Harshitha Manjula Rajappa, from Shimoga in southern India, is a student at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. Growing up in a humble, conservative Indian household, the fact that she is studying mechanical engineering abroad is a big feat and she documents this whole journey on her Instagram blog.
Rajappa had won a STEM scholarship in April to pay for her education at Queen’s University Belfast. The scholarship by the Girl Up community and Noble Panacea (a luxury skincare brand) supports the global empowerment of girls’ development through education.
This isn’t the first time Rajappa has won a scholarship though. She had always had to work hard to find ways to fund her education. This first led to a full ride scholarship to complete her IB programme at an international school in her home country, where she would go on to win offers to several prestigious unis in the UK and Canada.
However, as she could not afford any of them, she had to decline them all. Then, by a stroke of luck meeting determination, she and her parents managed to find a way to fund her first year at Queen’s University Belfast through the institution’s scholarships. She also won the India Academic Excellence Award which cut her first year tuition in half.
Rajappa had planned to work and tutor part-time to come up with her second year’s tuition fees. The pandemic made this almost impossible. She is now running a fundraiser.
As part of the small percentage of women in STEM, she isn’t giving up on her dreams that she’s been discouraged many times to leave. Below we talk to this Queen’s University Belfast student on her life in Northern Ireland and where her passion for mechanical engineering came from:
Where does your interest in mechanical engineering come from?
I grew up in a conservative Indian household where something like mechanical engineering wasn’t considered the right choice for females. If I’m being completely honest, this motivated me to take on the challenge.
During my senior year in school, I slowly gained acute interest in maths. Therefore, engineering seemed like the practical choice to make given my financial background.
What made you choose to study at Queen’s University Belfast abroad in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland was something out of the blue for me. My financial disability forced me to reject the college acceptances I had. I then applied as a UCAS extra since there was a possibility of good scholarships available.
My parents could only afford to fund my first year so after a lot of struggle and strategising, I made the decision to study at Queen’s University Belfast. Furthermore, Belfast is also a relatively cheap city to live in.
Walk us through winning the STEM scholarship. What was the application process like?
Winning the scholarship was very unexpected for me. I’ve been applying to scholarships in vain for over a year. So, naturally, when I heard back from Girl Up I was elated.
It was a surreal feeling. The application process consisted of a number of essays and a video submission on my part along with a recommendation from a teacher.
I remember spending a lot of time on these to tailor my responses as accurately as possible. Ever since applying to colleges, writing essays has become a tedious affair.
During the process, I realised that even if you’re an excellent candidate, how precise you present yourself on paper is all that matters. Therefore, I try my best to portray my personality, motivations and struggles in the most real way possible.
What do you like most about the country?
Northern Ireland is pretty much home to me now. People here are polite and sweet. My favourite thing has to be the stunning visuals — you’re always a step away from the mountains and beaches.
List your top three favourite things about Belfast:
- Visiting the Belfast Harbour Marina: my favourite place. I go there with a cup of coffee and a good book
- Walking in the Botanic Park: I go quite a lot, especially when I’m in the McClay library. I like to take a break and sit under my favourite rhododendron tree
- Walking during late nights near the Spirit of Belfast: a public art sculpture near the city centre which I find immensely beautiful.
Besides your studies at Queen’s University Belfast, what memorable experiences can you share?
I moved here amidst a pandemic struggling from intense anxiety. The first four months here were a blur since I couldn’t get myself to function at all.
I moved all by myself (my flight here was the first time on an airplane) and I had multiple anxiety attacks. I also struggled to wake up on time and overall it was a terrible experience.
But then I overcame my fear of a lot of things, leased my first house, learnt how to cook and managed my schedule. Belfast is where I saw the worst gradually turn into something good and I saw myself grow. For that, I shall always consider this place home.
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Tell us a bit about your hometown.
Jog Falls is a waterfall on the Sharavathi River that’s a popular tourist attraction surrounded by lush greenery. Something I’d take you to eat is “paddu” (savoury steamed rice cake) at Meenakshi Bhavan restaurant.
Have you explored Northern Ireland?
I’ve explored a little around Belfast with my best friend. What stood out to me the most was Derry (also known as Londonderry). It was on my travel list for quite some time and I took a solo trip there in April. I documented this on my Instagram blog so you can check it out for yourself.
What’s the local food compared to home like? Tell us your most and least favourite.
I prefer Asian food mostly and I’m not the biggest fan of British or Irish food. Having said that, I love shortbread. If I had to compare, I’d say the spice levels are definitely much less than Indian food so I find myself adding hot sauce to everything I eat here.
What cultural sites have you explored there?
Elaborating on my Derry visit, I absolutely loved it. I’m not much of a history person but the history there piqued my interest.
Living in Northern Ireland, you can’t ignore the political and cultural nuances of the country. Derry represents the story of conflict, pain, suffering and resilience. The city’s wall (one of the longest closed circuit walls in Europe) carries immense significance.
Northern Ireland has a delicate integration of Irish and British culture and while it sometimes can be chaotic, it’s also thoroughly intriguing.
What’s something you miss from home and how do you substitute it?
I miss my best friends! I’ve known them over years and we’ve always been there for each other so moving away from them was very hard for me. There is no substitute for friends who are just a call away but we try to keep in touch as much as we can.
What advice do you have for international students looking to study in Northern Ireland?
I would advocate for this country as a great place for students. The living costs are low and the country is beautiful. There are tonnes of scenic places to visit and Belfast is the perfect combination of a bustling city and a friendly small town.
Maybe learn some Irish slang which could prove helpful. Other than that, my general advice would be to budget well and get out as much as possible. Moving away from home is a big change and can be difficult.
Therefore, it’s important to socialise and find your people. Learning to cook, do your own laundry and clearing are all great skills to acquire as well.
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Any tips for managing budgets abroad?
Be mindful of what you eat as takeout is costly. Eating home cooked meals will save you a lot of money.
Make a budget and stick to it. Make a list of all your priority spendings (bills, rent, personal expenses, groceries) and cut down whatever is not necessary.
Understand your eating habits so you don’t end up wasting food. Buy things you actually want to eat and balance your diet. Wasting food equals wasting money and you’ll save if you learn how to manage this.
Use public transport when you can and if things are at walking distance, use your legs! If there’s a place less than an hour away, I always choose to walk because taxis can burn a hole in your wallet.
Lastly, give us three fun facts about yourself:
I crack my joints a freakish amount, I have an insane spice tolerance and I have trypophobia.