Updated: Feb 19
In the first of a series looking at previous winners of Descendants Achievement Awards, Lady Gabrielle Ashong, winner of the Descendants Dr John Roberts CBE QC Achievement Award 2019 speaks to Margaret Noel, founder of Descendants…
“You study in Abu Dhabi? How did you end up there?” are some of the many questions I get every time I tell someone about my University.
The truth is, these questions are more complicated to answer than they seem. I did not suddenly wake up one morning and land a scholarship to go to New York University Abu Dhabi. This opportunity follows from long nights, countless rejections, failures and perseverance.
During my high school career, I was not considered a high achiever or the smartest student in the class. Instead, I was considered a passive student who just went through school. Throughout high school, the assumptions of others consumed me, and, for a period of my life, I did believe in these low expectations that others had of me.
However, in year 9, I was lucky enough to find a great mentor in my mathematics teacher, Ms Kenda. She pushed me to work harder, challenge myself and always try to become a better student. At this time, I was in one of the lowest sets for mathematics, set 4. This class defined the exams I could take, my GCSE selection and my overall future opportunities. Being in this class meant that I could only take the foundation GCSE paper, which ultimately would mean that I could not complete an A-level in maths.
Yet, till this day, I do not know what Ms Kenda saw in me amongst the other students. She gave me an opportunity few teachers did not when she moved me to a higher math class, and I relished that chance. In one year, I independently learnt the entirety of the higher math specification, a task which usually takes twice the time for teachers to teach. Despite being in the considered lower sets, I achieved one of the best GCSE’s in my class. From that day on, I saw the power Ms Kenda saw in me all those years ago.
Though it was a shame that I needed a piece of paper to confirm my virtue to those around me and myself, I am grateful for the lesson I learnt. The lesson that assumptions of others or sets did not define me and that I could accomplish anything with hard work. I went from once being a doubted set 4 math student to studying A level maths, physics and photography at sixth form. However, even at the age of sixteen, I knew that I wanted to be more than my grades. I knew that I had to be. I started to invest more time into my education, I applied to programmes that I once avoided because I discounted myself. Furthermore, I always aimed to be the hardest worker in the room.
Going to America
A particular programme which changed my life was the Sutton trust US programme. I applied to the Sutton Trust US programme knowing that it was highly competitive. I had no idea that I would have been successful. However, I understood that if I did not apply for the programme, the rejection was inevitable. As a result, instead of being scared of failure, I took the chance and I was successful.
During my time on the programme, I met outstanding students from around the United Kingdom. Some students had started non-profits and other students had received magnificent national awards. It was easy to feel undeserving in comparison to the other students. However, I would always remember where I came from and what I had already achieved. Those thoughts are what kept me going.
During my US week, I had the chance of staying at Princeton University as well as visit to other prestigious universities such as Harvard, Bryn Mawr, Vassar and the University of Pennsylvania. After my phenomenal US week, I knew that I wanted to study at a US institution. The liberal arts curriculum was exceptional, like none that I had seen in UK Universities. I knew that a US curriculum would challenge me, provide a marvellous opportunity to study abroad and give me the flexibility to explore my options. However, I also wanted a unique cultural engagement.
On November 1st 2018, I applied to New York University Abu Dhabi. With an admissions rate of 2.1percent, I knew how selective and competitive the University was. However, I sent my application to the school because I knew it was an opportunity. I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to Abu Dhabi for an interview. On December 5th, I travelled by myself for the first time to a part of the world that I’d never imagined I would visit. Sitting on that plane, I did not believe how many opportunities a simple application to the Sutton Trust US Programme had given me. Even better, I could not understand the successes that letting go of doubt brought.
On December 14th, I received news that I would be part of NYUAD class of 2023. I also received a full-ride scholarship to attend the school, saving my family from financial hardship. December 14th was one of the happiest days of my life. I remember sitting on the carpet in my bedroom reflecting on the journey which had led me here. I pondered over the people who had believed in me and the ones who had not, my countless failures and successes, the times I felt like giving up and the many hours I spent working to be successful. Despite all of my initial setbacks, I became the first-ever student at Dormers Wells to successfully be accepted by the Sutton Trust as well as to study abroad. Although my journey is still not over, so far, I have learnt that success is not limited to who you are or where you are from.
Success is not limited
I came from a single-parent background, lived in a rough inner-city, and did not go to the best state school, yet I became the first person in my family to attend University. Therefore, success is not limited to those who doubt us or even those who encourage us. Instead, it is limitless and defined by the actions we take in response to our doubters and believers as well as the people we know we can be.
Studying in Abu Dhabi has been a great milestone for me but I know that with determination and perseverance, there are many more to come.