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Want a Master’s Degree in the U.K.? Think “Chevening”

CAIRO—Mariam El-Masry, an Egyptian national who works at the Arab League, was awarded a Chevening Scholarship two years ago to study in the United Kingdom. And she remembers the experience fondly.

“It was like a breath of fresh air to take a year off from work and go back to school,” she said. “It was a dream come true to study in Europe and especially in the U.K., and I couldn’t have afforded it without a scholarship.”

Funded by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its partners, Chevening Scholarships are awarded to exceptional international students for postgraduate study in the U.K., typically covering the cost of a one-year master’s degree.

But Chevening alumni from the Arab world said numerous challenges often accompany preparations for studying overseas and adjustments to life in the U.K. “Overall it was a very enriching experience, although quite stressful, especially for someone who is not a recent graduate,” El-Masry said.

Chevening scholarships have been awarded to students in 118 countries and are an important part of Britain’s public diplomacy. They attract young professionals with outstanding leadership talents to study any discipline at any university in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. “We see it as one of the most effective ways of actually giving support to countries,” said Stephen Hickey, British Deputy Ambassador to Egypt. “The money is spent directly on Egyptians and it helps them with the their education and with their development.”

Moreover, many of those who receive the scholarships take up prominent positions back home, benefiting their countries as well as creating long-term connections with the U.K., Hickey said. Around 600 scholars will be supported by the program in the academic year beginning this fall—a number expected to increase in 2015. Created over 30 years ago, the program has a network of 42,000 alumni, some eager to offer advice to applicants.

When El-Masry was notified that she received a scholarship, she had three months to receive letters of recommendation, apply and be accepted to a university in the U.K., take a test to meet the English-language requirement of the university she sought to attend, apply for a visa and book a flight from Cairo to London.

She said scholarship applicants should complete as much of that paperwork as possible even before they know whether or not they will receive a scholarship. “One piece of advice I would give to future candidates is not to leave everything to the last minute,” said El-Masry. There is usually a good chunk of time between applying for a scholarship and receiving notification of being shortlisted for an interview, which could lead to acceptance. “In my case it was four months,” she said. “For four months I did nothing, so if I could go back, I would have used this time to prepare my papers.”

Sherif Badr, an Egyptian who received a scholarship in 2012 to study in Scotland, said there is a lot of paperwork to take care of in a very short time, “and it can get very, very overwhelming.”

Some scholarship recipients said they would have liked more help from the Chevening program to prepare. They said there was no assistance in applying to U.K. universities or preparing academically for the different style of those universities.

But students also said the program helped them to prepare in other ways. “I received some cultural preparation before traveling,” said Badr, a second-year Ph.D. student in Scotland. The British Embassy in Cairo held a session for scholarship recipients that explained what daily life was like in the U.K. and advised students on basics such as transportation and accommodation and where to buy clothing and groceries, Badr said. They were also directed to reading material on studying and living in the UK, met the British ambassador and were connected to scholarship alumni, he said.

Hickey said the British Embassy in Egypt has a Chevening officer on hand to try to advise accepted students, and that the program provides some guidance in the process of securing a visa. “We do our best,” he said, noting that the students are not typically young and that the average age of the scholars is late 20s. “We do accept that it definitely can be challenging adapting to both a new environment but also a new educational way of doing things.”

Still, students in other countries said they had no preparation at all—a consequence of conflict in the region.

“They just gave me the money and then I did everything,” said Safaa Jumma, a Syrian national who received a scholarship two years ago and now lives and works in London. “I had to get used to this life. It’s really difficult coming from the Middle East, from the war, and then you find yourself in the middle of Europe and you have to study in a different education system. It’s also a different life, a different lifestyle.”

She said she passed through more than ten checkpoints to travel from Syria to Lebanon for the English-language exam required to apply for the scholarship, then made the trip again for an interview. Both are typically held at the British Embassy, which has suspended its services in Damascus, so she had to travel to Lebanon instead. “It was really dangerous,” she said.

The challenges, however, don’t deter alumni from recommending the program to others. “It’s about opportunities,” said Jumma. “It was an entry point in my life to study in a very good university in the U.K. Of course I recommend the scholarship, and not just the Chevening Scholarship, but any scholarship for students in the Middle East.”


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