Going with Grace: from Malawi to Oxford University
Will the real Oxford University alumni please stand up? Grace Mzumara (28) is one of the 35 Malawians ever to grace Oxford. She shares her academic journey and how she aims to influence public health systems and policies in Malawi in the long run.
Interview with Tendai Shaba:
1. How did it feel for a young African Malawian woman like you walking and embracing the corridors of Oxford University?
I spent my first four days with my scholarship (Oxford-Weidenfeld and Hoffmann) peers when I first arrived at Oxford as our program begun with a leadership program. We had a lot of opportunities to bond as a group and become personal friends over the year. My study program also gave me and my classmates a lot of opportunities to get to know each other. This made the Oxford Experience a lot less intimidating for me because I always had friends from the beginning.
Oxford has a great society for African students, and it is a good starting point for anyone trying to make friends and looking for where they belong. I also really liked my college, St Edmund hall. It is right off the high street. It has a little well in the centre that reminds me of wishing wells in fairy tales. It is quite fitting because Oxford, with its old buildings and enchanting architecture, can feel dreamy and magical.
Colleges have weekly fancy three course dinners called formal hall, and that was one of my favourite things to attend. They are also great ways to meet people and be inspired by the work other students are doing. Eventually, I got acquainted with a few libraries and the Radcliffe Camera is my favourite.
I found that time flies by incredibly fast because there are many things to do academically or socially. There is something for everyone in Oxford and I hope more Malawians get to experience it.
2. Most people only dream of Oxford University and you lived that dream. Can you tell me about the application process, choosing the right course to study and how to find scholarships?
Well, the truth is when I was looking for a master’s degree, I did not think of going to Oxford. I knew I wanted to study either something biomedical like haematology or something like public health. In the beginning, I was applying for the Beit Trust scholarship, and it had a list of universities they sponsor.
I decided to go down the list one by one applying those that had courses I wanted. But, when I applied to biomedical courses, I did not get admissions. Then I decided to apply to courses with a public health element. When it got to the Oxford option, the International Health program appealed to me the most. It was aligned to the centre for tropical medicine which has centres in Kenya and Asia, and I thought their work was exciting.
However, I was not confident enough to apply until my friend gave a testimony in church saying she was going to Oxford. I ran up to her afterwards to ask her how she did it. Her advice was to use YouTube. And that is what I did. I learnt how to improve my essays and my approach to applications and interviews. It was a game changer because I got three offers after that. I also got one scholarship and that was to go the University of Oxford.
One of the things I went through was deciding on things like writing the IELTS. It is expensive, but it is an important part of the process. But I remember the first thing I did with my first salary was pay for the IELTS and that was almost a year before I got an offer.
It was a good thing though because by the time I got an offer, I was only given one month to send those results. It would have been impossible to do that without having the results at beforehand.
3. Tell me about your academic journey from secondary school to post graduate studies. What are your qualifications?
I went to Mary Mount girls secondary school in Mzuzu before proceeding to the Malawi College of Medicine. I graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in 2016. I now have a Master of Science (MSc) in International Health and Tropical Medicine from the University of Oxford.
4. A lot of people get rejected. Did you get in on your first application? How did you handle admission rejection letters if you received any in your academic career?
As I have mentioned earlier, I got quite a lot of rejection letters. The thing is I knew they were coming, but I believed that one would say yes eventually. So, I would always start another application as soon after sending one.
That way if I got rejected, at least I would still have something else to look forward to. The other thing I learnt is to never send the same application twice, even for similar courses. So I decided to use every opportunity to improve my writing and my approach.
5.So you have the status, a graduate from Oxford University “, what do people expect from you and mostly importantly, what do you expect from yourself? What change and impact would you like to play a part in Malawi, based on our expertise and field of study?
That is a tricky question. I can’t speak for what people expect. But at first, I thought life and making career decisions would get easier. But it does not. It gets complicated and that is not an Oxford thing, its just life I suppose. What I noticed about people from Oxford is that everyone is trying to figure out where they fit in and that is true about me too.
My dream is to eventually work in researching and advising on health systems and health policies in Malawi. We have a lot of work to do in structuring and financing our primary health care. We also need more work on policies that make sure that all aspects of non-communicable diseases including cancer are catered for within our primary health care systems.
I want to build on my experience and expertise to make this possible. I would also like to work with students because the approach to teaching that I experienced was amazing and I would like to convey that knowledge or skill set in any way possible.