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High-value scholarships are always competitive. For every application submitted, there may be hundreds or thousands of other students with equally great grades and extracurricular activities gunning for the award. One student from the University of South Australia, however, used his love of languages to stand out from the competition.
“I love learning languages, so I focused on this passion during my application and interview process,” said Sebastian Blake to Study International in an email interview. The linguaphile is currently learning Japanese, Tibetan and Esperanto, and will soon add another language under his arsenal of skills, thanks to the New Colombo Plan Scholarship (NCP).
As an NCP scholarship recipient, Blake will spend 18 months in Bangkok, Thailand, to continue his degree at Mahidol University. The 20-year-old is expecting to start his programme with full-time intensive language training and is looking forward to developing a good level of proficiency in spoken and written Thai.
The NCP is part of the Australian government’s initiative to boost the country’s knowledge of the Indo-Pacific by supporting undergraduate students to study and undertake internships in the region.
“I’m the first person in my family to attend university and come from a low socioeconomic background, so completing a programme like this without the help of the New Colombo Plan would be entirely unimaginable,” added the Australian.
We spoke to him to learn more about his scholarship application process, what he’s studying at the University of South Australia and how the self-confessed language nerd used his love of languages to differentiate himself in the scholarship application process.
Hi Sebastian. Can you give us some background information about yourself, including what you’re currently studying at the University of South Australia?
I’m a second-year undergraduate student at the University of South Australia, completing a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in Sociology and Applied Linguistics. I’m also studying for a Diploma in Languages in Japanese Studies, alongside my bachelor’s. Outside of uni, I study Tibetan online through the Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo Translator Program while taking private lessons in Esperanto. Needless to say that I love languages.
What was your scholarship application process like? Walk us through it.
The scholarship application process was difficult and had a very tight turnaround time between deadlines for each application stage. First, we were required to attend an information session facilitated by our university’s international relations department before submitting an expression of interest.
In order to attend the information session, we needed to have a GPA of at least 6.0 (on a 7.0 scale system). After this, we had interviews with the University of South Australia’s New Colombo Plan (NCP) representative and waited to see if we had been nominated to apply to the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
Each university is only able to nominate 10 students each year to apply for the scholarship. We were then given three weeks to submit a formal written application to DFAT before being short-listed for interviews. Each person is interviewed by a panel made up of a DFAT representative as well as professionals who have experience working in the region we are applying to go to, in my case, this was the Southeast Asian interview panel.
This was the final stage of the application process before we were notified if our applications had been successful.
What does your scholarship cover, and how has it helped you?
The NCP scholarship is comprehensive and covers everything you could need as a student: 20,000 Australian dollars is dedicated to university fees at our host university for up to two semesters or three trimesters and full-time language training for up to six months.
We’re given a monthly stipend of A$2,500 to cover our living costs; A$2,500 for travel expenses to and from our primary host location; and A$2,500 establishment allowance to help us get set up in our host location. Scholars are also provided with travel and medical insurance for the duration of our programmes.
I’m the first person in my family to attend university and come from a low socioeconomic background, so completing a programme like this without the help of the New Colombo Plan would be entirely unimaginable.
The programme provides enough support and funding that I don’t have to worry about being able to afford anything, even living expenses or medical treatment. It’s truly an amazing opportunity and I can’t wait to begin my programme.
Does your scholarship sponsor any events or research opportunities?
The New Colombo Plan provides a wide range of opportunities outside of our academic programmes. Before we fly off to our host locations, the NCP provides pre-departure training and a summit where we can network with other scholars and officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.
The New Colombo Plan encourages mentorships and internships during our programme and provides assistance and opportunities for finding these programmes. The programme also encourages undergraduates completing their honours research to participate, allowing them to conduct research in the Indo-Pacific.
What was the hardest and easiest part of the application?
I think the hardest part of the application for me was trying to develop self-confidence. Although I’m a high achieving student, I have a hard time recognising that my achievements are valid and I’m worthy of the praise I receive.
So when I had a practice interview at my university, for example, my feedback was that although in my application I mentioned all these things I’ve achieved, when the opportunity came for me to talk about them, I didn’t mention them at all. This has to do with my own sense of self-confidence and self-worth, so this application process was challenging, but also really rewarding in my own self-development.
And surprisingly, when it came time for the actual interview with DFAT, I felt very relaxed and fairly confident. The application process was very much a learning and development experience on its own.
How did you overcome these challenges?
I was really lucky during my application for the support I received from my mentors and the international relations department during my application period. They really helped me to identify the positive traits within myself that have made me a successful candidate, and with their support, I was able to develop more confidence and ultimately be successful in my application.
Do you have any advice for prospective applicants on how to manage their budgeting?
I think budgeting is an important part of receiving any scholarship and even more so when it comes to living in another country and following your visa requirements. For example, my Thai student visa doesn’t allow me to work during my programme, so managing my finance with the scholarship stipend is a very important part of making my programme successful.
If I had to give advice to other students thinking about applying for similar programmes, I would encourage them to leave space for the unexpected. Although you might be able to use your whole allowance to get a nicer apartment, it’s more important to make sure if anything unexpected happens during your programme, you can manage it.
What advice do you have for other future applicants for the scholarship you won?
I think the best advice would be to be yourself. The NCP programme looks for diversity in applicants, so it’s the perfect chance to show them who you are and what you’re passionate about.
For example, I love learning languages, so I focused on this passion during my application and interview process. I designed my entire programme around this and tried to show the panel how I could turn this passion into something that appeals to the NCP goals and objectives.
Tying your passion back to how you are furthering the programme’s goals is very important. In my case, I tried to demonstrate how proficiency in languages of the Indo-Pacific region is key in developing deeper relationships in the region. Identify your strengths, highlight your passions, and keep the NCP goals in mind.
What are you looking forward to doing in Thailand?
As a self-confessed language nerd, I would have to say that I’m most excited to complete the language training component of my programme. I think the amount of time I spend in Thailand (18 months), combined with the NCP funded language training will allow me to develop a good level of proficiency in spoken and written Thai. I’m also interested in living and integrating into an entirely different society and culture.
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country and I’m interested in seeing how Buddhism impacts Thai society, culture, and customs. Studying at a Thai university also gives me the unique opportunity to learn more about Thai history from the perspective of Thai people. My time in Thailand is sure to provide a countless number of opportunities, and I can’t wait to see what my programme brings.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Sebastian Blake. They do not represent the opinions of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, New Colombo Plan or the Australian Government.