Getting a scholarship to study in an ivy league university is a dream for many, and for Jodykay Maxwell that dream came true when she received a fully funded scholarship to study a masters degree at the University of Cambridge. In our interview with Jody, we not only ask her how life was as a scholar, but also the one question you all want to ask her: How did you get the scholarship and what tips do you have for aspiring candidates?

Jodykay, please tell us a little bit about yourself

My name is Jodykay Maxwell, and I describe myself as an ambivert and a feminist, and I am very much a fan of Chimamanda Adichie’s Feminist Manifesto.  If I were restricted to a few phrases to describe myself, the words that come directly to mind, would be grit and unwavering faith.

I came from very humble beginnings in a small rural farming district in the parish of St. Elizabeth Jamaica and I am the first of four children (I have three younger siblings) and the first generation in my family to attend university. When I’m not working, you will find me visiting farmers’ markets on the weekend, getting lost in a delightful book, watching lots of vegan cooking and hair videos on YouTube. I also enjoy participating in the 5k walks, hiking and dancing and I spend a few hours daily managing my mentorship group Women Breaking Glass Ceilings via LinkedIn for young women who are trying to navigate their careers.

Tell us about the moment you received the award letter for your scholarship, how did you feel and what emotions were going through your mind

It was June 7, 2013, a Friday, one of those Fridays that I didn’t want to be at work. I got to the office at 7:00am, much earlier than my usual time as I planned to leave around mid-day. As I settled at my desk in the corner of our small and overcrowded office, being a compulsive email checker, I quickly delved into my personal email and came across the message titled Commonwealth Shared Cambridge Scholarship 2013. I sat trembling, as I read the words:

I am pleased to let you know that you have been successful in winning a Commonwealth Shared Cambridge Scholarship to enable you to study at the University of Cambridge from October 2013″

By now my colleagues were arriving so I excused myself and went into the nearby restroom for a good five-minute silent cry. I wanted to scream but I am the type of person who was very good at delayed gratification so I went calmly back to my desk and proceeded with the tasks on my to-do list. By mid-day I was overwhelmed with emotions, I could no longer contain myself and without alarming anyone at work about the contents of the email and a fervent desire to selfishly bask in the gratification of my good news, I left the office. My home was a few minutes away from my office.  As soon as I got inside my tiny apartment, I closed all my windows and wept. My landlord who lived on the same property must have thought at the time that something was wrong, because later in the night she asked me if I was okay. You see I had been applying for various scholarship schemes since I completed my undergraduate degree in 2011. I finally felt vindicated! At that moment I felt pure unadulterated and unfiltered joy!

How was life as a scholar at the University of Cambridge?

In the early part of my tenure at Cambridge, I began to suffer from symptoms very familiar to millennials and most commonly known as imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is described by many psychologists as a pattern of behaviour where an individual (smart, intelligent and accomplished individuals) begin to doubt their accomplishments and often times feel like a fraud. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started feeling less than smart or like I didn’t deserve to be at Cambridge but it was something I had to wrestle myself away from. Thanks to prayer, positive self-affirmation, self-talk, journaling and goal setting I was able to convince myself that I too deserved a seat at the table. Talking to my friends made me realized that they too suffered from this and that I was not alone. Eventually I realized I had a community of supportive people who I could also turn to. Over the course of my time at Cambridge these symptoms re-emerged, but I was equipped with the support of friends and tools to  dispel them. Despite these momentary setbacks, my experience at Cambridge was truly transformational. My most memorable times are the moments I shared with the melting pot of people from all over the world, the potlucks, garden parties, hall dinners, travelling across UK and the rest of Europe with friends. But I also enjoyed the intellectually rigorous and stimulating environment, the ability to attend TED talks, museums, listen in on students defend their PhD thesis, lecture series, even at lunch there was no hiding from deep intellectual discussions on philosophy, art, music. When I left I had serious withdrawals…. I still do to this day!

Tell us about how you got the scholarship – when did you start applying and what was the application process like?

The scholarship process for the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship was very easy for me, it was not as rigorous as the government nominated Commonwealth Scholarship process and the main advantage was it didn’t require an interview. I’m not sure if that has changed. When I completed the application for my masters course at Cambridge there was a section in the application that you would tick if you wished to be considered for the Cambridge Commonwealth Overseas Scholarship among other scholarships. But I didn’t give much thought to this earlier on as I was contacted by the government a few weeks earlier informing me that I was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Scholarship. Shortly after being interviewed by the government, I received an email from Cambridge informing me that I was conditionally accepted to the program so I called the government to inform them (since during my interview they had requested an update on the outcome of my application) to help inform the final decision. It was during this conversation that I was nonchalantly told that I wasn’t successful.

Even though I was disappointed, as soon as I ended the call, I sprang into action. I had been contemplating applying for some other scholarships, so I was happy that I learnt about the outcome of the Commonwealth Scholarship very early because the deadline had not passed on the other prospects.  The first course of action was to email the Course Administrator in my department at Cambridge to alert them of the setback in not getting the Commonwealth scholarship and to ask if the department would consider selecting me for the Cambridge Commonwealth and Overseas Scholarship. Their response, a day later was the following,

The good news is that you have completed section B of the application form and asked to be considered for the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust and Cambridge Overseas Trust. We will be doing the ranking this week. All the best’.

I figured it would be competitive so I went about the next course of action, which was to get all the application requirements together for the scholarships. A month and a few days later (February 16, 2013 to be exact!) I received an email from Cambridge Trust informing me that I had been nominated for the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship and instructing me to complete an application through the online electronic link provided. I completed the form and again went on to my business of scouring websites for even more scholarships and grants while simultaneously preparing my applications for those with impending deadlines. On May 1, 2013 I received another email from the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust and Cambridge Overseas Trust stating that my application for the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship had been put through to the next round and they would be in contact after they received instructions from the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. Subsequent communications thereafter were requests to complete various forms such as Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS), the Acceptance Flight form, completing medical examinations and transmitting the results to the Trust Office, visa application and so on.

The scholarship essays are such an important aspect of the application, how did you write your scholarship essays and what tips do you have for aspiring candidates?

The preparation of my application essay included the same intense rigor I typically employ when I go about undertaking any goal. First, I document my process by breaking down in tiny steps the process I would undertake to gather information and write the essay. After getting that out of the way I reached out via LinkedIn and emailed a few current Commonwealth scholars at the time to see if they were able to share any insights into what their essays contained. Following these conversations, I used the essay guidance notes in the application to lay out the basic framework which included the following:

  • A high level thesis statement on my proposed research (Operating in Knowledge based economy and the need for multidisciplined and highly skilled professionals). This then segued into why the Masters would respond to this high-level statement.
  • I further developed a lower level thesis statement with context of the situation where I resided and how my job at the time aligned with the proposed program of study and how it augments my undergraduate studies and finally ended with why the profession or skill I hope to gain is critical
  • Next, I delved into broader discussion of the issues plaguing Jamaica in the context of what I wanted to study, this is where I included data on Jamaica’s global ranking for Environmental Performance index in my context
  • I also articulated on the knowledge or human resource gap – here I included Jamaica’s brain drain statistics and results  from World competitiveness report , percentage of government expenditure on R&D and percentage decline in subsidies for university research . The purpose of this was to give the essay reader a flavor of the capacity constraints existing in my country regarding the skills I hoped to accrue and how the Master’s program would help to close the gaps on these constraints;
  • I concluded the essay by reinforcing the skills to be garnered from the program and highlighted my immediate plans post the Master’s program as well as five years into the future.

What advice would you give to anyone applying for a scholarship?

My advice to students applying for scholarships includes:

  • Commence research a year in advance for the scholarship and schools you wish to apply for.
  • Develop a comprehensive plan (outline the requirements, deadlines, budget, list of solid referees). This may also include a vision board of your goals etc. Be creative but comprehensive!
  • Strengthen your connections with personal networks and online platforms such as LinkedIn to network with scholarship recipients/alumni for the scholarships and schools you are keen on applying to.
  • Follow the applications guidelines thoroughly
  • Have a few trusted persons to review for grammar
  • Stay positive 

Tell us about life after Cambridge – What are you up to now and how has studying in Cambridge helped your career?

Following completion of the Masters degree, I returned home to pursue a career in international development. My first stint was a six-month internship with the United Nations which eventually led to an opportunity to work for the Inter-American Development Bank Group (IDB) in their Jamaica Office. I currently work in Portfolio Management in Caribbean Country Management Unit at the World Bank Group.

Studying at Cambridge has helped immensely to navigate my career. Over the course of my career, doors have opened by virtue of being a Cambridge alumnus as well as having access to the global network of Cambridge alumni working in key sectors across the world. For instance, my initial introduction to the Inter-American Development Bank came from having coffee with a Cambridge alumnus who I meet via LinkedIn. At the moment I am working towards completing my Certified Financial Analysis (CFA) designation and in the long term I hope to move up the ranks at the World Bank Group.

In my free time, I work on my mentorship group Women Breaking Glass Ceilings. My inspiration to start this platform came from the dearth of formal mentorship opportunities for young women to navigate their career and professional development and from my engagement with other young women in their early career. I have come to realise that we lack the tools and agency to get ahead. My dream is to see this platform grow organically to reach young people globally where they have access to a community of women who they can connect with and learn from.

I hope you enjoyed reading this and a big thanks to Jodykay for the interview. Its great to hear Jodykay call out the importance of research and hard work in preparing your scholarship application, and we hope you got some tips to kick start your application process.

PS: If you are a lady and interested in getting mentorship as you navigate through your career, then make sure to check out Jody’s platform on LinkedIn.

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