Nic Paton meets this year's winners of the scholarships offered by Durham Business School and 'The Independent' – and finds out what the awards mean to them

Back in October 2008, Gary Bishop was waiting to go into a meeting when he idly picked up a copy of The Independent. "Leadership is something I have been fascinated by over the past 10 years, and when I opened the newspaper it just crystallised in my mind that I needed to do an MBA as part of the next phase of my life," recalls the 37-year-old former Salvation Army strategic development officer.

What Bishop had seen was an advertisement for the scholarship competition run by this newspaper and Durham Business School, Now in its fourth year, it funds three students to do either a full-time, executive or distance learning MBA through the school.

With fees ranging from just over £12,000 for Durham's distance-learning MBA to £19,000 for the full-time course, the money that can be saved through securing a scholarship or bursary is not to be sniffed at. Yet sometimes students don't realise the extent of the financial help that may be available. They fail to ask or simply assume they will be ineligible.

"I knew I did not have the money to pay for an MBA myself but I went home and immediately applied for it," says Bishop, who is in the process of launching a social enterprise called JUSTlife that works with young and vulnerable people in Manchester. He started the Durham distance learning MBA this month.

It's a similar story for the other winners of this year's scholarships, which in total are worth more than £50,000. Durga Nair, a former head of capability with Levi Strauss in India, was contemplating having to sell her house outside Mumbai before winning the scholarship to come on the full-time course from this September.

"I would have done the MBA even if I had not got the scholarship but it would have taken a heavy toll. I had no back-up plan," explains Nair, 33, currently an HR consultant in Delhi.

As it is she will be uprooting herself from her home and family for a year to do the course – but believes the sacrifice is more than worthwhile. "It will be hard to be away from my husband and my daughter, who will turn 12 this year, but it has been my ambition to do this for a long time," she says."I also felt that doing it full-time will help me really to focus on the course. It is only a year and I will just need to get through it," she adds.

Another of this year's winners, Ciaran Gallagher, 36, who runs a Newcastle upon Tyne consultancy called Social Care Associates that advises local authorities on policy and performance issues, and started the executive MBA programme this month agrees that getting the scholarship was a huge relief. "Without it, it would have been beans on toast for two years," he says.

"While the money is important, what was also important was the recognition that someone believed in me," Gallagher says. "It is quite a motivational thing too because now I have to do it and do it to the best of my ability."

While the natural reaction in a recession may be to sit tight and keep your head down, a downturn can be a good window of opportunity in which to do an MBA, argues Professor Rob Dixon, dean of Durham Business School.

Having an MBA under your belt can leave you better placed not only to avoid being shown the door, but also to make the most of any opportunities that might come your way when things do pick up.

One of the key attributes the panel look for when handing out the Independent/Durham scholarships is evidence of leadership potential, he says.

"Our goal is to help develop people to become leaders in both society and business and to make a real difference in today's challenging business environment. Strong leaders with a vision for change who also understand the need for transparency and accountability will be more important than ever," Dixon argues.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, you need to focus very clearly on what it is the judging panel wants from you, says Bishop.

"It is about sitting down and working out the pitch that is right for you. You do need to sell yourself but you also need to get a few wise heads around you – for example, I sent the pitch to some of my mentors – because it is no good saying something that is not true about yourself. You also need to hear what people are saying about you."

With the Independent/Durham application essay limited to 500 words, it is very important to be concise and make every word count, says Ananya Mukhopadhyay, chief of global R&D at Italian automation firm Danieli, and distance learning winner in 2007.

"I took a long time on my essay. There was a lot of rewriting and correcting and I got advice from people to see how it read and make sure it met the word restriction," he says.

"I wrote about what I had achieved professionally in my career but also what I had done within society. I, for example, mentored many young engineers when I was at Tata Steel and I have been involved with the Honey Bee Network, which helps Indian entrepreneurs," says Mukhopadhyay, who is due to complete his MBA next year.

Don't just repeat what is on your CV, advises Nair. "It took me four days to refine it and I passed it around various close friends to critique. Doing the essay actually inspired me to want to do the MBA even more. I focused on my determination to do this and the journey I have taken," she says.

All three of this year's winners hope and expect that doing an MBA will change their lives forever, either by helping them to build their businesses or acting as a catalyst to propel them into more senior positions, with the financial cushion of the scholarship making a huge difference.

As Gallagher puts it: "When I found out I had won I felt elation and relief, I just could not believe it. The only other thing I have ever won in life is £10 on the lottery. It was the best Christmas present I could have dreamed of."