Harriet Swain meets two winners of this year's Durham MBA/Independent Newspaper Scholarship competition

Des Pratt works for Transport for London (TFL) but the journey he begins this year, as winner of a part-time scholarship run jointly by Durham Business School and the Independent to study business, could take him far beyond the M25.

That doesn't just mean the regular weekend trips he will need to make to the North-east of England to take up his place, awarded in the Durham MBA/Independent Newspaper Scholarship Competition. Pratt, 40, who works as a strategy development manager for London Underground, fled Sierra Leone as a result of the civil war that was devastating the country, and his ambition is eventually to return.

"Having been here for more than 13 years, I have come to the point where I need to look at what I can give back to my country," he says. "I want to go back at a respectable level."

Achieving an MBA, he says, will give him the insight into the business world, knowledge of the private sector, broad experience and enhanced CV necessary to do that.

Pratt is one of three winners of the competition. Daniel Ludgate starts his distance learning MBA this month, while the winner of the full-time MBA will be announced later in the year.

Gioia Pescetto, associate dean, postgraduate studies, at the Business School, and one of the competition judges, says that because the scholarships on offer are for full fees, they attract applicants from many different backgrounds. But their main emphasis is not on diversity. Nor, unlike other scholarships at the school, do they concentrate exclusively on academic qualifications. Instead, the aim of the Independent scholarships is to identify leadership potential, and candidates are asked to write an essay explaining why they would make good leaders.

"The business school promotes itself as a maker of leaders," she says. "We want to help people in terms of promoting their education so that they can become leading people in society and in a business environment, and we hope that that will filter back to us in later years."

Pratt has long believed in the importance both of learning and of making a contribution to society. Married with one child, he gained a first degree in history from Fourah Bay College, part of the University of Sierra Leone, and then a diploma in finance from the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants), which he took through London Guildhall University.

His interest in social responsibility dates back to his student days, when he was president of the Rotaract Club, an organisation promoting service to the community. "We weren't students of extreme means but even so we were able to pull our limited resources together to contribute to improve the lot of other people less fortunate than ourselves," he says - all the more impressive since his time as president coincided with his final year of studies. He suspects that it was his organisational skills, determination and optimism in juggling these two demands that impressed the scholarship judges.

He will need all these skills in juggling study with his work at Transport For London, family life and numerous outside interests, which include fundraising for a school in Sierra Leone, as well as supporting Arsenal. But studying for an MBA has been a long-held ambition - the only obstacle being finding the money to do it - so he couldn't believe it when he heard about the scholarship.

Equally taken by surprise was Ludgate, who happened to hear that he had been awarded the distance learning scholarship on the day he was due to travel to Durham University for an open evening. "It was a strange day because from just going up thinking I was finding out a bit more about the MBA, I found I was already all signed up," he says.

Ludgate, 27, tactical manager for the Energy Saving Trust advice centre in the North East, has already taken evening classes through the Chartered Management Institute and attended a summer Essentials of Management Course at Henley Management College. It was there that he began thinking about studying for an MBA.

He wrote his winning competition essay as if it were an Independent feature from the year 2036, in which his 57-year-old self was interviewed about his successful career. It described how studying for the MBA had given him the skills to pursue a successful career in renewable and low carbon energy technology, and eventually to set up a centre of excellence in the North East.

An environmental technology graduate of Durham University, Ludgate helped to set up Tees and Durham Energy Advice Company Limited (TADEA) three years ago as a non-profit organisation that provides impartial advice to residents on using energy more efficiently and works to increase the number of suppliers of renewable energy sources.

From an early age, since watching David Attenborough, he has had a passion for the natural world. "I like to think the work I am doing will keep it in good shape," he says.

Past winners echo this determination to leave a mark for good on the world. Diana Frías, who ends her year on the full-time scholarship this September, says she would like to go into social entrepreneurship. A former corporate credit analyst with Banamex-Citigroup in Mexico, she has also organised and trained community teenage groups in the past. "I think that there is a lot to do applying business in social development," she says.

Martin Hrezo, winner of last year's distance learning scholarship, says he too wants to put something back, and is eager to contribute to the development of his country and company, which has supported him throughout the course. He also plans to gain experience abroad. "I believe that the Durham MBA will help to open these opportunities for me," he says. He was the youngest divisional head in VSE, a Slovakian electricity company, when he heard that he had been awarded the scholarship - "one of the nicest Christmas presents I have ever got".