Interview with John Kuot, Fulbright Scholar

5 Jul 2022

IPAA Victoria’s African-Australia Community of Practice (CoP) interviewed Fulbright Scholar John Kuot on his experience in the VPS and how he got the opportunity to study in the USA for a year.

John Kuot

John Kuot is a multidisciplinary professional with extensive experience across finance, government, technology, and the community sector.

John is a Fulbright scholar, recently completing a Masters of Economic Policy at Columbia University. Prior to this he was a Principal Adviser with the Victorian Government and was previously a lending specialist with Westpac Banking Corporation. John is a Williamson alumnus, holds a Master of Business Administration from RMIT and is a non-executive board member of Family Planning Victoria. He also established the South Sudanese Australian Youth United (SSAYU), a youth-led organisation to support South Sudanese young people in Victoria.

Kevin Kapeke, a member of IPAA Victoria’s African-Australian CoP Committee interviewed John Kuot on his reflections on the Fulbright program and his career journey.

My main motivation upon joining the VPS was to diversify this sector. I really don’t think we see people like us in managerial positions and I certainly didn’t during my time. There were very few of us back then.
— John Kuot

What motivates you and keeps you engaged in the work you do?

I am motivated by working in my committee first and foremost. I have been very privileged to work with the SSAYU, which I did for several years. I also had the opportunity to work with the Incubate Foundation, where I helped set up the very first Hackathon event. Our event was an intensive workshop that targeted 18–25-year-old African Australians to come together to learn how to transform an idea into a profitable business using current social issues impacting the African Australian community as a test subject. This idea was born out of winning a Hackathon when I was studied in Jakarta, Indonesia, as part of my MBA years prior. Combined with having my start-up at the time, I thought one way I could tackle many community problems is applying innovation to them – and the Hackathon helped!

Further, being part of the Victorian Government over the past four years working across the Department of Education, having set up the first education program in prison through Parkville college in 2018 was quite motivating for me.

So ultimately, finding ways to work and benefit from my community and working with like-minded people gives me joy. I’ve been fortunate to find great mentors throughout my career. People such as Zione Walker- Nthenda (IPAA AA CoP Executive Committee Member) have been a great assistanceeover the years.

In your experience over the last 10 years, what has been a highlight that sticks out even to this day?

I think joining the public service was life-changing for me. Many of us in the community can observe problems and complain about policy, however, not many of us get to roll up our sleeves and work and see the work we’re doing come to life. Nothing can compare to this experience – at least not yet!

What do you wish you had known ten years ago that you know now?  

There is one thing I wish I had known earlier, and there are no ways of going around it.

In this sector, and the corporate world at large, relationship building is very important. For better or for worse, relationships matter more than technical skills. I have seen some very skilled people suffer because they didn’t know how to pivot between departments and work with other people.

I think people need to be constantly reminded that "people matter". It’s great to have a full resume. However, that is a small proportion of your work. Most of your work will be determined by a person – not your skills.

You were awarded the prestigious Fulbright Scholar in 2021 to complete a Master of Public Administration at Columbia University in New York. How did that opportunity come about? 

I have been very fortunate over the past few years to have met people who have given me information to build my capacity better. One of my goals over the last few years was to study overseas! Particularly after finishing my MBA, one thing I also didn’t want to do was pay for another course! These institutions are incredibly expensive, and I knew I couldn’t afford them. You will find in our community that the academic requirements are not the problem, it’s the finances that stop most people from trying.

I remember the saying: you can’t be what you can’t see. So, when I met a fellow African and Fullbright scholar Professor Stephane Shepherd, he encouraged me to apply for the scholarship. He explained the entire process with patience and kindness. I wouldn’t have even attempted this if I was by myself. That mentorship really meant a lot to me.

Now my role is to ensure I am not the last person in our community to obtain a Fullbright scholarship, and that other young people from our community get the opportunity to do it too.

Exploring the impact a mentor had on your journey, what are some qualities that mentors of yours have that have impacted how you work and approach the world today?

First, it is a privilege to have people in your corner who you can call at any time and give you great advice without asking for anything in return.

People like Zione and Professor Shepherd have been incredible in my life.

My mentors are doers. They don’t complain or try to find shortcuts. It’s not that they don’t face difficulty, because they do, but they just don’t give up or cut corners. Unfortunately, when things get hard, people always try to find shortcuts.

They are also very kind. They can shoulder the burden of others and again don’t complain. They are willing to put down their burden to ensure that someone else has an easier path.

Lastly, having ambition and drive is very important. It is motivating!

What are some challenges young people face when trying to find work nowadays, and what advice do you have for them?

Well, it’s hard because every organisation wants a young person with over 10 years' experience, only to be offered an entry-level salary. There are very few ways around it, unfortunately – however, I will tell you how I navigated this and came out on top.

Let me start by saying I DO NOT recommend this to anyone particularly because it is not easy.

Whilst completing my undergraduate degree, I studied and worked full-time. I have never in my life been more exhausted and stretched. By the time I graduated, my friends were looking for graduate roles, and I was using my four years’ experience to find a more senior role in my sector.

However, it is also important to understand how different industries work. A lot of people leave university with content knowledge but have a very limited understanding of how the industry is positioned. Those who understand the system thrive because they find the path of least resistance as opposed to those who only study and expect a role to be waiting for them at the end.

Lastly, in my experience, people from my community tend to shy away from more technical degrees when they are deciding what to study. I find technical degrees offer you more knowledge, and you become a better problem solver. I reflect on my time in the United States, working with colleagues who had come with engineering degrees but became great at public policy. The practical application of what they do, allows them to be more adaptable.

Fulbright Scholarship announcement

The Fulbright scholarship is open to Australians from all walks of life who want to pursue further study and build their capacity in the United States of America.

If you are interested in studying or research in the United States in 2023, you should consider applying. Fulbright scholarship applications for Australian candidates are now open and closes on Wednesday 6 July 2022.

This article was written and prepared by the African-Australian Community of Practice network.