When he had first heard about The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), Mr Sadman Sakib Rabbani couldn't believe it was real at first.
At the time, two years ago, he had been on a gap year to study for the public university entrance examinations in his country, starting the daily slog at 6am at a local coaching centre, and only returning home long after the sun had set.
Gruelling hours aside, the constant pressure from his parents to enter a local civil or electrical engineering programme, instead of his first love - computer science - was slowly taking its toll.
But one day, as the Bangladeshi scrolled absently through a Facebook page for students interested in studying abroad, a post by a PolyU student caught his eye.
A university with world-class tech labs and library facilities, the student had written. A scheme-based undergraduate programme that lets students choose their major only after their first year, giving them ample time to decide.
And of course, a huge international community with students from all over the world, including Singapore, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Vietnam, and of course, Bangladesh - all situated right in the heart of one of the world's financial centres, Hong Kong.
But the most attractive was the prospect of a full tuition scholarship. Students who qualify academically for the PolyU entry scholarships could have their entire tuition fees covered - as much as HKD145,000 (S$25,000) per annum - as well as receive a living stipend of HKD50,000, both of which are renewable annually, subject to academic attainment.
All this at a university that is top 100 in two world rankings - 66th on the QS World University Rankings 2022 and 91st in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022.
"Even the top universities in my country can't crack the top 1,000 universities in the world," says Mr Rabbani. "This was my chance to study at one of the best universities in the world - and fully paid for."
Attending a seminar held by PolyU's Global Engagement Office at a nearby hotel only served to reinforce his determination to get in, as he learned about the sheer number of internship and study abroad opportunities available to PolyU students.
"That day, I went home and told my parents that I would give them a degree from one of the top 100 universities in the world.
"They thought I was talking gibberish," he recalls.
But sure enough, Mr Rabbani's outstanding grades and visible passion for computer science during the interview eventually landed him the entry scholarship he had so deeply coveted.
Instead of having to support himself financially or rely on his parents, the scholarship gave him the financial freedom to pursue his various interests.
These include joining the PolyU chapter of Google Developer Student Club, or taking part in various techathons and hackathons like the Hong Kong Techathon 2021, where his team took first runners-up for their development of a smart cane to assist the physically- and visually-impaired on public transport.
Still, while Mr Rabbani has enjoyed the opportunities that Hong Kong has to offer, he has his sights firmly set further abroad.
"That's the thing about PolyU," he says. "If you're on scholarship, they'll cover the cost of you studying abroad too. So once you've been accepted, you don't have to worry about anything except your living expenses when you're there.
"So I can focus everything on the things that are really important, like networking or finding good internship opportunities," he continues, adding that even students studying abroad not on scholarship only have to pay regular PolyU school fees.
As international borders slowly reopen, Mr Rabbani hopes to be able to take his semester abroad at a university in Germany, Canada, Australia, or the United States, if the relaxation of travel restrictions continues on its current trajectory.
From McGill University to the University of Sydney to the Technical University of Munich, the list of universities he is applying for seems endless, thanks to the extensive list of partnerships that PolyU enjoys.
Service learning beyond borders
But PolyU's financial aid goes beyond just tuition fees and living expenses.
Just ask Malaysian Chinese Cheh Qiao Yun, a fourth-year PolyU student who has received financial aid to volunteer on two separate occasions.
At PolyU, all students are required to embark on a Service-Learning initiative at some point during their college career.
These range from providing optometry services and education to the elderly in local nursing homes, to establishing electrical infrastructure for underserved villages in Rwanda.
At the end of her first year, Ms Cheh opted for the Striving for Sustainable Livelihood initiative in Guangzhou, China, where she and her fellow PolyU students lived in a farming commune for two weeks to immerse themselves in a self-sustainable collective.
There, they learned about the struggles small-scale Chinese farmers face when competing against massive global corporations like Taobao, and how they kept themselves viable in the face of rising transportation fees.
In return, Ms Cheh and the other PolyU students helped them devise business strategies, such as advertising their products on WeChat, and diversify their product offerings, such as selling home-grown honey alongside traditional Chinese plum spreads.
The cost of this fortnight in the Guangdong countryside? Just HKD1,000 after subsidy by PolyU.
"Everything was included, like accommodation, air tickets, food, and transport," says Ms Cheh. "Even my friends who went to Rwanda probably only had to pay about HKD5,000."
And just two weeks after her farming stint, Ms Cheh found herself in the city of São José do Rio Preto, Brazil, teaching conservation and sustainability to children at kindergartens across the city for almost two months.
She had found the opportunity through non-governmental organisation AIESEC in PolyU, after seeing student members passing out flyers on campus.
Going to Brazil to volunteer was an opportunity not to be missed - but whether she could afford it was a different story entirely.
"I went to see what kind of funding I could get, and I discovered that the Student Affairs Office had awards for students looking to volunteer overseas," she says.
In the end, Ms Cheh received HKD7,000 and HKD3,000 from PolyU's Outreach Award and Global Awareness Award respectively.
A substantial amount, to be sure, but the opportunity to volunteer abroad was truly priceless.
In spite of being a linguistics and translation major, Ms Cheh lacked any background in Portuguese, providing a unique challenge for her when communicating with the locals.
To complicate matters, Ms Cheh was the only native English speaker on the team. The other members came from all over the world, with their grasp of English being rudimentary at best.
"It was really tough," she admits. "I spent the first week crying and wanting to go home, because I felt so alone."
But her perseverance eventually paid off. Ms Cheh surprised herself by finding similarities in Malay and Portuguese, and even learned some Spanish from her fellow team members who hailed from Mexico, with the resulting pidgin working well enough to serve as a temporary lingua franca.
It got to the point where on her final night in Brazil, Ms Cheh and her team shed tears and shared memories - in their fourfold mixture of English, Spanish, Malay and Portuguese - over bowls of mango sago dessert that they had made together.
Three years later, working as a business analytics and marketing intern for energy storage systems manufacturer Ampd Energy in Hong Kong, she finds herself still thinking about her time in Brazil.
She and her AIESEC volunteer group are still in close contact, with tentative plans to meet up in Mexico for the wedding of two of their team members. And occasionally, when she sees something that reminds her of her Brazilian host family, she'll send them a picture.
"If I hadn't gotten financial aid, I wouldn't have been able to go to Brazil," she says, noting that many of her friends who were saving up money for study abroad had to postpone their plans due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"It's what gave me the nerve to take that chance - and I'm really glad I did."
Applications for 2022-23 undergraduate programmes at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University are now open. Apply before Nov 25, 2021, 9:00am* for early consideration of a programme offered and scholarship. For more information visit https://www.polyu.edu.hk/geo/prospective-students/undergraduate/international/admissions_2022-23/