In early October, we had the honour to nominate Dominic for the CIFE 2020 Student of the Year Award. This week, we had a fantastic time catching up with him, learning more about his time at Ashbourne as well as how he is getting on at university.
How did you get to know about Ashbourne and what made you decide to study A levels in the UK?
I first got to know about Ashbourne through a Facebook advert about A-level scholarship interviews and tests that you held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Because Facebook is quite a casual place, I didn’t take it seriously at first, then I did some research about the school and I learned that Ashbourne is one of the best A level colleges in London. The Maths and English tests themselves were comfortable, especially for Asian students who have studied Maths rigorously all their lives. The interview was pretty straightforward too, but I don’t think I impressed Mike, the Principal, and Lee, the Director of Studies. The interviews were very casual and although I had a chance to express my love for Biology and my academic interests, I didn’t know a lot about the UK, the universities and the A-level programme back then. At the time, I wasn’t 100% sure about studying in the UK. I was considering several options including studying in another European country, in the States or even just continuing with my high school in Vietnam. I figured out a lot about the subjects, the universities that I want to study at, and many other things during my time at Ashbourne.
I didn’t expect to be accepted for a place at Ashbourne, let alone a 100% scholarship for the A level programme. However, even with the scholarship offer, moving to the UK for education was still a big decision for me. My mother and I were not so sure, so we talked with Lee and he managed to convince us. He said: “I cannot guarantee about the future, but you seem to be a very hardworking person, and hardworking students really thrive at Ashbourne.”
For me, in that moment of uncertainty and doubt, having the individual attention and someone who believed in me meant a lot. So I accepted the offer and started my journey in the UK.
Moving to a foreign country alone at such a young age (Dominic was 17 years old when he started at Ashbourne) is a bold decision. What hurdles and obstacles that you and your family overcame for you to make that decision?
Although I was a decent high-school student in Vietnam, I lacked in direction. Having the opportunity to move to the UK and study at Ashbourne to me was a fascinating change of environment that would push me further and allow me to discover more about myself.
Also, this is a bit personal, but within my family at the time, my mother and I were not on the best terms. So I thought if we lived far away from each other, we might change our perspective and appreciate each other more, which it did.
I had two choices: to stay safe and carry on my life in Vietnam with the lack of direction or to take a risk, having supportive people like the staff and teachers at Ashbourne around me and make a change. I’m really glad that I took the risk.
How did you find London when you first came? Tell us a bit more about your first few months settling in.
Because I received my offer in August 2018 and there was a lot of logistics to sort out, I decided to join Ashbourne in January 2019 instead of September 2018.
The first thing I told myself when I arrived in the UK is not to have an assumption about the people, the culture and keep a completely open mind. Thanks to that, I didn’t suffer from any cultural shock or the likes. However, one thing I wasn’t used to was to cope on my own. My mother is quite overprotective, so back when I was in Vietnam, I didn’t have to do household chores or take care of myself. I had never considered basic things like doing laundry or washing dishes part of my life.
When I first came to the UK, I didn’t have a bank account so I was carrying a significant amount of cash with me. The simple idea of depositing cash into a bank account was utterly foreign to me back then. I was carrying cash with me to the school and was sleeping with cash in my jacket at my shared student accommodation. Now I think about it, I was exposing myself to such an insanely dangerous situation. So after a few weeks, I finally came to speak to Lee and asked: “Where do I put this?”. You can imagine how shocked he was, but it was a hilarious situation, and we still bring it up in our conversations these days. Lee and the college staff helped me open a bank account after that. Academically, I didn’t encounter any difficulties, but it was the little yet essential things like opening a bank account that required me to adapt.
Three weeks after I joined, we did mock exams in various subjects. I had to catch up with the syllabus since I joined in January while revising for the test. I got mostly B’s but my teachers were very encouraging and understanding of my situation. They congratulated me and reassured me that B’s were already good results for a Jan-start student like me. Lee, in particular, although he always sets high expectations for students, he is also very realistic and compassionate. That left a huge impact on me and was a very different experience from what I had in Vietnam. My teachers truly cared for me, and I was motivated to work harder and move forward.
What do you consider your best memories of your time at Ashbourne?
I got very close to my teachers and had a lot of good laughs with them. In my first year, I went on the Paris trip and I got to know Sean (Sean Pillai, Deputy Head of Sixth-Form) better. I also occasionally visited Lee’s office for a chat and just generally catching up on my progress in and outside Ashbourne. He also invited me to the laser tag activity with other students in February, and it was great fun.
However, I would say the best memories happened in my second year. When I was most academically stressed and having to worry about my university application, I also had the best memories and time with my teachers.
Chris Mutter from the Admissions Team was helping me with my university application. During my time working with Chris, I learnt that we like the same football team, Tottenham Hotspur. On the day before I went to Cambridge for my interview, I got two football tickets for free before I signed up for a giveaway. People pay at least £100 or more for these tickets, but I got them for free! I rushed into Chris’s office and invited him to join me. “It is not the most important thing you should worry about right now, but thank you for the invitation!”, he told me.
We went to the match in the end, and luckily, it was after my interviews had concluded. It was the perfect opportunity to unwind and we had a great time. I look forward to attending another match with Chris.
It isn’t exaggerating to call you a “scholarship hunter”. Not only you joined Ashbourne on a 100% scholarship, you also secured the prestigious and extremely competitive Jardine Foundation’s Scholarship for 100% of tuition fee for your course at Cambridge University. Tell us about how you applied for the scholarship and any advice or tips you have for other applicants.
When I talked to Lee about my application at Ashbourne on a later date, he actually told me that my academic merits at the time would not qualify me for the 100% scholarship. However, what Lee could see in me was the progress that I made. I came from relatively unique family background. My father passed away before I was born; my other two brothers also passed away. Lee saw in me the potential and resilience, and he believed that I could achieve great things in Ashbourne’s environment where I would constantly be pushed and challenged.
About the Jardine Foundation’s scholarship, one of the criteria is what you can contribute to society. I stated that I wanted to help Asian, particularly Vietnamese Science, prosper. Being a scientist in the UK or Europe is very different from being a scientist in Vietnam. I believe Vietnam already have the right people with the same intellectual capabilities, but we don’t have the right infrastructure and foundation yet, such as a world-renowned university or research institution that the whole world looks up to. What if I make this happen? What if when the next pandemic takes place, it will be a research facility in Vietnam coming out with the first effective vaccines?
If I have any message for other applicants, I would say: be ambitious, don’t come across as arrogant but you should be able to talk about your ambitions with passion and sincerity.
Did you spend a lot of time in deciding which university to apply? How did you find Ashbourne’s support in that process?
I’m most grateful for Lee and Sean. In November 2019, Lee and Sean asked me which universities I wanted to apply to. I was not very confident at the time, so I replied with the University of East Anglia. Both of them looked at me and burst into laughter. I was thinking: “Is it still too hard for me to get into?”. They went on that they believed I could go much further than that. No offence to UEA but it is nowhere near where I am now. They really pushed me and encouraged me to feel more confident about myself. Without Lee and Sean’ trust and encouragement, I would have never got into Cambridge University.
I put Cambridge University down as my first choice because I really like the flexibility that its Natural Sciences course offers. It’s essentially the same course but you have Physics modules, Biology modules and even Chemistry. If after the first year I realise that I prefer Material Science over BioChemistry, I will have the flexibility to do so. The course’s faculty believes that modern sciences require a lot of collaboration among these disciplines.
I also participated in the Oxbridge Programme at Ashbourne where students receive extra support with their applications. I received advice from Will Stockland on which college within Cambridge University I should apply for. The best part of the programme was the mock interviews. It wasn’t necessarily about the academic contents that you need to cover, because quite frankly you cannot expect what will be thrown at you once you enter the interview room with these prestigious universities. What matters was the mentality preparation, the thought process to approach these questions and the boost in confidence through the mock interviews.
Looking back at your 18 months at Ashbourne, who would you say have the biggest impact on you?
I would say that’s Lee. He was the one who convinced me to join Ashbourne and start this incredible journey in the first place. Throughout my time at Ashbourne, although Lee doesn’t know my subjects Biology or Chemistry inside out, he taught me how to approach the interview, the sort of attitude and confidence I needed to have. When I applied for my Jardine Foundation’s scholarship, Lee made me do 4 hours of mock interviews on a Saturday afternoon. It was supposed to be his day off, but he called me in and we spent 4 hours practising in his office. When I had my first attempt, he said it was so bad. I was crying inside doubting how much improvement I could make in one afternoon. Lee often comes across friendly and casual, but he also sets very high expectations when it comes to an application like this. But we made it in the end, and I am so grateful that he set the right mentality for me approaching these applications.
I would also love to meet other teachers and staff again: Amy, my Biology teacher and Sean, my Maths teacher.
How are you getting on at Cambridge? So far, did the course meet your expectations?
Due to the COVID-19 situation, of course, it is no normal university experience. But I would say it has been as I expected. It’s the same level of independence and you have a lot of freedom to plan and structure your own study. The workload is immense. I do at least 7 hours of work every day, but still feel like I’m not doing enough. Cambridge University has done pretty well on COVID-19 measures though. We have weekly COVID tests. Even if you show no symptoms, you can still be tested. That’s very reassuring.
I was not caught by surprise with any aspect of my university experience so far. Part of it is thanks to my Ashbourne teachers. They were a student themselves, and they used to talk to us about university life.
In terms of the course, I really like it so far. They teach me essential scientific skills, including report writing, as well as applicable Mathematics. The workload is heavy but I know everything I’m learning is significant to become a scientist.
What is your career aspiration following your completion of the course at Cambridge?
I want to do research. For Natural Sciences students like me, there are generally two routes after graduation: either industry where I work for a company or research. I prefer research because it is less money-driven. Of course, you need grants to carry out research, but the aim is to discover more about Science. In my opinion, working for a company is more competitive. I prefer scientific research to be done independently and every scientist to have a fair chance to learn about the truth of Science.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview today. Everyone at Ashbourne is very proud of you and how far you have come since you first came to the UK. We wish you the very best with your study and we look forward to catching up with you again soon.
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