In this interview, Lilian Akanazu shares her experience with applying for scholarships and finding her purpose. She talks about how her grad school plans started, the challenges she faced with the requirements, and how she overcame them. She also shares how her purpose for applying changed from just wanting to leave the country to wanting to gain value for her career and personal growth. Additionally, she mentions the resources and people that helped her during her scholarship application journey, and how she eventually found her present offer under the Erasmus program. Excerpts:
Hi Lilian, Please, give us an insight into your background?
Okay, thank you, SC for having me. My name is Lilian Akanazu, I had my first degree in Geography from the University of Nigeria and I'm currently in Belgium studying for my master's in Geoinformation Science and Earth Observation under the Erasmus Mundus fully-funded scholarship.
It's lovely to meet you Lilian. Thank you for your time. When did you begin your grad school plans?
It started far back in 2017 during my NYSC days but it didn't last for long. At a point in time, the fire and zeal died down but got rekindled again in 2020 during the pandemic. I'll say it died down because my goal then was not to go to grad school but solely to escape the fate of struggling to look for a job and to just 'japa' and leave the country, you know. So when I got a job offer I had to pause for a while until another incident triggered the desire to leave the country again.
Quite relatable. Most people can relate to the 'japa' angle. How did it feel at the beginning, considering all the requirements? How many schools did you apply to?
At the beginning, it wasn't that tough to me and I think that's because I didn't know how to apply, so I was just pouring out applications and honestly, I can't tell how many applications I made, I lost track of all that. But I think during the second phase of my application (after my sabbatical break lol) I had about 15 different applications.
But the early stage of my applying in 2017, I was just applying to apply and it reflected alot in the applications I sent out. Many of them I look back and shake my head now because I never cared to read the instructions or requirements of the program or scholarship, and even if I did read, I didn't take the time to process what they really needed so that I can properly assess myself if I was the right fit for the program, I was just pouring out applications and of course, they were also pouring out love letters in return.
Wow. So what changed?
Lilian: Okay, I think the purpose of applying changed. I was no longer applying to japa, but because I wanted to really go to grad school. I didn't see the scholarship as just a means to an end but as something that could really add value to me, my career, my goals, etc. So, when I took my time to study the requirements of each scholarship or program, I could easily see the ones that were the right fit for me, and this newfound motivation was also reflected in my essays.
Moreso I got to know about the endless resources being poured out on social media by Dr. Muyiwa, Adeola (Ijesha Canadian) and Jamaticulus, those were my three top tweepers then like I always turned on their notifications. I was always watching scholar's pivot back-to-back, especially his interview with past scholars on Saturdays I was always one of the first to come online to register my presence. All the knowledge and experience I gathered from these persons helped me shape my applications better.
About my interest, I think it got ignited again during my last job. So like I said earlier I studied Geography, but at one point in time, I worked as a banker and later as an auditor in one of the Big Fours in Lagos. Since I didn't have an accounting background, I was mandated to write professional accounting exams. I already started my ACCA and wrote my foundation papers, so one time a volunteer opportunity came up in the EMEIA region for climate change and sustainability team members across Africa, I showed interest, and I was appointed a board member from Johannesburg. In fact when that email came, I was like ... I've been begging these people in Lagos to move me to the climate change unit but see people in J-burg that saw just my profile appointed me board member in Africa. So I said Nah...I'm going back to my roots. I rather build on what I already know than start from scratch to study accounting I wasn't trained for. So that was what made me dust up my CV again, more like a rebirth for me. I think this also made me more intentional about the application.
Things we love to hear. We're happy that you found the right purpose. Did you know of Scholarships Cafe before you started? If no, when and how did you find out?
I don't think when I started applying, Scholarships Cafe has been formed then. My second phase started in 2020 so I relied solely on tweets from the academic Tweepers I mentioned earlier and the popular Youtube channel - Scholar's pivot. Those were the resources I had then and made good use of them while the phase lasted.
Thank God for them. And thankfully Scholarships Cafe is here to make the journey better for everyone. How did you come across the advert for your present offer?
My current offer is an Erasmus program and you can't say you're in the game of scholarship application if you don't know the big names nah, MCF, CSC, Erasmus, DAAD etc., so nobody told me per se, I already knew about the scholarship but what I didn't know was the program because they just got recent funding by the EU, so my set is more like the pioneer set for the program since the recent funding. But the funny part to the story is that this program was never amongst the three programs I selected to apply for the Erasmus, I applied to this as my fourth program under the approval of the DG of EACEA because I had an issue in one of my programs. Note that applicants can only apply to 3 programs max (although the new rule now gives room for applicants to apply to more than 3), but my case then was a peculiar one.
What particularly do you think helped you land your offer?
I think it’s my 'coconut head' in particular. AND reading the program requirements because I never applied to this program to begin with. I had applied to EMCIRCLE, FloodRisk and GroundWatch programs. Listen! You need to be intentional and resilient. My coconut head saved me again recently in this grad school but that's by the way. So I applied to these three programs, but my current program is GEM (in short). I had seen their page on the catalogue but because their funding was not confirmed yet, they didn't start taking applications in time, and I didn't want anything to drag because I was working and also writing exams.
Wow. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
So FloodRisk didn't grant me an admission, they rejected me outrightly. A friend we belong to the same scholarship WhatsApp group chatted me and asked me to check my profile for FRM (floodrisk) and I checked and saw 'not admitted'. I asked him he said he was admitted. Note that they roll out admission first before the scholarship decision. So, I asked what his BSc major was, and he said meteorology, I went back to their website I didn't see meteorology. I wrote an email to the program coordinator at IHE Delft immediately stating my case based on the requirements for admission on their website.
They said entry requirements were min of 2:1, and I had a 1:1, they said IELTS 6.5, and I had an 8.0 parallel, they even listed Geography as one of the courses they needed so why was I not admitted? When I sent the email, the next day my profile changed to 'under review' and I was ecstatic, only for them to come back and inform me that they cannot change their decision because I didn't take more hydrology courses in my BSc as seen in my transcripts.
Your records are soooo impressive. Well done!
Thank you. So, I sent them another email telling them that this was not stated on their website, that they listed their requirements and I met the criteria so why did they not disclose this also? I also told them I was interested in CDE and CartoMundus since they had almost the same entry requirements but I didn't apply because they mentioned that they wanted someone with programming skills, specifically Java, and I didn't have this so I didn't bother to apply. That I expected them to have stated these on their websites so applicants would know what they actually need, then I requested them to modify their website so as not to misguide subsequent applicants.
They acknowledged my email and did modify their website and wrote back to me that they have modified their website so I checked and confirmed accordingly. I told a friend about this, and he advise me to ask them to delete my application from their system since it was not my fault, so that I can have another slot to apply for one more Erasmus program. I wrote to them and they obliged and deleted my application as per my request, and also told me when they did so I thanked them and asked if I can go ahead now and apply for another Erasmus program but they said they are not in the position to give me such confirmation, that I should confirm from the EACEA. Getting in touch with the EACEA was another struggle altogether as I couldn't find the information of one person I could write to explain this, but I got the name of the Director General. I filled their online questionnaire and sent an email to their info-box I saw on their portal but no response. I knew I had to speak directly to someone so I looked up the DG on twitter if I could see her mail address somewhere I couldn't. I checked her on LinkedIn no email so I decided to check Research Gate and saw an article she co-authored so I got her email from there and sent her an email. I tabled everything that transpired between myself and IHE Delft and how they asked me to confirm from EACEA, I also told her I had filled out their online form and mailed the general mailbox but no response (make e no be like I no try to contact them na I rush come meet am, you know hierarchy things..lol).
At the time I sent her the email, GEM had commenced application and that was the only program that I could apply to that was still open because others had closed as it was already March, so I started the application but didn't submit it yet so as not to jeopardize my other two applications. After two days, she replied giving me a go-ahead to send in the fourth application, but I should confirm that I meet the program requirements before submitting it. After she confirmed, I got another confirmation from the EACEA mailbox giving me a go-ahead again...so I was like....it's game time...oyaaa.
So this was how I submitted the fourth application for GEM and it happened to be the one I got Erasmus funding for straight away, no reserve list. This is my current program, even though I had other offers which I turned down for this. My challenges came from different corners and at different phases, well this I just shared is one of them, but I think the major challenge I faced was coping with work, exams and applying to scholarships AT THE SAME TIME.
I worked as an auditor and if you're familiar with the environment, we work almost around the clock especially in peak seasons when we have to deliver client accounts for signing. Fortunately, covid-19 appeared so I had to work from home and while it did give me a little time to focus my mind on other things, it was still cumbersome because the load was alot. I remember my alarm tone then to wake up in the midnight was Tatiana Manois's 'Like You'. Each time I hear 'you better get up and make that move, cos the world will never see you till you do...' mehn I just drag myself out of the bed. I knew my fate was in my hands and if I really want to achieve what I was aiming for, I should be willing to suffer temporary discomfort, so that mentality of 'this is temporary' helped me to deal with pressure right. Sometimes I could just decide to be lazy, abandon work and go out (make person no sha crase), come back fresh and start again, cry when I need to (especially when love letters come), purge your spirit of the burden and emotions.
Your resilience is just amazing. Congratulations. How would you describe your grad school experience since landing your offer? Is it what you envisioned?
My experience so far...omor it's been worth my while, and it exceeded my expectations (like totally exceeded my expectations). Grad school is no joke, if you're lazy you can't survive; if you don't know how to prioritize, you can't survive; if you think grad school is just for you to japa, you CAN'T survive, you will be frustrated. There are days I'll be in class and nothing is entering my head, I mean I graduated in 2016 and have been working in an entirely different field for 5 years. There are days when the only thing that will get you going is your love for the stipend you receive, there are days when the only thing that will motivate you is the fact that you're not in Nigeria, those times will come and you will ask yourself 'did I even make the right choice to resign from my job and go back to school?'. There are days I ask myself that, it's sure. But there are other days that your head will be on fire, everything is making sense, your project is moving, your analysis is turning out well, or you just had a crisp presentation during a seminar, and you tell yourself 'omor I too sabi forget, my brain dey hot'. The ups and downs will come, the zigs and zags will come, and when you start to question yourself why you made this choice, look back to where you were that triggered this decision in the first place. Because as humans, we always think of the now, today, and we forget where we were before, like sometimes when I talk with my friends I tell them mehn I shouldn't have left ... (my former firm), at that moment I forget why I dusted my CV to start applying again because I've been frustrated by maybe one assignment or project.
For me, the pages are still unfolding, I just started my second year in Belgium and would be rounding up next year hopefully. But for what I had envisioned so far, I'd say I didn't see a lot of it coming, especially here in Belgium, but it's part of the drill, life's unpredictable and that's what makes it beautiful. How we manage the challenges even make the reward sweeter in the end.
Couldn't have said it better. Last question, advice for aspiring scholars?
Lilian: To aspiring scholars, KNOW YOUR ONIONS. Before you apply to a program or scholarship. READ AND UNDERSTAND. Don't pour out applications like water because you want to count numbers and 'spread your tentacles. I've seen people that applied to 20 scholarships and got none, while someone who applied to just 1 got in. In spreading your tentacles, spread wisely and do not have the mentality of japa for grad school, stress go finish you. If you want to go to school, go, if you want to japa, japa.
Nothing remain to add to this advice. So spot on! It's been a 10/10 talking and going on your scholarship with you. What I love most about this interview is how realistic and relatable you are and you've told us as it is. Because most people have the wrong approach and this is a great sign for reflection. Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate you so much. And everyone at SC is rooting for you. We'll love to hear more 'coconut head' gists. You're a first class SCitizen