I’m Finally Going to USA! How Jeremiah went from Unemployed to Scholarship Winner

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We are back with our scholarship interview series where we speak with Ifeanyi Jeremiah Isu, a University of Port Harcourt Nigeria Mathematics graduate. Jeremiah is going to do Masters and PhD on a full-ride GTA program given him by the University of Oklahoma, USA. This did not come easy however. Need motivation? Read his testimonial below.

Thank you for joining us in this interview Jeremiah. We are honoured to have a scholarship winner in our midst.

Thank you so much.

So how do you feel having won this scholarship?

First thing is the satisfaction of getting what I wanted for a long time and that’s a key thing. I can say for sure now that a single ‘Yes’ cancels the entire ‘No’s’ I’ve been getting. What made it sweeter is that I didn’t relent. I went through the pains of plenty applications and finally got a yes. So I’m happy.

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You received so many NOs? How many schools and organisations did you apply to?

Okay. I applied for the Chevening scholarship, Commonwealth Shared and Commonwealth Master. I applied to some schools in the UK as well and I was getting loans, loans everywhere. I also applied to some schools in USA and South Africa.

Wow. So many applications. How nerve-racking was the process of applying and getting rejected?

I started applications fully in the year 2019 and it wasn’t rosy at all as a beginner. I was applying to many schools in the UK under the Commonwealth scholarship and Chevening but I got some nos. Then I had to shift towards America that I didn’t want in the first place but I told myself  ‘ah you have to stand up to this challenge’. So I started reading for GRE, reading for TOEFL, drafting personal statements, attending seminars online on how to navigate the process so that was what I spent the COVID-19 period doing. It was tedious but became quite interesting anyway.

In total, how many schools did you apply to?

Between 2019 and now, it should be about 10 that gave me No.

What school gave you this scholarship?

So I got funding as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) from the University of Oklahoma.

How did you come to know about it?

I came to know about the scholarship through the American Mathematical Society Website. Found out the school was looking for graduate assistants in the Department of Mathematics specifically; so what I did next was to check the criteria. They needed GRE, TOEFL, Statement of Purpose, my CV and then a Letter of Recommendation. I did all of that but before then, I had already sat for GRE and TOEFL. I made a 100 in TOEFL and 310 in GRE. So I applied and got it.

So what now exactly made you stand out, would you guess?

I can say one thing that I dedicated more time to is my personal statement otherwise called Statement of Purpose or Statement of Intent. Many schools in the US take that serious. That and your experience in community projects actually. If you take the time to identify the research strength of the department, the activities of the school and a whole lot of things that the school needs, you can then tailor your Statement of purpose according to the school or department you are applying to. So that was one thing I know I did. I know I wrote a lot of things that they already do in their department and then said with all these things thery are doing, it will help me to come up with this area of research  which I’m interested in. They’ll see it and think that you know and will fit into the role.

Secondly, I stylishly connected my personal statement to my curriculum vitae (CV) so if you read through my personal statement, there are areas that send you to my CV to confirm the information. So these two strategies were what I employed that I can say helped me win this scholarship.

So what is in your CV that made them interested in you?

Since I was applying for the position of a graduate assistant, I’ve got a lot of teaching experience from even undergraduate days that I did as extracurricular activities. It must have made them understand that yes, I can deliver, I’ve taught so so number of students in my field (mathematics) and this percentage has improved/gone on to better places over the years. I made all of that clear in my CV.

Wow. When you took up these extracurricular activities, did you know you’ll be applying for a scholarship later in life?

I actually took up teaching jobs because that’s my passion not because I wanted it on my CV. I didn’t even have scholarship plans back then.

Will you come back to your country to teach?

This is a big question (laughs). I always tell people I don’t know but going by my research prospects, there’s a way your environment helps you either advance or inhibit your progress.  And coming back, with the current situation in Nigeria, that may not help me not because I’ll not miss Nigeria. Let’s say for instance I come back to Nigeria and I’m a lecturer in my field, I’ll need to do research, publish journals and all that but in a situation whereby there are regular strikes in the education system, it’ll affect the academic structure. With that, your career and many other things are also affected. Until the situation changes… (laughs)

Alright, So did you apply early? Did that increase your chances?

Yes I did and yes early application improves your chances…umm… if you want to win a scholarship, you should know that you’re competing with other candidates from all over the world. You need to discipline yourself to apply early because all of us applying are students. We all have the same status (students) so it’s something small and unique that will set you apart and the scholarship interviewer has to discover it. to apply early, you would have to discover that you have extra work to do on yourself to meet the requirements of the scholarships whether it is doing your English tests, GRE, GMAT to have the right results early, taking on extra certifications. For instance, there were some of my friends that were yet to get their certificates or post their transcripts or statement of results. So you need to first get all of the things you know many schools will as of you from looking at their criteria. Then you’ll know what to do. As at august last year, I knew I’d be making applications to some schools in the US so I started making calls to some of my lecturers, pls sir, pls ma you’ll help me at so and so time.

You would have called them (your lecturers) prior to asking for help because you applied to schools in the UK before the US right?

Yes yes. You know, these things have a lot to do with relationship. So if the only time you call your lecturers is when you need their help, you won’t get much. It won’t cost anything. At the beginning of the month, send them a happy new month, send them a happy Christmas, call credit here and there. Keep that communication link so if you call, you’re not just calling like a stranger. So that’s some of what I did.

You talked about wanting to apply to the UK only before reluctantly trying out US schools. What’s the difference between the two of them that you noticed?

Generally, application to schools in the UK is easier compared to the US. For instance, for a lot of schools in the UK, you can use your O’Level results as your English Language proficiency cert. Last year, I got up to 5 admissions in the UK: University of Dundee, University of Exeter, University of Glasgow and some other schools like that because of the Commonwealth scholarship. As for US schools? (Laughs) when I looked at their criteria, I would just sigh and say “I don’t have time for all these”. So the demands of US schools, sit for this exam, write this essay, that essay, contact this professor, do this and that for only one application. Yes. US was not my first choice at all.

So tell us exactly what kept you applying and applying without giving up. What is your school result?

Yes academically, I knew I was not a back-bencher but what kept me wasn’t because of my first class. I must tell you there were times the days were dry, I was tired, down from all the NOs… I think what kept me was my faith and secondly my colleagues. I had faith that God is on my side that He can do all things. Not just that because I didn’t stop there. I also partnered with a lot of people. I was a member of the First-class Leaders Network and EducationUSA Lagos branches. Each time I heard that someone got this opportunity or that scholarship, I got even more challenged. Till now, I have these people as friends and they are all over now, in UK, South Africa, USA. When they were getting these scholarships, I was rooting for them and also getting some enlightenment from them. From them, I learnt how to boost up my CV, from them I learnt how to target my Statement of Purpose, draft Letters of Recommendations. I also partnered with some of them for my GRE & TOEFL exams.

Hmm. Okay. Let’s discuss your background. Where and how did you grow up?

I grew up in a business environment o (laughs). I grew up in Aba, a business area in Abia state of Nigeria. So going by my background, nothing really ties my background to academics. We grew up a normal middle-class family. Parents are in business till date. But I know that my dad was invested in our education. You dare not come home with a poor result. In fact, it was not even possible for any of us. And each time my maths abilities were, you know tilting, he would brush me up. We never had any lesson (after school lessons) teacher. It was always my dad doing our assignments, sometimes he was hard on us and we would cry over our assignments. Thinking about it, those periods were really painful but ended up being worth it.

Was your father in any way an academic?

Not really. He was quite interested in education but gave it up for business. So that was how I picked it up.

Oh great. So what major advice or experience do you remember that shaped your life today?

Ok. The first one was that one day, I decided that I needed to push up my family to the next level and I sat down and wondered how. You know, it won’t be nice if I also came up but stopped where my parents stopped academic-wise especially. Secondly, I also was privileged to grace a prize-giving occasion of some medical doctors in 2010 invited by my cousin. My cousin was also an award winner but I saw two guys like that winning all the awards. Oh my God! As they were sitting down, they were standing up again, sit, stand ahh… I thought to myself when will I reach this point? So when I got admission to the university, I challenged myself. It’s either a first class or nothing because if people are doing it, then it means it is possible. And by God’s grace, I emerged a first class in Mathematics. It felt good attending the VC’s party and all that, gave me a sense of belief that whatever you put your mind to, you can get it. After that anyway, I was still riding on that wave of achievement so naturally, I started to think of what next after all these parties. Then, I decided I’d further my studies but finance was a hindrance. That was how this scholarship came about.

So have you thought of long term plans? What are they?

I want to get a PhD. I want to reach all the academic heights.

(in Mathematics)?

Yes. In Mathematics (laughs). I want to become a professor in my field.

Wow. Young Africans can learn a thing from you. Kindly advise those out there also looking for scholarships.

Ok. First, I’ll say try as much as possible to apply. Number two, looking for scholarship should be taken as business. While applying, I had nothing else doing. People were calling me left and right about this business or that business. Honestly when I looked at the books I needed to read, seminars I needed to attend, letters I needed to write, automatically a lot of things went off my calendar. You should understand that you’re competing globally, with international talents; so you need to give it all it takes because some of these people have better academic opportunities and experiences than you so it’s the little details that you might miss when you don’t focus entirely on your application that will take you out. Most of us in Africa actually have more than focus to give, some of us need to improve our certifications, some of us need to acquire more skills and not just to list them as co-curricular activities alone when it’s time for application. You need to have been involved in your community before your scholarship applications to make it more natural..

The third is that please, on this journey, you’re not alone. People have been there before you. Try to know what their mistakes were. What they finally did that made them stand out, so that you too can learn and win.

Finally to people that believe in prayer. Every step of the way, pray about it. Don’t leave it out. I pray as if I don’t work and I work as if I don’t pray.

Thank you for the sound advice Jeremiah. Any last words?

I can’t remember where I saw the quote, but it goes like this, “A dream is not what you see when you’re sleeping. A dream is what keeps you awake when others are sleeping”. So if you have a dream of securing a scholarship, then you must wake up to the reality and give it all it takes. If you receive a rejection, it doesn’t mean you’re not bright. It only means there’s still work to do. Keep working on your credentials and application. And mind you, one YES cancels hundred other NOs.

Thank you, Jeremiah. It was great having you on this interview.

It’s my pleasure.


  • Ifeoma Chuks is a naturally-skilled writer. She has written and contributed to more than 6000 articles all over the internet that have formed solid experiences for particularly aspiring, young people around the globe.

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