A Ghanaian Student Shares His Experiences Studying In the USA

Introduction

This article will be based on an interview I had with an amazing young man I came across not too long ago, and you will be blown away by his story. I’m excited to inspire you by the journey he’s taking thus far.

His name is Mr. Selikem Gotah. He’s a PhD student at the prestigious New York University. Before that, he had a double master’s and in the area of linguistics. He’s even had a degree from Russia, of all places, and he’s accepted to join us and speak to you guys.

One amazing thing I learned about his journey going through his academic pursuit is that he was able to secure scholarships to study in the United States for both his master’s and his PhD. That is not an easy feat, but he is going to share his inspiration with you so that you’ll be able to walk in his footsteps.

His Backstory

IOK:      

Welcome, Mr Selikem.

SG:

Thank you for having me here today.

IOK:

We are extremely grateful for your time. To get the ball rolling, share a little snippet about your journey. I know you started from Ghana and you moved through Ohio all the way to New York but that’s all. Can you fill in the blanks for us?

SG:

I’ll start by talking about my journey back in Ghana briefly and then how I came to the US to continue with what I’m doing. I had my secondary education in Mawuli School, Ho in the Volta Region of Ghana. I left Mawuli school in 2008 and then I entered the University of Ghana in 2009 where I studied Russian linguistics and information studies.

IOK:

Wow. What would motivate a Ghanaian to study Russian in Ghana of all places?

SG:

That’s a good question. Our system sometimes allows you to do what you want. Other times, the system gives you what they think is good for you.

IOK:

It’s what you could call a lack of adequate choice. This system doesn’t give you the room to choose too many things.

SG:

Yes, so I had an interest in languages. I also studied Ewe in high school, with literature and music as my electives

IOK:

-Actually, Ewe is the language predominantly spoken in the Volta Region of Ghana- just to help my audience who are not from Ghana to understand what Ewe is.

SG:

Yes, that’s very important. I had french, literature, English and music as my electives in high school. I wanted to continue with music and do something language-related. Later, I met a friend once when I visited the University of Ghana, and he was studying the structure of words; the roots from which certain words are formed. I found it very interesting and fascinating and I asked him, “what class was that?” and he said, “linguistics”. I then asked him what he meant by that and he said, “oh, it’s about languages and how they work and all that”. I decided then to chose linguistics in my application. I chose French, music and psychology. Yeah, so I chose all subjects.

IOK:

Those are very artistic backgrounds. Does it run in the family? You know, some families have most if not all family members having careers in the arts, language and culture. Like the Sutherland family in Ghana where things like arts and language run through the family.

Some families are made up of just lawyers, others made up of just doctors too. Does that pattern exist or is it just you choosing to be an outlier?

SG:

My parents were choristers.

IOK:

Oh, then I know where it comes from.

SG:

I used to listen to choral music at home a lot. However, it was just coincidental that I chose music because the music was against C.R.S. (Christian religious studies) and my sister, who once had to choose between C.R.S. and something else in high school said, “Oh, my brother C.R.S. is difficult. Don’t take that class. Take a class that is against C.R.S”. That led me to choose music instead. Thankfully, I excelled.

IOK:

That means you ended up completing the University of Ghana, majoring in linguistics, right?

SG:

Oh, yes. I finished with linguistics in Russian

IOK:

You also told me about studying in Russia.

SG:

Yes.

IOK:

You’re a brave man. First of all, the cold weather is ridiculous, so whenever I see somebody studying in Russia, I say, ” wow that’s a tough guy”. How was the experience like over there and what did you study?

SG:

I chose several classes but I didn’t get all of them, I got linguistics, information studies and Russian instead so I got just one of my choices. Russian was also kind of imposed on me because I studied French so perhaps they thought that I had a language aptitude. I didn’t want to study Russian in the beginning but I heard the T.A. at that time speak Russian with my professor. I said, “wow, he’s Ghanaian, and he speaks Russian. I bet I can do that too.”

Well, after a failed attempt to change Russian to study music, instead, I was stuck with Russian. We were told that at the end of the third year, the best five students would go to Moscow to study for nine months and I thought to myself, “I’ll be number one”. I worked very hard and then I went to Russia to study. It was a good experience; that’s the first time I left Ghana

IOK:

How surprised were you with the changes? Actually, the first time I travelled outside Ghana, It was to England and in the summer so the change was not that drastic. However, for you I guess it was a different story, right?

SG:

Yes. I left Ghana in October 2012 and when I got to Russia, it was about 17 degrees Celsius and that was cold for me. Yeah, so the temperature differences was actually an issue.

IOK:

You ended up completing your studies in Russia in nine months, right?

SG:

Nine months, yes. Then I came back to Ghana.

IOK:

To do your National Service?

SG:

No, to finish my degree program. After my three years at the University of Ghana, I went to Russia for one year and then came back for my final year.

Acquiring Two Master’s and a PhD

IOK:

What led to you departing to study in the United States?

SG:

After my bachelor’s degree, I was just thinking about finding a job in Ghana but I had to do my National Service first. I decided to teach. Russian and the department agreed to employ me.

IOK:

Like a teaching assistant, right?

SG:

Yes.

IOK:

That’s very good. Normally, in Ghana, after you finish your bachelor’s degree and you’re supposed to mandatorily do one year of National Service and their secretariat posts you anywhere; to work in rural areas or industries or anywhere around the country.

The best of the students are picked up as teaching assistants where they work to assist the professors. That was just off tangent. Let’s get back to you. Tell us, how does the full scholarship tie-in the timeline with you being a teaching assistant?

SG:

My friend, who was my school father in high school, had left the country to pursue his master’s. We used to have conversations where he would tell me about the experiences he had there studying for his master’s and he recommended that I also try to pursue graduate studies. I thought about the whole thing and then I saw that yes, I do have an interest in language, so why not go and do something extra in the area of linguistics?

I applied to one school in the US and two schools in Norway. The Norwegian application was very common in the Department of Linguistics, so many of my colleagues in the linguistics department also applied. I got one rejection, from one of the schools that I applied to.

IOK:

This is very good news, you always need to be rejected to pick the right one.

SG:

Absolutely. I got back and then got admission to a school in Norway and then the one in the US. That meant I had applied to one school in the US and two in Norway and got two admissions. I then had to decide where to go.

I did consultations and spoke with people; professors, to learn about the systems and which of them best served my interest.

IOK:

You chose the one in the US, right?

SG:

Yes, I chose the one in the US which was Ohio University. I could have gone to Norway because they had a better offer in terms of finances as well as a great program, of course

IOK:

We would talk about the finances because you went to school on was it a full scholarship

SG:

No, I had to pay something

IOK:

At least a greater part of it was it was funded by somebody, right? We are very interested in that story. We will get to that point but I will let you continue your journey in the US. Ohio University; tell us what you did over there.

SG:

Over there, I pursued a master’s in applied linguistics

IOK:

That means you did linguistics at the University of Ghana and now applied linguistics. Just give a little bit explanation of what it is.

SG:

We’re looking at how theories of language could be applied in language teaching contexts, so language teaching and learning specifically, and so we learned about teaching methods, teaching materials and how best to teach a language. The fact that you speak a language doesn’t make you a good teacher of the language, so I received training basically, on how to teach the teach languages in general. My area was language teaching and learning, using technology.

IOK:

Using technology… Is it related to A.I.?

SG:

Not necessarily. It is just using videos and pictures and all that. Basically, using technology – computers to teach language.

IOK:

I also noticed that you not only have one master’s degree, you actually have two. Please, tell us about the second.

SG:

Yes, so after my master’s in applied linguistics, I wanted to do theoretical linguistics because that is where my interest really is.

IOK:

You’ve already explained applied linguistics. Now, you’ve added another one called Theoretical Linguistics. Kindly explain that one as well, so theoretical linguistics… What does it mean?

SG:

It has to do with the theories that underlie language in general; what theories underlie the sounds of a language? What theories underlie how sentences are constructed? Etc.

IOK:

I never would have thought about that; that there is that dynamic.

SG:

There are very, interesting things to discover.

IOK:

All this while you were receiving some kind of mentoring from your school friend, were you still keeping in touch with him?

SG:

Yes, we spoke regularly. I should point out however that I wanted to just go straight into a PhD in theoretical linguistics after my master’s, I mean, I just wanted to move forward to another program in a PhD. I applied but all the schools I applied to rejected my application. Yeah, I was rejected, so I got six rejections in total.

IOK:

This is not Ghana. This is the United States of America where schools scramble for students on certain programs and to be rejected on all six is something else. How devastating was that to you then?

SG:

It was tough because I wanted to progress and apparently I couldn’t get into the schools, so I had to look for the next move. I wouldn’t brood about that my entire life. I needed to move on so what I needed to do at that point was to find out why I got rejected by all the schools. I ran some diagnostics to find out what the problem was.

IOK:

What were they? Were you able to pinpoint some of them and could you share them with us?

SG:

Yes. It’s about preparedness for what you want to do. Do you have the skill set that is required for the program? Do you have the training that is required for such an advanced level of study? I wasn’t ready yet. I did not have the training that was needed in theoretical linguistics for a PhD.

IOK:

I assume that’s what led you to pursue another master’s in theoretical linguistics

SG:

I realized that I needed to pursue a master’s on a theoretical topic, and sometimes, even go to conferences and share my research with people among other things. I should also point out that it’s not that I had a low GPA.

This is important because I’m offering advice on how to get into graduate school programs, so even if you have the highest GPA, don’t think that it’s automatic that you would get admitted. I actually got a 3.98 at the University of Ghana and a 3.93 in my first master’s program. Left to my GPA alone, I wouldn’t have had a problem.

There are many factors to consider when applying for programs. I then had to go and work on that aspect of my development with another master’s, so I went intending to finish the master’s and get all the things I needed to get into my dream PhD program.

IOK:

Thankfully, you didn’t just get into your dream program, but you got into one of the best schools in the world. Yes, it is one of the best. I was employed in school before so I know how great that was. I spent about nine months in New York and I was working for NYU in their finance department. So I had a feel of what that school was all about. It is a top-class school. Currently, what are you pursuing a PhD in?

SG:

In theoretical linguistics, which is what I wanted to do after my first masters. Finally, now I have it. I just needed to prepare for it.

IOK:

Do you think the schools you first applied to for the PhD program but got rejected by were better than NYU?

SG:

NYU was one of the schools I applied to.

IOK:

I wanted to ask that because I thought this was one of those stories where the six schools that rejected you were no match for NYU and then a year or two later you got NYU.

SG:

I see what you mean but for the PhD, it is not really about competition between schools. It’s about your research and who is in the best position to help you achieve your goals and your dreams. Someone can go to UCLA for a PhD in a particular area and do very well because there’s someone in that department who works on things that he or she is interested in. There are a lot of dynamics that we explore, so I’ll tell you about how I found NYU everything else

IOK:

That’s actually a good segue because that’s our next topic. You’re an African who’s gone to the United States and done very well for yourself under the circumstances. Can you share your experiences while studying? What kind of experiences and broad advice can you also give to Africans looking to take the path that you have already taken? One of the things I notice about you is that when we were in school, most of us were being pushed into the business world.

I mean after you are done with your bachelor’s you’re then pushed to an MBA. Basically, forced to do things you are told will give you money. However, I noticed that your career path has been very different. You’ve been very consistent in the path that you chose. I’m sure some people may have tried to maybe sway you into what you’d call, “mainstream careers”, which probably may be choked by now. 

The angle you are taking, however, is unique. I know it’s a big question but in a broad sense, what advice can you give to young Africans who want to study in the US? In terms of program selection, school selection, as well as many other factors that I may not have in my mind at the moment that would be relevant to them. I would really appreciate it if you can shed a light on things like that.

SG:

I think that it’s important for us to go as far back as the times when we were growing up at home. The kind of things we were exposed to. Some of those things shape our thinking. The kind of things that we find interesting. 

Yes, so that’s to our parents – they should try to expose us to a lot of things so we can make choices so that we can say, “oh, this is great, I would like to investigate this.” or “I’d like to serve in this area” and not just “oh, my child wants to be a doctor”, or “I want my child to be a doctor” and that’s it. 

No, let’s not impose careers on our children. First of all, we need to identify what our interests are. What are we passionate about? Is there any problem that we see in our society that we would like to solve? Is there something that we want to commit ourselves to do; something we find easy to do? When you are engaging in something that you are passionate about, even though you might get tired, you enjoy doing it. It even ceases to become work; it becomes fun.

We should be passion-driven. What are you passionate about what? What are you interested in really? That’s very important instead of saying, “oh, this is where the money is so I want to go there”. Once you put money first, you might end up not doing what you really are meant for in shaping up society.

IOK:

That’s a good lesson you’ve hit on because, for most young people, money has always been the motivating factor. It shouldn’t be about the money, you think about your interests – what you’re passionate about, think about the problem that you like to solve.

 Once you have that thinking, the money will come automatically but if you put money first, then there’s no point in even going to school. People should find what they are interested in. If they can do it on their own, they can seek the help of school counsellors. Do we have good counsellors at the University of Ghana as well as other African Universities?

SG:

Yes, we have departments for that. The University of Ghana has a counselling and placement centre where you go and talk to counsellors. They advise you on career issues and all of that. They help you to discover yourself when it comes to interests and other things. We should explore these opportunities. The school is not just a classroom with homework and assignments. The people on the campuses are resources.

The offices that we have on the campuses are resources, so go to the counselling and placement centre and have a chat with the counsellor and you’ll learn something about careers and all of that. Also, try to attend seminars.

IOK:

It could even be the missing link in your career. Just meeting one person can transform your life.

SG:

Yes, that’s true. Moving on, interest: very important. Now when you discover your interests, you have to find out how best you want to develop that interest. For instance, if you have an interest in curing a disease or something, like the coronavirus, or you have an interest in languages and you want to develop them. The next question is, what are the best things to do to develop that interest?

 For instance, if somebody wants to do something related to psychiatry, the person needs to get training in psychology. Once the person has that done the next thing is for the person to find out how to educate themselves to achieve that goal.

If the person wants to pursue a master’s in clinical psychology or something of that sort, that person should just go to the Internet and make searches or talk to someone who studies that or someone who works in that department.

IOK:

Let’s assume I’m a young African guy who wants to heed your advice. Yes, I want to do a certain program, but I don’t really know anybody who’s done it before. How do I find those people to at least talk to? Let’s say I wanted to do linguistics. I didn’t know that Selikem existed anywhere. What can I do to at least be able to talk to or find a way by which I bring myself close to guys like you?

SG:

You can just talk to your friends and ask anyone who already does what it is you’re looking to do. Maybe your friend knows someone. Or maybe your friend knows someone who knows someone who does that.

IOK:

Oh, that makes LinkedIn a very good resource.

SG:

Yes, so talk to people. Even on Facebook, through posts that you engage with, you can see that, oh, this person has an interest in this, then go to their inbox and respectfully send them a message and have a conversation. They can help you. Then you can just go to Google and search on graduate linguistics programs. Something will pop up.

 Let me give you an example. When I finished my first master’s and was rejected by all the schools, I needed to find another master’s program in theoretical linguistics, so I just went online and searched for schools admitting students after February in linguistics.

That’s what I did and then I saw a number of them. I looked through and sorted out everything. Then saw one that was a bit appealing. I wrote to one of the professors in that department, telling him about the interest I had in one of the graduate programs in their department and that I would like to do that for the next couple of years. I also inquired whether I was a good candidate for admission because I would like to apply

She got back to me and encouraged me to apply because I had a good record as well as the right interests needed.

IOK:

That was a great way to take the initiative. Now that we know which school or which program that we need to do and we make the approaches, what next?

SG:

When you find a school that looks like a place you would like to be, look at the finance side of the website and see how they support students. Generally in the US, we have what we call assistantships and you have a graduate assistantship or a teaching assistantship, then we have fellowships as well. Usually, for the fellowship, we don’t really do any work. You are basically being paid to do just your schoolwork.

For an assistantship, you have to do some work for the money. If you’re a teaching assistant, you might have a class to yourself that you teach like a professor of the class, or you would assist the professor by doing tutorials, grading, etc. When you are a graduate assistant, you might just help with research; maybe put some data together and observe and write generalizations about the data and all of that.

Yes, so look at the finance side and check what they have. If things are not clear, look for maybe the department head or anyone that is there as a person of contact and write to them. Ask them to clarify some issues regarding the finances. Many of them will be happy to get back to you and show you exactly what resources they have.

IOK:

That is even the best because you are getting some kind of help with the financing of your education, together with some kind of work experience in terms of the assistantship and graduate assistantship. It’s the best combination.

SG:

Yes, I like the model because when I came to the US first in Ohio, I had an assistantship, so for all the four semesters I did there, I taught a class by myself with my own syllabus and I even set the exam questions by myself. From time to time, a supervisor would come to observe me and then gave me feedback, so for something like that, you are learning on the job so you have some experience

IOK:

I mean, you’re learning for free, basically.

SG:

Yes, we have those options where you are a teaching assistant or graduate assistant

IOK:

As you said, it’s best to find out from the schools about some of these programs so that even if your father is the richest man in Ghana or Nigeria or elsewhere, you still could save your parents some money by finding out about these programs. Also, it’s not just about money. It’s also about, as we said, the work experience.

Sometimes, when you want to further your education and you look at the big fat figure that is thrown at you, you become scared to even try. Have you ever encountered people who were stuck because they were too overwhelmed by the figure thrown at them?

SG:

Yes. I’ve come across a lot of people who think that pursuing the program is expensive without exploring ways of helping pay the fees.

IOK:

We will get to the next segment where we’re going to talk about scholarships, mainly. Before we get to that, I just wanted to ask: what are some of the challenges that you see – as far as young Africans pursuing higher education in the United States are concerned? What are some of the challenges they may face, and what advice would you give them to help them get around some of these challenges if there are any?

SG:

Our challenges are just a part of the process it’s the same as asking about the challenges that people face in graduate programs.

Basically, you have a ton of things to do within a short period of time, so you have to manage your time very well. Then, of course, the financial challenges.

IOK:

As a student, you get calls from home asking you to send things back home?

SG:

Absolutely, yes, from siblings and all of that.

IOK:

Before we get into scholarships, I’d like you to share with me a little bit. For linguistics in a broader aspect, what are the trends that you see? Also, what are some of the prospects? What are the other areas in which this field is applicable?

SG:

First of all, I talked about language teaching and learning and in language teaching and learning, we can apply linguistics. People who teach Twi, for instance, in basic schools, need to receive some training when it comes to language teaching. I guess many of them received training in training colleges and their professors have received training in applied linguistics, so the professors guide them as to how to teach it. 

Then we have a lot of things going on now in the tech world – A.I. and these robots are using languages to perform tasks. They need people to help them to be effective. Now those people have training in computer science and linguistics and that’s called computational linguistics. This is a combination of computer science and linguistics.

IOK:

What kind of background would one need to be able to get into that program?

SG:

They would need a background in computer science as well as linguistics. For instance, they can take coding classes in “R” and Python. I’m actually being trained in R and Python.

IOK:

Wow. Together with your PhD program?

SG:

Yes, some of these things are integrated into the program so they prepare you for both academia and industry. We have speech pathology, some we have speech problems and we have linguists who help in solving these problems.

IOK:

Wow. So you can actually work in a clinical setting?

SG:

Yes.

IOK:

I would never in a million years have ever thought about it like this. This is revolutionary. Is the list exhaustible or can we move on?

SG:

There are a lot of things. You could be a lexicographer, working on dictionaries

Gaining The Scholarship

IOK:

That’s amazing. Now, to focus our attention on how to pay for education. Let’s start with this. You are a blessed man, I would say, for being able to get a quality education, all on scholarships. It’s not easy. Tell us, how is that even possible?

I mean I’m here with two kids I know will go to school in the next few years. My 17-year-old will also go to school, maybe next year and I’m just scratching my head, thinking, “do I have to pay all this money”? I’m sure parents would be just as interested as the students in this segment, so please tell us, where do we start in financing education?

SG:

Information.

IOK:

Expound on that.

SG:

One of the skills of the 21st century is information literacy; how do you get information? How do you authenticate that information and how do you use it? As I said earlier, there’s a lot you can gather from Google. To secure funding for our education, we need information from websites, among others.

IOK:

Apart from Google, where else can we get that information and what types of information are we talking about?

SG:

As I said, it starts with your interest and what you want to do. You look up say, a school that teaches the program you’re interested in. When you go to their website, look at their admission requirements and look at funding. Look at faculty, look at their research. So first of all, interest. Can they meet your interests? If they can, then look at the admission requirements, then you check the funding. I mean, you can even check the funding before admission requirements because if you like the program but then there’s no funding, there’s no need applying.

If you like the program, check if they have funding and then check to see what the requirements are for admission. Sometimes you have to do separate applications for funding and then admission. Some schools just add funding to admission, so you have to deal with schools individually. 

In some cases, you would have to look for a professor in the department, in the sciences, for instance, if you want to do rice research, ( that’s what my wife does ) which school does that, and who are the people there? Do they have the same interests as you? 

If they do, write to the professor that you have papers you’ve written and your transcript. If you took the GRE – which we’ll talk about soon present your scores and goals to them. Then you ask if they will be willing to admit you. If the professor has funding for a research project, you have one foot in the door.

IOK:

Wait a minute, let’s break this down. Are you trying to say that sometimes the funding for your education can be specific to the department or the program, and they can’t even reach down to the point that the professor that is probably the head of the department or the professor in charge of that program may have funding for research work and if you want to work in that area, that type of funding could be available to fund your education?

SG:

Yes.

IOK:

That is sweet. That means you work for the money while learning on the job. You learn for free. First of all, you talked about passion. You talked about you excited about so you get the opportunity to go and work in a school, on a program that you are passionate about and get the opportunity to work and get the opportunity to learn from the best. I don’t even know what beats this. That is that is incredible.

SG:

Yes, so those are some of the ways that you can secure funding for education. You need to seek information. Go and check, ask questions. Maybe you’ll find a Ghanaian student in the department. Write to Kofi or Ama and ask them to guide you through the application for the program you are interested in.

IOK:

That is interesting, I would never have thought about that.

SG:

Yes, I remember last year and someone got in touch with me via my institution email and then he talked about himself and that he had a certain interest and would like to know where and how to apply. I went online, looked for schools that offer that program, and I sent him links. And then I helped him through the application process.

IOK:

This is an eye-opener. I can tell you this information that Selikem is sharing is worth far more than what money can buy. I can tell you because I’m a parent myself and I’m thinking about my teenage kids’ futures and their education This is great information.

Talk us through the scholarships. What different types of scholarships are there? I know we’ve talked about the assistantships, the fellowships and also going through the faculty level, working with a professor who probably may have funding for research. Is that all?

SG:

What I’m talking about here is mainly for US programs. I don’t know much about other ways of getting funding, but I know that GETFUND; that’s the Ghana Education Trust Fund can have some effect.

IOK:

Yeah, I would rely more on the ones you’ve said than going to GETFUND. I don’t know the process. It might be very easy, but you never know and that’s a program exclusively for Ghana, so if you are not in Ghana, you may not be able to benefit from that.

SG:

If your country has something of that sort where they can help students, you can apply for it. There are other international scholarship avenues that you can explore. I don’t know much about them because I did not explore that area. I think that the system is also quite different in Europe.

IOK:

In terms of resources, is there any kind of centralized repository of, say, websites or things like that, that people can visit to learn more about various types of scholarship offerings available, or they have to go visit the school and go through the faculty level and see what is there for themselves?

SG:

I think that just going to Google and looking up scholarships should be enough. It’s a lot of work. The goal should be about working on something like research and interest and all of that. If you put the money first, you might end up in a program that you don’t like and if you are in a program that you don’t like, you will suffer.

Just imagine something that you have no interest in at the graduate level and grad school is tough, to be very honest.

IOK:

What would I need if let’s say, I’m an African and I want to, I want to do a grad program. I’m in Accra or Nairobi or Cape Town and I want to really, really jump into a graduate program. What do I need to have to be able to get me to take the kind of steps that you have to get? Is there a specific grade point average? What kind of exams do I need to do? You talked about GRE earlier; is that the only exam that I need to do? Just expound a little bit in terms of the application process.

SG:

Generally, you would need to submit your transcripts and that transcript has your GPA. As far as I know, most schools have a cutoff of about 3.0 out of 4.0.

It tells you that we have schools with 3.0, 3.5 or 3.2 GPA as the cutoff where people with almost a 4.0 GPA are applying. That means you have to do something extra until you get into a program where you have several people supplying it with 3.95 GPAs.

IOK:

Think about you also competing with the guys coming from Asia and I’d say Vietnam, India and Pakistan. These are super smart guys.

SG:

Yeah, so it is not just about the GPA. That is why you have a list of things, so we started with the GPA. Generally, it’s 3.0, but you have to check for that specific school that you want. Maybe if they want 3.5 or 3.6, they’ll state it there.

Some schools or some programs require Graduate Record Examinations. That’s the GRE and some schools have cutoff points for the GRE, some schools do not have cut off points for that. When you are doing your search, you look for specifics. You might also have to submit TOEFL scores to prove that you are proficient in English

IOK:

What does the full acronym mean, by the way?

SG:

I think it means Test of English in a Foreign Language. For that one also, schools might have a cutoff point, so you have to check. Some schools might not ask you at all because you’re from Ghana. Some schools would ask. Then there are letters of recommendation. You need a recommendation from your professors or your superiors at work if you work so. Generally, it’s three letters, sometimes two.

IOK:

From three different mentors that you had in school and probably work experience or your boss; three different people?

SG:

Yes.

IOK:

-and they generally have to attest that Selikem was a great student and hardworking?

SG:

Yes. I haven’t seen such letters like before, but I’ve seen samples online but it’s important to have an evidence-based kind of letter – why are you saying the student is exceptional? It should show.

This is for the recommenders not for the students, but this is useful because students need to actually be active in class. After all, if you are always coming late and you are the back and all of that, then you are not contributing to the discussion in class, your professor does not know you, so he or she cannot vouch for you. 

Yes, so the whole thing requires a lot of work at various levels. If you’re in school right now and you are thinking about graduate programs, please make sure that you are actively involved in your classroom work. Talk to your professors, ask them questions, look for problems, solve them and discuss them with your professors. 

Go for office hours. Don’t just hold your book and walk to class and walk back home and shout. You’ve got to be open. Some people behave like ghosts. When they come, nobody sees them when they go, nobody sees them either and they are not memorable. You don’t want to be that

Yes, so that’s about the letters of recommendation. That’s the fourth thing on the list basically.

IOK:

Where do what do they have to write some essays and that kind of thing?

SG:

That would be the statement of purpose. Personal statement or a letter of intent or statement of intent. They have different names.

IOK:

Talk to us about that

SG:

This is one of the most important documents in the application; your statement of purpose. Why do you want to be here? If your purpose doesn’t align with the goals of the department, then you are thrown out – so you don’t say, “oh, I got a very high GPA, but I didn’t get in”. What was your purpose? It’s about compatibility.

IOK:

Let’s say somebody has a 3.3 GPA, and in that school, there are a lot of people with GPAs of 3.9 and 3.8 applying. Assuming that person has a very unique background story about maybe their life experiences that shaped the reason why they want to pursue that kind of program in school and be able to properly articulate that rich background story. Would that be of help?

SG:

Yes, that can be of help, but it has to go along with the other documents. Assuming I’m one of the members of the admissions committee and we see that all this student has a very good research background, that this student wrote a long essay and wrote a beautiful work and the student has a good GRE score and good letters of recommendation but then the GPA is low. 

If the person talks about it in the statement, giving a good reason; maybe depression or a medical condition, that student can get in.

IOK:

Then this letter of intent is very important.

SG:

Yes, it’s very important.

IOK:

Since you have gone through that, the first time you did it, how were you able to write it? Did you get some kind of coaching or some online resource that helped you to do that? Because this is an area people really need help on. Is there some resource there that could help people to be able to craft very powerful letters of intent?

SG:

Yes, in my case, my friend helped me. He shared all the resources that he had with me. He got them from the Internet and then he shared them with me. I also went online to find more. Then I sat down to craft mine, based on my interests and what I have done over the years.

You can go online and look for sample personal statements. Ask online, “what are the most important things to include in your statement? You’ll get a lot of documents, a lot of pages and information then you decide which of them is useful for your application. Sometimes the school states what they want to see in that document.

That makes it easier. You also have a word limit of five hundred, say, five thousand words, so your summary skills are important. You need to say the most important things in 500 words.

IOK:

In a nutshell, what advice would you give to me if I was contemplating coming to study in the United States right now? Assuming I was a young guy who had just finished university in Ghana or Adis Ababa or anywhere, and I really wanted to come to the United States to study. What advice would you give to me in summary?

SG:

Before that, I needed to include one of the components of the application. The application is not free, generally. You have to pay application fees and this can be expensive.

IOK:

How much are we looking at on average?

SG:

On average, sixty dollars. Some schools actually have what we call a waiver. You write to the school and tell them that you don’t have their finances to apply. Some schools have programs for that but not all do.

Some are really expensive. The highest I paid was $125. I got a waiver from Harvard when I was applying because they have this system, so I just wrote to them and you’ll be asked to supply certain documents to show that indeed you don’t have the money. It’s not just a random thing. You need to show evidence that you don’t have the money.

IOK:

You need to show them that you’re broke.

SG:

Yeah, basically. The other issue is that, if you are applying, don’t apply to only one school. I applied to only one but I still got lucky to get in. If you really want to go and study, apply to as many as five schools. Three to five for the master’s degree program and about ten for the PhD. I did eight after the sixth rejection I did eight, so I got six out of eight. It’s not easy but you know, we can all do it. It’s possible. Yes, so the application fee is there to pay.

Now, advice to anyone who wants to apply. First of all, the person should rewatch the video. Actually, that’s the number one criteria. Yes, because I thought about a lot of things, but yours gave a summary.

First of all, discover what you want to do and once you are certain of that, talk to people. Go to the Internet and look up schools.

You can start by looking at rankings in college. You can look for program rankings -so the best schools in, say, clinical psychology and schools in this or that. They are organized in tiers, so you choose, say, two from the top tier, two from the middle and then two from the bottom, so that you’re covered everywhere.

If you get all of them, sit and then compare, “who will meet my needs best”? “Who is here that I can work with”? Then you look at the finances and all of that. “Can I live in the cold”?That’s very important. Checking the schools and selecting the one you want to go to. People should not be afraid to apply to the top schools.

IOK:

Most people are scared of them because they have this defeatist mindset that, ” I don’t belong here because my parents are not of this class”. They can just picture themselves being there, and I think that’s the reason why, Selikem, you’ve been a blessing to us because now, you’ve helped open our eyes. You can only go so far in life, as far as you can see.

Sadly, most people have not been able to see, therefore, their minds have not travelled there, so their physical bodies cannot be there. What are you doing or what you’ve done for us today is, you’ve taken their minds to the possibility. Now, they can say, “does it mean that I would be able to at least attempt to go to maybe a Harvard or Yale or NYU”?

SG:

Absolutely. When you get into them, you have to work hard because usually, the programs, there are very rigorous. You need to really work hard and you can make it.

I would like to add something that I forgot to mention. There is this office in the US embassy, called Education USA. They advise on applications, scholarships and then VISA interviews, all of that – so all that I gave you right now, they can tell you a lot more, because they actually have webinar sessions with schools in the US. Even on Facebook, they share a live feed where people ask questions and they’re provided responses, so anyone interested in studying in the US can go to the US embassy.

IOK:

The US embassy in any country, right?

SG:

 I know of the one in Accra. I don’t know if there’s US Education USA in almost every country. What people can do is that they can go and Google education USA in their respective countries.

IOK:

-so you search for Education USA Kenya or the US Embassy in Kenya or Education USA Tanzania or wherever it is. I’m just going to take the risk to say that Education USA could be in every US embassy, probably worldwide.

Is there anything more that we need to know? If there’s any more, we’ll be happy to listen. If there isn’t, we can schedule another interview when you finish your program.

SG:

That’s about it.

IOK:

Thank you so much, Selikem. We look forward to seeing you after the program and we’re only wishing you nothing but the best in terms of what you want to do. Actually, we will be excited to see where you Land. I’m so excited to talk to people about this linguistics line in terms of a career choice. I’m just going to be a trumpeter for that. I really I think people should think outside the box, and that’s what you’ve done

Thank you so much once again. We’ll catch you in the subsequent episodes after you finish your PhD program.

SG:

Thank You.

If you enjoyed reading this article but would want more detail, you can watch this same interview in the two Youtube videos below.

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