about this opportunity. You know that feeling where you strongly know that something belongs to you? I felt that this opportunity was mine. I prayed about it.
For the second time, I was rejected in all the scholarships for the other schools I applied for except for Leeds. They gave me a full scholarship this time. Yay! I was going to go to school no matter what in 2019. But I was still waiting for Oxford results and the IELTS results. I passed my IELTS to the required standard, and Oxford shortlisted me for interviews. I prepared well. The interview preparation made me connect to the course even more. Once again, I was convinced that this opportunity was mine. I remember listening to songs; “It’s not over” and “Chinedum” throughout my preparations. I prayed even more. I am a person that believes in combining spiritual and academic excellence. The interviews went fantastic. I was confident and felt in control, and this made me enjoy them. I remember getting out of the interview room and praying; boldly thanking God for this opportunity I was going to have. I had assurance. The beautiful email came in. I was selected for the course. Surprisingly, before I turned in my IELTS results, I received another email from my course’s department saying they were actually going to waive any English proficiency requirements on my behalf to the university. I was like “what favour is this”? little had I known that a much more beautiful story was yet to come. I said “sure”. The waiver was successful. So, I never really submitted the IELTS results anyway for the course, but they were still useful to apply for scholarships.
Now the hard part. How will I get funding for Oxford? Super expensive, I couldn’t imagine. I applied for two scholarships for the Oxford offer. One, an internal (university) scholarship, and another, the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship. I was more hopeful in the latter. The feedback took forever. I started losing hope. I was like “I already have a full scholarship for Leeds anyway”. I slowly started preparing for Leeds; you know, the basics-accommodation application and all. One more disappointing email; the internal scholarship for Oxford didn’t pick me. Now the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship was truly my only hope for Oxford. I slowly started preparing for my visa application for Leeds, still, though reluctantly. I finally got shortlisted for the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship. Closer to the finish line. On this one particular day, I got sick and was about to leave the office to go to Mwaiwathu private hospital when the most beautiful email popped up in my inbox. “I am delighted to inform you that you have been awarded….” The joy was unexplainable. But this was not from the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship, no. it was from the University of Oxford itself; my course. They had decided to fund two students from the cohort (myself and another student from Malaysia) in scholarship; ‘Johnson and Johnson in Global Health’. This automatically “kicked out” the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship application. I could not believe it. I couldn’t believe how I struggled so much with other universities for so long and finally landed on the most prestigious school.
I now had to choose between Leeds and Oxford. One would think that at this stage, the decision was so straightforward. Nope. I had to really decide and be sure. School-wise, yes Oxford was a go. But remember I said I applied to Leeds because all the work I had been involved in after completing my bachelors aligned with this program. Oxford would be a great change; I was going to be in a whole new career path. Separation anxiety to the work and skills I had already established perhaps. I went back to the course detailed descriptions for both, once again. My heart confirmed it, I decided, and I had all the peace. I wrote my withdrawal letter to Leeds about a week later and started my preparation for Oxford.
More and more scholarships……
Somehow, scholarship offers started popping in. It actually became overwhelming. My boss and I would literally just look at each other and start laughing because we couldn’t understand it. Amongst these were the prestigious Mandela Rhodes (I had been shortlisted several times and finally invited to Cape town for final interviews). I also got accepted into the Malawi College of Medicine and I was going to be funded too. It was my time to send out rejection emails. I got offered several other scholarships (including those from One Young World-some I didn’t apply for).
Fast forward, 22nd September 2019, I played “It’s not over” and “Chinedum” on my phone and listened through as the plane took off. I smiled as I remembered the journey that got me there. I added an extra track “Be fruitful” for my inspiration for this most exciting journey I was about to embark on. And surely, it has been the most wonderful experience of my life- But that’s not today’s story.