(This letter is part of a series by The Indian Express where we bring you experiences of students at different foreign varsities. How life is different in those countries — scholarships, loans, food, cultural experiences and what they are learning other than academic)
Twenty-three-year-old Mohammed Abdul Salam from Chennai is currently pursuing MSc in City Planning and Design at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is a returning Master’s student at the university who — like many other students — had to fight the pandemic, travel restrictions, and much more to earn his degree.
Here’s why I went abroad
I studied BEng Civil Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast (2017-21). The curriculum was industry aligned and I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process. This was the reason I decided to pursue a Master’s degree from the same university. Besides academics, my overall motivation was to learn to live on my own in a foreign country. Unlike many Indian parents who are overprotective, my father encouraged me to learn, try, fail, and more importantly — to fail better.
I always preferred reaching out to the university directly as establishing communication works wonders to help you convey your profile and interests.
Scholarships available at QUB
Since I was a returning master’s student at the same university, I was able to avail the alumni discount. However, there are several other options and usually one can accept only a single scholarship, even if they are eligible for multiple scholarships. In my case, the alumni discount was the highest, so it worked that way.
I suggest aspirants try applying early and try cold mailing the university and the relevant department (usually the international office) requesting them details of scholarships available for international or Indian students, specifically.
Education loans: Summarise your situation, present all documents
I believe that applying for a loan is a wise thing to do when planning to study abroad, even if you don’t plan to avail it immediately. Having the guarantee of a financial institution helps you complete the application and visa process without much hassle as the financial criteria are much simpler to fulfil when you have been sanctioned a loan.
The process can be initiated by your local bank branch through an online portal called Vidyalakshmi. When presenting your case, it is best to summarise your situation to the local bank manager with a document containing your course fees, details and prospects after graduation to ensure smooth approval of the loan.
Utilising Covid pandemic for a social cause
As classes at the university abruptly ended due to the Covid pandemic, I had to return to India during my final semester — which was a placement year — of the undergraduate degree. During quarantine, I co-founded a charity start-up called ‘@FeedTheNeedy2020’, along with my brother in Chennai. This initiative served more than two lakh meals to those in need such as auto drivers, and many other daily wage workers who had lost their jobs in the pandemic.
This initiative gained wide popularity and it helped me win the QUB SU’s ‘Supporting our Community’ award in 2021.
However, the Covid break also allowed me to assess my progress and prepare for the future. Before Covid, the lectures were always in-person but now the university has transitioned to accommodate a hybrid style of teaching to be ready for any disruptions.
During this time, I applied for my Master’s degree and was selected for the prestigious Washington Ireland Program. I, therefore, returned to the UK in March 2022.
Washington Ireland Program — benefit of the programme, election process, experience
During my undergraduate days, I was actively representing students in the council and various campaigns. I ran multiple elections in the students’ union. My work led me to win the Graduate of the Year Award for the PwC Inspiring Leaders programme in 2019. Having had experience in both leadership and service, I was encouraged to apply for the Washington Ireland Program and Leadership (WIP), and I got selected.
It is a six-month programme that introduces university students to Washington, DC for summer internships and leadership training. Through the programme, I was able to intern with a New York-based sustainability SaaS start-up called ‘Sustain.Life’, along with an interview with Secretary John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for the climate.
Importance of part-time jobs, cooking at home, tracking expenses
I try to cook as much as possible at home, and I plan my days with respect to meals and even snacks — this helps keep me organised in multiple ways. I would suggest students try to keep a journal of their expenses in a format and don’t be too harsh on themselves. It’s important to sustain through the experience and not burnout.
Now that I am done with WIP activities, I will be applying and working in part-time positions to support myself. To support themselves, students can look for several part-time jobs such as international student ambassadors at their university, other similar job profiles at the international office of the university, serving tables at local restaurants, a cashier at a local store, and much more. One should just remember that there are set hours that an international student is allowed to work for in a week. As an international student, you should not cross the prescribed work hours as it will be counted as an illegal act.
Advice for future aspirants
I would advise aspirants to make sure they have their marksheets, ID proofs, bank statements and CAS letters and any relevant document scanned and stored in a document as you may need it regularly through the application process and also while coming in-person to university as well.
Once you have done your background networking and documentation, reaching out to established counsellors would help gain access to a wider pool of universities as they tend to have established connections. However, at the end of the day, make sure that you take an informed decision based on all factors.
Plan for the future and take stock of your personal situation and ambitions. Write it down and don’t feel shy to speak to people who have already done it. Also, try and establish direct communication with course directors and admission teams. Most importantly, keep in mind that no task is beneath you, nor is any task above you. It is important to have a vision and seek challenges in that vision before you come abroad and while you are here.