Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge: how private foundations are helping young Czechs study at world’s top universities

John Harvard statue at the Harvard University campus

Every year, a small number of Czech foundations help bright and talented young people to study abroad at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. As well as the huge financial obstacle that these top schools present, especially to international students, the admissions procedures are notoriously tough, not to mention the additional cultural and linguistic obstacles for foreign applicants. But attending an internationally-renowned institution can be a game-changer for them.

The book about cancer by Nina Formánek Jaganjacová | Photo: Sifty 52

Nina Formánek Jaganjacová has an impressive CV – born in Bosnia but raised in Prague, at 34 she is the author of a book about cancer and the founder of Sifty, a non-profit organisation that provides education and raises awareness around health. But she says she couldn’t have done all that without her Master’s degree from The London School of Economics (LSE), one of the UK’s most prestigious universities.

“I don’t think I could have, actually. Because after LSE I went to work in the health sector at the European Commission in Luxembourg, and the name of LSE and institutions like it is something that really gives you credit and everything that goes with it. They view you as someone who is capable. I always felt like it’s a bit of a pre-selection for all these big international organisations.”

Nina was helped on her journey by the Bakala Foundation – one of the Czech private funds helping the country’s best and brightest get a world-class education and fulfil their potential. Without the financial support they receive, many of these students would not be able to afford to go in the first place, even those who aren’t from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds, says Jana Wittbergerová, the foundation’s Scholarship Program Manager:

“School is so expensive that we support students from regular Czech families as well. The need for financial aid is one of the criteria besides academic excellence. But it’s not necessarily just for students from poorer families.”

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The online application is complex and time-consuming, but also rigorous – of the roughly 180 applications the foundation receives per year, they are only able to provide support to about 10-15 students. But these lucky hopefuls get support throughout their entire academic studies, as long as they maintain good results. Nina says that the foundation helped her not only financially, but also with the parts of her university application that she didn’t feel her Czech high school prepared her for, like her personal statement.

“What do I write, how do I do it? Because I don’t feel like Czech students are taught how to sell themselves. And I think that’s one of the things that the foundation can really help with.”

Scholarship alumni like Nina are crucial to getting the word out about the foundation and also to encouraging young people to apply or even to think about studying abroad in the first place, but there are other ways the foundation tries to reach them, says Jana Wittbergerová.

“Through outreach – we go to schools and talk to students. And then because we already have a lot of alumni, they talk to the students at their alma maters, so that helps us as well. But mostly, reaching students in the regions would be through our social media.”

Oxford | Photo: SJPrice,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Like Nina, most students applying for funding from the Bakala Foundation want to study in English-speaking countries – although the foundation has seen more interest in other places of late, she says.

“With prices being so high and after Brexit, we’ve seen more students applying to countries like the Netherlands, France, Germany and Switzerland. But the United States and the United Kingdom are still the most sought-after countries.”

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But as far as Nina is concerned, she couldn’t talk more highly about her experience abroad:

“I absolutely loved LSE and everything I experienced there. It really helped me a lot. I did my Master’s degree there and my Bachelor’s degree here in Prague, so I had a very good comparison. I felt it was very personal – they knew who I was at LSE and why they selected me for the programme. Also, they taught me how to speak and write academically, which for me was the biggest difference – I felt like, ‘ok, these guys are really here to help me learn something. It’s not that I’m begging them to teach me some stuff that I am supposed to remember.’ When you need something, they are really equipped to help you learn as much as you want and need.”