SCHOLAR PROFILE: Caleb Ndaka & Chevening Scholarship Application

We’re excited to start a new series on our blog featuring scholarship winners! Our first guest interview is by Caleb Ndaka, who was recently awarded the Chevening Scholarship. Learn more about Caleb and his work here.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do.

My name is Caleb Ndaka, and I run a not-for-profit organization called Kids Comp Camp, basically trying to help young children in rural communities catch up with the current digital driven society. And when I’m not working for Kids Comp Camp, I think I find joy doing other things, specifically around leadership. I’ve participated in Obama Leadership Program, Mandela Washington Fellowship, among other things.

Can you tell us how you heard about the Chevening scholarship?

In 2018, I participated in the Mandela Washington fellowship, and we went on an exchange program to the US. I was in the US for 6 weeks in the summer of 2018. When we were having conversations in the group, some people were saying, “Hey, are you applying for this thing called Chevening?” And I said eh Cheve-what? A couple of guys were forming teams to apply, and I didn’t even know what it was. They told us that the scholarship sponsors you to go school in the UK to do masters. I don’t think I was very keen about that going back to school then. What happened is that from that cohort, two guys got in. And after that is when I thought, why not? If it’s your shot, shoot your shot. There’s really no harm in trying. So that was my first time to know what the Chevening was and to consider shooting my shot.     

And so when you decided to apply, what was your application process like?

So that was in 2018. In 2019, I decided I am going to do this application. But also, just hearing the experiences of what others had gone through, it was very clear that it’s work. It’s going to take work. So I remember very well, when the application was about to open, I used to set aside two hours every single day just to draft. I used to draft in matatus. I remember drafting before sleeping. I remember drafting just while waking up in the morning. It’s the one thing I would clock in every single day. And in that process, I was introduced to a few more friends who had done the program before. I told them, “I’m doing this. Can you read my essay?” So I had 3 guys who I used to share my draft with after every couple of weeks.

What did you need to do for the application itself? What are the essays like?

So the essays touch on five key areas. I think the first question is about your leadership and influence. Have you led? Can you lead? Can you influence people to a certain outcome? And then the second essay was about networking. How can you connect with people from different spheres of life? The third segment was about your area of study. Why do you want to study your area of study? Do you want to further what you’ve been working on, or are you crossing paths in terms of career? Are you starting something new? And why are you picking these very specific schools? And the last question was about a career plan. So you go the UK and you come back, what is next? What is the big picture, and how is the scholarship going to be an additional unit to fulfillment of that big picture. So that’s the sketch line of the essays. 

When you were choosing your schools, how did you decide what you want to study?

Having spent the last five years at the intersection of  children and technology, of course I have seen gaps in the industry. I wanted to bring my essays to fit in to the gap that I have seen in the last five years, and what I want to accomplish in the next five  years.

My first choice was LSE. I chose LSE because it’s one of the best social sciences institutions in the world, but more importantly there is a course they are offering about data and society. But even more interesting in 2016, I had the opportunity to participate in an internet governance forum in Mexico. And one of the key speakers talking about data and digital rights was a professor from LSE.

My second choice was UCL, University College of London. I realized they are offering a very good course called STS, Science, Technology and Sciences. I deal with kids, and I grew up in rural area. Most of us think that science and technology is a western concept. I thought the course would help me understand the policies behind initiating and influencing science and technologies to be more grounded from an African point of view.

The last course was in King’s College and it was about big data and science. In Africa, big data is only owned by Google and these big tech companies, even African governments don’t know where the big data is and how to access it. And so, I felt as Africans, it’s high time for us to think not just of the way to capture big data, but how to store that data and of course, how to utilize that big data. So those were my three areas of interest.

Very well thought out! Did you have an interview for your application?

Yes. So the process is you write essays and then you forward them. That’s the first step. And then the second step, if you qualify, you are invited for an interview and in that interview, you are just expected to qualify what you had written. But interestingly – and I was telling someone who had reached out to me – when it comes to that interview, at least for my case, they were not really interested in what you wrote. They were more interested in how well you know what you wrote. For example, they asked me many things which were not necessarily in the essay questions, but which happened to deal with the essay question. Let me give you a case in point. In my essay, I said I’m a part time actor and I act on the side. So somebody asked me, which are the London theatres where people go and act? I think she was just trying to assess my knowledge on just how much I know about British culture. Some of these things, as much as I had not written about them in the essay, they sort of expected me to know them. To know stuff beyond what I had written in the essay, but which were relevant to British culture. 

Were you able to name the theatres?

Yes! I had done my research. But also, it’s something that I love. Actually, the question was, why did you choose all your courses in London? So, I said apart from going to class, I also enjoy theatre and sports, and I think London is a good place to be. 

For you overall, what do you feel made you stand out as a candidate for the Chevening scholarship?

I had three guys who were reading my essays. And then I had two other guys who I’d meet with for mock interviews. One of my friends told me when I started applying, “These guys will give you 5 million plus Kenya shillings.” So from day one when I decided to do apply, I said I’m not leaving any stone unturned. So I had all these groups just to bounce ideas off of and to hear.

Before I went for the interview, one of the people I was having mock interviews with told me, “Caleb, your strong point is your diversity. You’ve worked for 5 years, you’ve been able to teach 10,000 plus children in more than 10 counties in Kenya and in Rwanda. So that’s a strong point. And for the last 5 years, you’ve been able to participate in leadership programs from Mandela Washington to Obama to Microsoft Insider to Ashoka. Make sure you also show that diversity in leadership. And then of course, your hobbies, and the things you love doing like theatre.” In 2010, I was in a short film that won a few awards called Wakamba Forever.

So I made sure I pointed out those three things. That’s what I was putting on the table. A leadership track with clear numbers, a leadership track with diversity across Africa, and then someone who can interact not just with industry, but with the community as a whole. The fact that I’ve worked in the most rural areas and I’ve worked with the leading corporates like Microsoft, Google, and Safaricom. For me, that leadership diversity is what I was bringing to the table. 

Wow, you were the perfect candidate!

Yes, but the downside of it is, and this is something I came to learn later, in campus I didn’t perform very well. I got a second lower. So I had to present my strong points to become stronger than my academics. I’m sure the value of what I’ve been working on, beyond the fact that I didn’t get a first class, must have been helpful.

I’m glad it worked out very well. What advice would you have for people who are interested in the Chevening scholarship? What would you tell applicants in order to make oneself stand out?

The first thing is, they need to do their background information pretty well. For example, if they got a first class, I would advise they go for a Commonwealth. You have a better chance. But if you have leadership experience, I think the Chevening suits you well.

The second thing is, and I wish I knew this from the beginning, stories and numbers sell. Your application needs to be deep enough, but it needs to be exciting and engaging. You have to imagine someone who does not know you, who does not like you, and you have to convince them within 5-10 minutes of reading your essay that you deserve the scholarship.

The third thing is prep. Draft, draft, draft. Read, whatever you are writing, prepare as much as you can. I cannot understate the value of preparing.

Those are some great tips! What I’m learning from you is that you took this process very seriously. You did a lot of work. You got a lot of support from others. You weren’t just sitting somewhere writing and submitting the day of the deadline.

Yes, and for my case, I was also applying to schools at the same time as I was writing the essay. So I had to do a lot of work. I see some people resign to do their applications. Before it didn’t make sense to me, but after doing the applications, it makes sense. It’s work.  

Did you have to get into your program before submitting the Chevening application, or you did all of this at the same time?

At the same time. The requirement is by May-June, the school needs to have given you an unconditional offer. And I think most schools open their applications in September of the previous year. So the same time you are writing your essays is the same time you are applying to schools, and the Chevening application needs be for the schools you are applying to.

Did you have to do the English test or you got a waiver for that?

The good thing about corona is that the testing centers were closed, and I was supposed to do my test at the time they closed. The school and scholarship cancelled that as a requirement. So for this year, we have a leeway.

That’s great, it saves everyone money! Thank you very much Caleb for speaking with me and sharing these great tips!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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