When the Michael Taiwo Annual scholarship was advertised on October 1 st , 2019, between 100 and 150 applications were expected. Instead, in just a week, over 1,000 applications were received. This is even more remarkable given that no amount was spent on advertising: the announcement was shared by people on social media, WhatsApp groups and word of mouth. The applications came from all six geopolitical zones in Nigeria, so the desire for graduate studies in the US and Canada has a national spread.
In retrospect, the huge number of applicants make sense: There are 500,000 graduating students from Nigeria’s 170 Universities (43 Federal; 48 State & 79 Private). Even if 1% of them desire to study abroad, that is 5,000 students every year. Not all of them, of course, will need financial assistance. But in a country with an extreme rate of poverty, it is safe to assume that up to 50% of the 5,000 or 2,500 students each year will need some form of financial assistance.
Financially assist and provide mentoring for motivated and bright students from poor societies to pursue world-class graduate education.
To become a refuge of hope, the light in the tunnel, from those aiming to make something from their lives.
Faith. Hope. Love.
Currently, we serve Nigerians in Nigeria struggling to pay for the cost of applying to graduate schools in North America.
Acing the GRE/GMAT is the most important part of a successful application to graduate schools in the US and to some schools in Canada. Application letters, undergraduate GPA, and letters of recommendation all matter, but not nearly as much as the GRE or GMAT score.
We award GRE and GMAT scholarships to final-year college students and recent college graduates in order to remove this great financial burden for Nigerians wishing to pursue graduate school education in North America. We also mentor the scholarship recipients and guide them throughout the graduate school application process.
We publicize the availability of the scholarship using low-cost means such as social media and word of mouth. We then screen the applicants using an appropriate GPA cut-off. Shortlisted applicants are then invited to take an abridged version of a standardized test. The top students are interviewed to assess their readiness for the rigor of graduate school and adapting to a new culture.
When I reflect on my entire US/Canada graduate school application process as a Nigerian living in Nigeria, the most difficult part by far was paying for the required standardized tests such as the GRE and the TOEFL, as well as the application fees to schools. Having a high GPA from college, crafting persuasive application letters, and securing credible references (all part of the application requirements for applying to graduate schools) was difficult, but was nothing compared to living in a third world country and trying to pay online for services based in North America.
The reasons for this difficulty are many, but two stand out: trust and lack. Take trust. Many merchants, including test makers and universities, are loath to accept a credit card payment from Nigeria. Nigerian scams and the legend of the “Nigerian Prince” are infamous on the internet, even though the reality is that less than one-tenth of one percent of Nigerians engage in these dubious schemes. The more than 99.9% of Nigerians thus face a deficit of trust when dealing online with those outside of the country. For this reason, even those who have money are not able to spend it to move their lives forward.
Then, there is the issue of lack. More than half of the population of Nigeria lives in extreme poverty, defined as those living on less than $1.90 a day. It was just yesterday, or so it seems, that I was part of this statistic. And the overwhelming majority that are not technically in extreme poverty are barely scraping by. For many, the cost to apply to North American graduate schools would be the biggest single expense of their lives so far. When I did the math, I calculated that, from kindergarten all the way to finishing college, I spent less than $1,000 total on tuition and fees; whereas, the cost of my tests and application fees alone for graduate school were more than $1,000. In other words, I paid more in months during the application process than in over 16 years of education.
I had to rely on a friend of a friend, who also used a friend of a friend, to pay for my tests and application fees. Without this assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved my dream of a North American graduate education – the envy of the world. I am now on a mission to help many navigate these treacherous waters. You can call it paying it forward.
But there is a second, deeper reason at work that has to do with eradicating poverty. Remittances – funds transferred by immigrants to their home country – is a big source of income to the impoverished, propping up the local economies of developing nations. Without this steady injection of funds to the economy, tensions are more likely to flare, leading to more chaos in societies that are already teetering on the edge. Immigrants with advanced degrees end up with well-paying jobs, and the money they send home helps push back the dark clouds of poverty, one money transfer at a time. What’s more, immigrants that go back to their home countries after a graduate education are in a prime position to lead the academia, industry, and government of the countries they come from, helping to shape the policies that will help kill poverty. I am thus very motivated to facilitate the access of these future leaders to the best educational system in the world.
In the future, we hope to increase the number of scholarships and include paying for the TOEFL and school application fees as part of the scholarship award. This way, we can completely help the helpless. Also, we will maintain an ongoing mentoring relationship with students after they start their graduate school studies.
Geographically, we hope to broaden the scholarships to other countries in sub- Saharan Africa and eventually to all developing countries.
Impact will be measured on three time horizons starting from October 2019.
Short term (1 – 2 years): Success is creating the infrastructure needed for a lasting organization. This means formally establishing the nonprofit, building a website, and automating the application process and selection of applicants. This includes forming the relationships with exam bodies, universities, nonprofits, corporate sponsors, etc., needed to make paying for services as seamless as possible.
Medium term (3 – 5 years): Success is year-on-year increase in the number of GRE and GMAT scholarships awarded. Success is including TOEFL and school application fees as part of the scholarship package.
Longer term (5+ years): Success is when the beneficiaries of these scholarship complete their studies and start effecting positive change in their societies.
We cannot fail. We will raise funds year-round, and the amount we raise determines the number of scholarships we can give, so we are at little risk of operating in the red. We will be realistic with our goals and live within our means. When I started this, I took the 1% challenge. I asked myself if I could commit 1% of my income to giving bright but poor students in third-world countries access to the best graduate studies in the world. It turns out that just 1% goes a long way. In 2019, my 1% covered the cost of awarding three (3) GRE/GMAT scholarships, including the hidden administrative costs of advertising, screening, testing, interviewing, and selecting the finalists. More people expressed interest in financially supporting the work and we were able to award 7 scholarships. This became the model for 2020 award cycle and we were able to award 23 scholarships.