Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Personal Update: Plans for Next Year

Those of you who have been following my adventures closely will know that I set out on this journey to Africa with the intent for it to be one year long. The plan after that was to do graduate school. Well, it's been quite a ride since I first set off, and I've since been blessed with many extraordinary opportunities to pursue when this year comes to an end.

Back in the fall, I applied for several graduate programs, all for master's degrees in computer science (or related fields). As usual, I had hoped to have my next step figured out quickly, preferably before my half way mark. You can imagine my dismay when I heard many of the programs wouldn't get back to me until the end of March. The end of March!

Before I had even heard from graduate schools, my colleagues at Google started intimating that I would be welcome to stay longer. My old boss even offered to let me switch projects and locations if I wanted to. How many times were opportunities like these going to happen!? The first time Google let me create my own job I chalked up to good luck, but twice? I have to say, it was very tempting. And not to mention, I didn't yet have any other offers.

But then the decisions started rolling in. The very first offer I got came from Cambridge. I had applied for the Gates Scholarship, interviewed over Skype from Nigeria, and two days later, had a very surprising email in my inbox. I'd won! I literally spent the afternoon walking around Accra in a daze just repeating to myself, "This life is unreal." For those of you unfamiliar with the Gates, it's the Cambridge equivalent of the Rhodes Scholarship, and arguably one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. The selections committee focuses on academic merit but also on leadership and a potential to  impact the world.

But I hadn't even heard back from my other choices yet! I was dumbstruck; I hadn't seen it coming, and I didn't know what to do.

Fortuitously, I happened to have a 24-hour stopover in England between Ghana and Switzerland the very next weekend, so I decided to take the opportunity to speak with some folks in the department and some of the current Gates Scholars. I was very impressed. Everyone I met seemed profoundly intelligent, but more than just that, they seemed worldly, thoughtful, and passionate. I discussed academics, toured campus, and even participated in a scholastic event the Gates Council had put on. To be honest though, what left the lasting impression on me was an offhand conversation I had with a couple of current Gates Scholars. They were studying engineering and computer science, respectively, and after a long day of meeting people and walking around, the three of us sat down for a drink. And these two hard science people and I ended up talking about democracy, about the revolutions in the middle east, and about how the size of a country influences the most effective style of governance. I hadn't had a conversation so stimulating outside my domain in a long time.

Still, I wasn't sure. I should at least wait until I know my other options, right? That seemed prudent. But then the folks at Cornell started putting pressure on me. Apparently the Gates Foundation wouldn't wait forever for an answer. So as I boarded the flight for New York last month, I decided I would hear what my mentors had to say on the subject. I spoke to three people, but I barely had much of a choice after the first meeting; my friend Jared wouldn't let me leave his office until I said I'd take it. Fortunately the other two concurred.

So I decided to take it.

As for my next steps, class starts on October 4, so I actually have more time than I thought I would. I decided to extend my time at Google an extra two months to round out the full year. I'll finish on September 2 and take the intervening month to visit friends and family around the US. It has been quite a while after all.

If you're interested in hearing more about the Gates Scholarship, you can visit their website or watch the Trust's introductory video. Here's my profile too.


Ania Beata Owczarczyk said...

congrats dude!

Randy said...

Wow! Excellent news, Ben! Way to go! Africa has been a wonderful opportunity, and so will Cambridge!


Adrienne said...


Unknown said...

Thanks everyone!

Alan Levin said...

When you make it to Cape Town, I'd like to connect... when you coming?

Unknown said...

No idea at the moment, unfortunately. My travel plans are all incredibly up in the air.

Unknown said...

Congrats, Ben! They made an excellent choice!!