An Impromptu Trip to London in May 2024

2024-05-23

Background

This is something I have been keeping under wraps for a while. In February, I received an offer from the University of Cambridge, to study an MPhil in Advanced Computer Science. Attending Cambridge has been a dream of mine for a long time, and I was both surprised and thrilled.

Cambridge interviews are infamous for being rigorous. They are designed to find your breaking point, and every question that you can answer is followed by a harder one. You never know what to expect, and no amount of preparation can offset the nerves that come with performing under pressure, especially when you are in the presence of some of the smartest people in the world.

I got into Cambridge, but that is probably the first step in what would be a long hurdle to secure funding. Postgraduate education anywhere in the world is expensive, and most postgraduate courses, with the exception of PhDs, are unfunded. This is natural because "mastering out", unlike sticking through the long run and publishing papers, does not contribute to the university's research output.

Back to the Present

Funding was already at the back of my mind. The Cambridge Trust automatically nominates accepted students for different scholarships, based on their course of study, nationalities and various other factors. The most prestigious Oxbridge scholarships are namely the Rhodes, Gates, and Jardine Scholarships; they are highly competitive and are awarded to only a handful of students each year.

I was rejected by the Gates Cambridge foundation, and I wasn't too surprised. The bar is exceptionally high, and the competition is fierce. This rejection came early on, so I was mentally prepared for an unfunded masters.

What happened next is nothing but a miracle, that testifies to the notion that you just need to want something enough and the universe will conspire in an almost transcendental manner to make it happen.

The Jardine Scholarship

In mid-March, I received an email from the Cambridge Trust, saying that should I be interested, I would be nominated for the Jardine Scholarship. I was asked to submit a separate application form, that involved several essays. The Jardine Scholarship is awarded to students from specific Asian countries, where the Jardine Matheson Group has a significant presence. Naturally, as a Malaysian, I was eligible.

I submitted my scholarship application within 2 weeks. After waiting another 3 weeks, I received an email from the Jardine Foundation, inviting me for a final interview in London at the Jardine house. The foundation would cover the cost of travel and put me up in a hotel for a night. At this point, I was thrilled, having made it to the final round of such a competitive scholarship. It was surreal, and I had to pinch my arm to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

I decided to stay a bit longer in London, to acclimatise myself with the enigma that is British weather. I had also never been to London before, so this was probably as good a time as any to visit (the nerves of an impending interview notwithstanding).

The Trip

Day 1

I flew out of Kuala Lumpur on the 30th of April, with a transit in Doha, before arriving in Heathrow in the afternoon. I had travelled against time, and I arrived in a sunny, but cold London afternoon.

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After checking into a small motel near Hyde Park, I took a walk around the neighbourhood. The one thing I was determined to eat was a proper Italian pizza, reminiscing of my exchange days in Torino. I found a relatively well-rated pizzeria, called the "Pizza Pilgrims", and without a second thought, I ordered a Margherita pizza. It was delicious!

I walked around Hyde Park without any aim. I started talking to myself, practising my answers to potential questions that could come up. I recited and re-recited my answers, never quite satisfied with the way I was articulating my ideas. There was so much I wanted to say, but I had to be concise, while also being convincing and engaging. It was a difficult balance to strike, on top of the general spontaneity that comes with interviews. These were some of the smartest people in the world, I wondered if I would be able to hold my own.

My last meal that day was a McPlant burger from McDonald's. The vegetarian options in the UK were a welcome surprise, and paired with a milkshake, it was a perfect end to a long day. I showered, watched a few episodes of "Silicon Valley", went through my interview notes, and browsed through Slack to see what I had missed at work. I then tucked in.

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Day 2

T - 1. I woke up at about 7am, showered and started putting away my things. I was due to checkout early, and move my things to the next hotel (the one the Jardine Foundation had booked for me).

I packed up my big luggage, and dragged it into the tube, to Marble Arch, where I would be staying at the Thistle hotel. I registered at the front desk, and left my luggage with the concierge. I then took the tube to Leicester Square, where I would be meeting my uncle for lunch. Surprise, surprise, we ended up at Saravana Bhavan. We had two big thalis, and I was stuffed.

After walking around Trafalgar Square, I went back to the hotel, checked in, unpacked and sat down to collect my thoughts. What followed was one of the most anxious evenings of my life. I flipped through my notes, be it on my research interests, career goals or even on international relations and global politics. Various articles online by past scholars portrayed different lines of questioning, but most of these students intended to study law, economics or philosophy. What was a computer science student doing here, and what could they ask me?

I did my best, lost track of time, and realised it was already 9:30pm. I still hadn't had dinner, and I was hungry. I was due to wake up very early the next morning, so I didn't want to eat too much nor drink that can of coke that was in the mini-fridge. Donning a thick coat, I went out in search of a quick meal. This was a very expensive area, and most shops in the UK close early. There was one place open though - Pizza Hut. I ordered a vegetarian pizza and garlic bread, before heading back to the hotel, showering and turning in for the night.

The night was long, and I couldn't sleep. I was tossing and turning, twiddling with the heating, and trying to find a comfortable position. I was tired, but my mind was racing. I was anxious, but I was also excited. I was scared, but I was also hopeful - ok that's enough. My heart was pounding, and I was sweating despite the single-digit temperatures outside. The night did end, when my first alarm rang at 5:00am the next morning. It was D-day.

Day 3

I didn't sleep great last night, so it was only natural that I was up before the first of the 20 alarms I had set. I puttered around the room, rather anxiously. I made a few calls to my parents and my friend, Ibrahim, who was in Melbourne.

I ironed my suit, hopped into the shower, and got dressed. I had leftover pizza from the night before, but decided to not eating anything until after the interview.

It was time to leave, I turned on Google Maps, and started walking towards the Jardine House in Grosvenor Square. Dusk in Mayfair was a vibe. It was cool and breezy, and the streets were empty. It was still 8 a.m., and I had about a half hour to kill, so I bought a croissant from a nearby cafe, and paid an outrageous £3 for it.

A few more calls came, from my grandfather and sister. I walked in circles, before ringing the bell at Jardine house.

Someone was already there, a law student who had a final exam in about 2 days. He walked into the room, donning a full suit, before sitting down and opening his laptop. Tea and biscuits were on offer, but I didn't have an appetite. I was too nervous to eat, it had to wait.

The secretary of the Jardine foundation summoned me into the underground room, where the interview would be held. The panel of 5 was already seated, and I was asked to sit down. It was time.

Questions encompassed my research proposal, my 10-year plan, Sambal SOS, and general leadership questions. With the exception of the deep dive into my research proposal, I was prepared to answer most questions. These were exceptional people, and regardless of the outcome, I had new ideas about improving my research proposal. While I was able to answer every question, I had a pre-conceived list of items I was determined to bring up during the interview, with the hope that they would act in my favour and supplement what's on the paper in front of them.

But that's how interviews go, you never know what they will ask, and you never know (well you might if you are come) how you will react, in that moment. It was all a quick blur, fuelled by an aggressive adrenaline rush.

The interview ended a bit earlier than the stipulated time of 30 minutes (about 20-25 minutes). This worried me, as short interviews mean one of two things - they have already made up their mind, or they have already made up their mind. I didn't know which, and it rarely ever acts in one's favour. I was escorted out of the room, and I was told that I would hear back in about 2 weeks.

It was over. I was relieved. I returned to the sitting room and poured myself a tall glass of water, as I greeted new interviewees arriving. I still had to return to the hotel to checkout, but I wanted to stay a bit longer...to find out if my interview duration was the norm. The other two I observed were in the room for slightly longer, much closer to 30 minutes. I was worried, but there was nothing I could do anymore.

I returned to the hotel, checked out, called my friend whining about how the interview went, and returned to the venue, for lunch.

This was an opportunity to mingle. The entire panel, and the full suite of interviewees were there. This may have been a golden opportunity to strike interesting conversations and bring up everything I prepared but didn't get to say. It went well, I was happy, I covered ground and most importantly, I met some truly exceptional people.

Deep down, everyone wants it, and everyone is remarkable in their own way. All of them had led incredible lives, and planned to study law, theology, philosophy, engineering and biology.

I walked back to the hotel, picked up my bags and took the tube to the tower bridge, where I would be staying for the next 2 nights. I picked up the room keys from the owner of the apartment, used the washroom, and headed off to the nearest pizza place.

I enjoyed the pizza, watched an episode of Silicon Valley, and started walking around London. I covered Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, Big Ben and the Parliament House, London Bridge. I took selfies, and I was happy. I was in London, and I was happy. It didn't matter what the outcome of the interview was, I was alone in London.

I thought a lot about what would happen if I got the scholarship, and what I would be doing if I didn't. I thought about the people I met, and the stories they told. I thought about the places I had been to, and the places I would go.

I was in London, and I was happy.

Day 4

Today, I intended to head up to Cambridge. Brian messaged me early in the morning, asking how the interview went. I didn't give a great review, and I didn't really have the mood to go to Cambridge. I just wanted to sleep it off and head back home.

I walked into a nearby pub, and ordered a full "vegan" English breakfast and a hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was remarkable, and the breakfast was decent. After a couple of calls, I decided to go to Cambridge anyway.

I hopped on a bus, while booking Greater Anglia train tickets on my phone. I arrived in Cambridge at about 1pm, and the weather was immediately dreadful. It was cold, windy and rainy, and my bag wasn't waterproof. Google Maps was on, I started walking in the rain, while everything got wet.

I waited in a nearby pizzeria and dried off, before touring the rest of Cambridge by bus and foot. I visited King's College, Trinity College, Newton's tree, the Cavendish Laboratory, and the Computer Laboratory, where I would hopefully be spending the next year. The architecture was incredible and everything was quiet because it was exam season.

At about 5, I took a bus back to the train station, and headed back to London.

Day 5

(You can probably tell I'm getting tired of writing this, so I'll keep it short)

On my last day, I:

  • Toured the tour bridge, and did touristy things like taking selfies and helping others take photos
  • Picked up some t-shirts from my friend's sister in Holborn
  • Ate the trip's last McPlant at the nearby McDonald's
  • Checked out of my room
  • Bought some tea finger biscuits and Scottish shortbread from the nearby Sainsbury's
  • Hopped on the Elizabeth line to Heathrow and flew back to Kuala Lumpur

That was it, a super-eventful 5 days in London. Within 2 days of returning, while doing laundry, I received an email from the Jardine Foundation, offering me the scholarship. I was ecstatic, and I couldn't believe it.

I was going to Cambridge, I had made it. This whole experience was incredible, and travelling alone makes you realise a lot about yourself. I built grit, determination, and resilience, all of which I would need in the coming years.

To Cambridge, and beyond 🚀!