I was having a conversation recently with a new friend and we considered the possibility of meeting up for a lunch or dinner sometime soon. For some reason, I just assumed she lived in London. And then she corrected me saying she lived in Cambridge! At that, I happily blurted out "Oh Cambridge, my first love!". Well, not like my first romantic love (obviously!), but in terms of cities and towns in the UK, Cambridge holds a special place in my heart. It provided my first exposure to life in the UK and taught me essential life lessons. The rather brief nine months spent there obtaining my LL.M degree will forever have some of my finest memories.
This past weekend, I had cause to think about Cambridge again, and almost held my stomach in a fit of laughter. You see, a friend was visiting us this weekend. And then on my book shelf, she spotted a picture of my LL.M graduation - kneeling with hands together as if in prayer mode. She burst out, "why do you have to kneel for graduation. what nonsense!". And on and on she went. Tee chipped in "Ah it's Cambridge tradition. You have to kneel, and then some latin words are recited over your head. Plus no personal cameras are allowed during this ceremony. You can only obtain the official photo if you want it".
Her continuous talk and reaction was hilarious. I couldn't help laughing! She was perplexed. And then to crown it all, her 10 year old daughter said "Mum if I go to Cambridge, I'd have to kneel?". Her mum replied "Please you'd go to Harvard. This is so rigid".
You'd recall that in this post about my culture shock to the Yoruba kneeling culture - I'd referred to this Cambridge tradition of kneeling.
It's interesting that she felt this way. Because it is this same history and tradition of Cambridge, that many absolutely love and long for the experience.
For me, it was absolutely worth it - considering the fact that I didn't think I'd ever get the opportunity. Growing up, Cambridge seemed like an impossibility. I perhaps didn't even know it was a school. It seemed like the highest level of accomplishment, as every time I claimed I had to study (perhaps instead of doing house chores), my mum would ask if I was studying for Cambridge.
I also didn't initially quite get the fascination. Harvard Law, I was more familiar with (thanks to American legal TV!). And to obtain a degree from Harvard was my dream. Simply because, Harvard! But at the point I was considering a master's degree, Tee was more concerned about his future relationship - and so being in the UK steered me to look at UK universities. If I couldn't go to Harvard, then I had to consider top UK options. Cambridge and Oxford - popularly known as Oxbridge.
For some reason, and in the course of research, I connected more with Cambridge. I liked the fact that they had a traditional LL.M degree, as opposed to the Oxford Master of Laws which is called a BCL. I must also say that the Cambridge application process seemed much smoother for me. I channeled my energy into this more and so no surprises when I didn't get into Oxford!But I did get into Cambridge!
My admission email came in sometime in April 2012. Ah, one hurdle crossed. Funding was the next big and major thing. No way I could afford to pay the fees. I'd applied for every eligible scholarship - most of which give feedback by June. By middle of June, I'd started to give up on my Cambridge dream and had resigned to being an alumnus from the London School of Economics (LSE) which had been my third choice, and I had been offered a full scholarship.
But I still had slight hope on the Cambridge Commonwealth Scholarship. Most of the people I knew who had gone on to Cambridge had been recipients of this scholarship which used to be awarded to quite a number of people. But with budget cuts, the number reduced drastically each year. By 2012, I understood that only 20 recipients were to be selected worldwide. What was my chance of making the 20? My faith took a hit, when I was further informed that all 20 candidates had been selected, and I was not one of them. But the silver lining, was that I was top on the waiting list and should anyone decline the scholarship I stood a huge chance.
Ofcourse the approach of my prayers tilted - 'Dear God, let someone decline their scholarship. Let them have multiple offers and decide to go elsewhere'. Even while I prayed this prayer, I'd think, why would anyone decline? Crazy times.
But God did it! And on July 27, 2013, when all offers should have been accepted, I got an email that I'd been awarded the full commonwealth scholarship for my LL.M starting in September. I'm unable to put my feelings into words. The funds covered my tuition, monthly maintenance, air flight tickets to and fro, and even some money for change of clothes to suit the temperate weather! Essentially, I just had to appear in Cambridge. It felt surreal. It's been 5 years now but still does feel surreal when I think about it. I have no idea if someone had declined their offer, but I honestly didn't care.
I wrote to LSE explaining that I had to turn down the full scholarship. And when they asked why I replied 'I'd be going to Cambridge as I've been offered a full scholarship'. No further questions were asked. Even they understood, that Cambridge was Cambridge. Undisputed. In that moment, I thought of the fact that by declining the LSE, someone's prayers may have been answered. Someone on the waiting list may have been given a lifetime opportunity. I really prayed it was one who deserved it.
The next few months were a whirl wind of activities, as a lot of deadlines were fast approaching. Filling in loads of forms and sending these to the University and the faculty, sorting accommodation, medical check ups and appointments, visa application. This last bit made me so nervous - as I'd heard the tale of someone whose visa got refused. Even after he was offered a full scholarship!
It all came through for me. I got my visa. The Cambridge Trust booked my tickets. I packed up two suitcases - mostly filled with Nigerian food. And on the 26th of September 2012, I headed out to the airport. I cried, my mum cried, my siblings cried. It was my first ever flight out of Nigeria, and I really couldn't wait to see what Cambridge had in store!
Till today, every time I get asked what my greatest accomplishment is, I often say it's attending Cambridge on a full scholarship. It may seem trivial. But the back end story is one that I'd never be able to put into words. It's one that changed my life completely. It's one of faith. It's a story that someday I hope I'm able to replicate for someone else.
pS: I started of writing this post as a fun and easy one about the things I loved about Cambridge. But the post took a life of its own and ended up being about the back story. I had to hold back my tears. But I hope it encourages someone. And I'll still do a follow up post (with pictures!) as initially planned about my time and experience in Cambs!
ppS: My scholarship was the Commonwealth SharedScholarship, an initiative between the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission and a number of UK universities (in my case, Cambridge) to support citizens of commonwealth countries who would otherise be unable to attend university in the UK. See full details here.