This is an account written by Hafiz Matti. He chronicles his US graduate admissions, GRE preparation, visa application, and final landing. Article was written on LinkedIn and is only shared here.
MY JOURNEY TO GRADUATE SCHOOL IN THE US
A thousand miles they say start with a step!
The journey started in 2014/2015 during my service year (National Youth Service Corps) in Abuja Nigeria when I met my mentor. I call him Abu Umar meaning Umar’s father. He advised I should consider going to the US to further my studies because he could see a lot of potentials in me as a fresh graduate who is so passionate about IT specifically in the field of Computer Networking. One thing I could remember was he always laid emphasis on taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), reiterating that the GRE could strengthen the profile of the prospective student in getting scholarships (Full Tuition waiver+ Monthly Stipends) which can either be in form of Graduate Teaching Assistantship or Graduate Research Assistantship. I thought about it and decided to do my research on studying abroad specifically in the US since it is the hub of Information Technology (IT) in the world.
As one who thirsts for knowledge, I Google searched “How to study in the US as a Nigerian Student”, I stumbled on an article written by Dr. Farooq Kperogi a professor, Journalist, newspaper Columnist, Author and a blogger based in Greater Atlanta Georgia, USA titled “Studying in America: What you need to know” and also an article on his blog titled “From HND in Nigeria to Ph.D. in America” this story specifically galvanized my graduate school journey and this was the turning point of my life. I also stumbled on a Nairaland thread titled “General U.S.A Student visa Enquiries” while searching the internet.
I studied the process of applying to US graduate schools; the application documents required to apply such as standardized Exams (GRE&TOEFL), Transcript (GPA), Letters Of Recommendation, Statement Of Purpose, Resume and other supporting documents that can boost my profile, classifications of schools in-terms of Ambitious, Moderate and Safe schools based on my entire profile. I learned about these processes the best I could.
All through 2015/2016, I learned about the entire process coupled with learning how to convert Nigerian CGPA (/4.0/5.0/7.0) standard to American standard (/4.0) called transcript evaluation using evaluation bodies such as WES, ECE, FIS, GCE, SPAN TRAN, etc. (N.B make sure you use evaluation bodies that belong to NACES (National Association of Credential Evaluation Services).
In 2017, I started preparing my documents, requested my undergraduate transcript from Lagos State University (LASU) which I sent to my place of work so that I could have an unofficial transcript handy to apply to various schools of my choice. During this period, I started preparing for Graduate Record Exam (GRE). I met some amazing people during this period; people like OLOLADE OKANLAWON and ALEXANDER SHERIFF. These guys took me like a brother, introduced me to several WhatsApp groups such as NEW GRE GROUP, BDGI, etc in order to aid my GRE study preparation. Thanks to them and I will forever be grateful for impacting me positively.
I prepared for the GRE for several months, though my preparation was epileptic because I was combining work with my study and it was really stressful for me. After several months of prep, I had the shock of my entire life. I had a score below 300. I was almost knocked down by a car when I came out of the exam center because I was depressed. I was advised to make another attempt for the test of which I decided against after much thinking and meditation.
In September 2017, I stumbled at the University of Maryland College Park (UMD) during my research on schools that matched my profile. I applied to the Master of Engineering (MENG) in Cyber Security program without my “low” GRE score because GRE was not a requirement for admission into the program. Prior to that, I intended to go to a certain school in Europe (The Netherlands) because they had a particular scholarship for international students of which one of my cousins benefited from.
I intended to do MSc in Bioinformatics in the Netherlands using the scholarship, however, I was not awarded the scholarship even after being admitted into the program. The scholarship was going to take care of my flight to and fro from Nigeria to the Netherlands and from the Netherlands back to Nigeria, my accommodation, feeding, health insurance, and Full Tuition waiver. I had to concentrate and channel all my energy on my UMD application. I got admitted to MENG in Cyber Security at UMD, I was so happy because I never believed my profile could fetch me an admission in such a well-ranked school like UMD.
I started learning about the alternative ways of sponsoring one’s tuition in US schools so I found myself in some WhatsApp groups about graduate school journey. This was the period I learned that prodigy finance and N-Power gives loan to international students who want to study abroad. My Cybersecurity program at UMD would have to be sponsored by Prodigy Finance. I had an uneasy feeling that it was a big risk and I was really nervous about taking a loan. Though, I understood the entire process and how students will pay back their loans after their program at their respective graduate schools abroad.
After my admission at UMD which was the first phase of the entire graduate school process, came the second phase which involved paying SEVIS Fee, Visa Fee, booking of visa interview date, and preparation for the visa interview. I prepared for about 2 weeks and my visa appointment date was for December 2017. The D-day for my visa interview came, prayed to God for divine favor before hitting the embassy at Walter Carrington Lagos, Nigeria. On getting to the embassy at about 6:30 AM Nigerian Time, I did all the pre-screening such as fingerprint, checking of visa fee receipt, SEVIS fee, etc. During the interview, the Visa officer asked me some questions which I believed my answers were too technical for the Visa officer to comprehend.
The interview lasted for just 2 minutes and I was denied, unfortunately. (N.B: Make sure you don’t use technical jargon when answering during the visa interview. Try to answer questions using simple English Language). I was depressed but I shared my experience with some knowledgeable people who told me what went wrong during my interview and they also encouraged me to give it a second shot. This time, I was broke to the extent that one of those who encouraged me to give it another shot paid half of my visa fee.
I booked another visa appointment dated the first week of January 2018. Again the interview was at the USA embassy, Walter Carrington, Lagos, I was interviewed by a tall white American guy who drilled me with so many questions. The Interview lasted for about 6 minutes and unfortunately, I was denied again making it my second attempt at the embassy.
After my second interview was a rough period in my life. Depression set in and I was broke like never before. During this period, I met this beautiful and soft-hearted young lady and some other people who always assured me that everything will be all right. I was always unhappy at work, thinking about my life and my rent was also due. Also, my flatmate left the flat we were staying in because he got another job on the Island and he had to move closer to the Island.
I was left to saddle the responsibility alone along with the graduate school journey because fall 2018 application period was around the corner. I spoke to Emmanuel Ogunkunle my wonderful scholar who encouraged me and also made mention of Austin Peay State University (APSU). I had never come across such a school during my school search. I told him I’ll put the school on the list of schools for fall 2018 application cycle.
Fall 2018 application cycle began, I applied to Eastern Illinois University (EIU), Austin Peay State University(APSU), University of Cincinnati (UC) and Gannon University (GU) got admitted to all the four schools. This brought a lot of smiles again to my face after several weeks of depression and unhappy moments in my life. I started seeking Graduate Assistant positions at UC and APSU because the other schools told me there were no available funds for my program.
I applied to Graduate Assistant (GA) positions in 6 departments at APSU and in the school of Information Technology at UC. I got a GA interview at UC from a Chinese Professor in the School of Information Technology, but I lost the GA position because I had no experience in Machine Learning and Data Science. My last hope was APSU waited for several weeks after which I received four rejections emails from four different departments I applied to. All I wanted was just one department to turn the table around for me.
During my application at APSU, I met 6 Nigerians who were so instrumental during my application process because I was guided by virtually all of them during the entire application. I remembered one of them asking about my GA application of which I told him I was expecting good news, but I already had 4 rejections from other departments I applied to. One day, he contacted me on LinkedIn and advised me to change my concentration from Information Assurance & Security to either Math Finance or Predictive Analytics which are also in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.
I said to myself Math Finance is not a good area for me because IT is my life anything outside IT in graduate school won’t make me happy. I researched Predictive Analytics which was my best option because it is an emerging Technology under Data Science which is also an emerging technology in the IT field. I changed my concentration and also updated him that I had changed it to predictive Analytics.
He then told me to apply for the GA position again because he overheard in the department of Mathematics and Computer Science that there are still available positions for GA and some students just graduated during that period. I did as he advised, composed a nice e-mail, and attached my application documents; resume, transcript, and my professional certifications so that I could have a better chance at securing the GA position.
I waited for several weeks without even an acknowledgment e-mail from the department. I almost gave up because I already paid for another GRE to start prep for fall 2019 Ph.D. program in either Computer science or Information Technology. I had already made up my mind about Ph.D. for fall 2019 when I received a congratulatory message from the chair of the department about the GA position I applied to.
I wept, with tears of joy streaming down my eyes for it was the happiest day of my entire life. In-fact, I paid for people’s transport fare from my office to their destinations because I was coming back from the office at night after working a 12 Hours (8 AM – 8 PM) shift. I requested for my I-20 from APSU and it got to my place of residence within a week.
Exactly July 2018, I booked my visa interview dated July 30th 2018 which was later postponed to August 4th 2018 (Saturday morning). Prior to the D-Day, I prepared extensively did up to 5 mock interviews with some guys already in graduate school in the US and some in Nigeria. I also fasted for 9 days. On the D-day of my visa interview, I did all the usual screening such as fingerprint, checking of visa fee receipt, SEVIS fee, etc.
I was instructed to stay on a line which was the counter of the visa officer who previously denied me during my second attempt and I knew he could not interview me again based on their rules. On getting to him, he asked for my passport and I-20 which I obliged, but he returned my passport and I-20 saying he was sorry and that he already interviewed me. I was instructed to go to the second line where they had this young and pretty visa officer who already approved two people before me.
During the interview, the visa officer asked me several questions. She referred me back to the last 6 months with the previous visa officer which was my 2nd interview at the embassy. She stood up from her seat and went straight to the previous visa officer asking him something about my profile. When she came back, she asked me another set of questions which I responded to the best of my ability. She stood up twice again to talk to the previous visa officer.
At this moment, I was really scared, my heart was beating very fast, but tried to compose myself and never stop chanting my prayers and also tried to look into her eyes when answering her questions. In the end, I was given a white paper but placed on the administrative process for 4 days and got my Visa approved on the 5th day.
I left Nigeria for the US on August 20th, 2018, I flew from Lagos Nigeria to DOHA then DOHA to Miami and Miami to Nashville then Nashville to Clarksville (Austin Peay State University, Clarksville Tennessee USA).On getting to Miami which was my POE (Point of Entry), I was delayed for several hours because I got to Miami at about 5 PM in the evening and my connecting flight to Nashville was 8 PM in the evening.
I was taken to a private room for interrogations by 3 Armed men. I must confess I was scared, but I just had to display confidence since I did not have any skeleton inside my cupboard. I was asked series of questions such as Why I decided to attend APSU, my parent’s Date of Birth, How I got my GA, where I worked in Nigeria before coming to the USA, did I informed my school I was coming at that particular date? They went as far as calling my school DSO to confirm if I was a genuine student, also asked what are my job roles where I worked last before coming to the US? Are my religious? Did I belong to any political party? I was referred back to what transpired last 6 months at the American Embassy in Nigeria that why didn’t I pursue MENG at UMD again and why did I change my choice of school and program? I answered all their questions diligently and confidently.
Lastly requested for my phone and PIN wrote down the serial number of my phone and searched my phone thoroughly, but they did not find anything implicating. I was asked to go out of the room to wait outside. After 15 minutes, the man who requested my phone came out of the interrogation room and handed over my phone and international passport to me and gave me a resounding welcome saying “WELCOME TO AMERICA AND ALWAYS TAKE SMART DECISIONS”.
I carried my bags to board my connecting flight to Nashville and then took a Taxi from Nashville to Clarksville. I got to my place of residence at about 2 AM in the morning. This was my graduate school retrospect which I believe you can learn a thing or two from my story.
Fast forward to April 2019, I was in the library with a friend where I received a LinkedIn message from a Network Engineering Director at Dell EMC who happens to be my manager. He contacted me because the summary on my LinkedIn profile indicated I was actively seeking an Internship position in Computer Networking and Cloud Computing domains for summer 2019. He scheduled an interview the same day, conducted an interview the second day and I was given an offer that very day at Dell EMC in their Network Infrastructure Solution team.
Words on marble: “Always believe in your struggle and let your faith be bigger than your fear”. I wish everyone who wish to pursue graduate education abroad all the very best.
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