As a little girl in not one but two refugee camps – first in Ethiopia, then Kenya – Nyadol Nyuon would plead and pray to a higher power to let her become a lawyer. As soon as her family was approved to come to Australia in 2005, she hit the ground running, working as hard as she could in school, and eventually transferring to law school in Melbourne. But after realising her childhood dream and becoming a successful commercial lawyer, her career has now taken a new and unexpected path after she accepted a position as the director of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University.

Nyadol says she still believes in having dreams, but that letting that dream lead you somewhere else entirely is all part of the ride. Here, Nyadol shares how she got where she is today.

When Did You Decide That You Wanted to Become a Lawyer?

It was actually in the camp. I was born in one refugee camp, and I grew up in another one in Kenya called Kakuma Refugee Camp, which is still in existence today. It was in Kakuma that I started thinking that I wanted to be a lawyer. I wrote a piece for a competition that was being run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I had to read it at the Refugee Day event. And so, publicly, for the first time, I said I want to be a lawyer one day.

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Did Anyone Help Guide You on Your Career Path to Law?

Nyadol Nyuon’s dream of becoming a lawyer came true after her mentor encouraged her to apply to study law at university.

Because of my background, it was sometimes assumed that I could not undertake difficult subjects at school. I think, with good intentions, there was a perception that I'd struggle. Unfortunately I took this to mean that I should also expect less of myself. So I gave up on doing law because I didn’t think I could do it. In the end, it worked out well. I did a Bachelor of Arts at Victoria University, which prepared me to study law. A mentor of mine reignited my interest in the law by boosting my self-confidence when they said, “I think you’re smart enough to do law,” and so I applied to the University of Melbourne and I got in. I was jumping and screaming when I got that letter. It was the beginning of a dream coming true.

What Motivated You to Pursue Your Dream of Becoming a Lawyer?

​​When I started law school, I felt so out of my depth. I was trying to understand the cultural context of a new country. And then there were the financial struggles; my mum was a single parent on welfare, so I worked part-time jobs to make ends meet. It was really, really tough. But it taught me the value of persistence. 

I also learned how to have an ‘attitude of excellence’. When you come from a background where people think you’re incapable of doing ‘great things’, you begin to internalise that. The young people my age at the University of Melbourne were so competitive and intelligent, and it made me realise that is an attitude you can adopt. You can always aim for excellence. It doesn’t mean you will always achieve it, but adopting an attitude of excellence is not something you are excluded from because of your background.

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How Did Your Attitude Help to Guide You in Your Career?

After law school, I decided to go to a commercial firm, Arnold Bloch Leibler. I knew it would be another challenging step, but I also knew that if I succeeded in that environment, it meant I could measure my improvement. This became a really useful mental tool to use in decision-making. Will this challenge me? What is it I am afraid of? We tend to treat fear as the end of the conversation, but sometimes I think we get a clearer idea of what we actually want when we ask ourselves, “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?”

What Advice Would You Give to Someone Choosing a Career?

Nyadol Nyuon’s advice for anyone choosing their career path is to have a plan and let it guide you, but not limit you.

I left my role at Arnold Bloch Leibler in January 2021 to work in the Victorian public service and now I will be the director of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University. My focus will be on looking at how law impacts different communities, and producing research into the areas of law and cultural diversity, with both a domestic and international focus. I didn’t really plan for this. I had planned to be a lawyer. 

Growing up, I think you can have a linear idea of what your career will be and that’s not how it’s turned out for me. As a lawyer, I began getting involved in media commentary and writing because of my interest in social justice, which gave me leadership and communication skills that I can bring to this role, as well as my legal training. So if I could give a suggestion to people, I’d say have a plan. But use that plan as a guide without letting it limit you. Other opportunities can pop up that can really sharpen other dimensions of who you are as a person and what you can do.

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How Much Does Your Identity Shape Your Career?

Identities are important because they can guide us towards a goal or purpose. As important as it is to have a sense of identity, it is also important to prepare to lose an identity you have cultivated and nourished through persistence and hard work. This is because, I believe, our identities are there to serve us to get to a certain point and then, at some point, you grow out of that identity and allow yourself to explore other things. For a long time I think I was that 14-year-old girl in a refugee camp thinking I was going to be a lawyer. That was the identity I embraced. And it took a bit of courage to say, “Now it’s time to let go of that identity and grow into another.”

What Are Your Must-Have Everyday Tools for Work and Home?

Nyadol Nyuon’s addiction to stationery and being organised help her get through daily life as a lawyer.

I’m addicted to buying notebooks and pens – I love notebooks especially, or any stationery. I also like organising, but I'm not very good at it. I think it's impossible to live in the 21st century without a computer. Gadgets are great for helping me keep on top of my work, and my laptop is really helpful for that. I’m planning on buying an iPad as well. Honestly, when lockdown started easing, I really wanted to know when Officeworks was opening back up! I wanted to get back in store so I could play with stationery and gadgets before I bought them.

What To Try

How Do You Like to Spend Time Outside of Work?

We should all spare some time for the things we love. For me, that’s writing and reading poetry – those little things that make life more enjoyable. And next year I want to spend more time with my kids. I want to have days where they don’t go to childcare and we can go for a walk or a swim or a picnic. 

When you grow up in a refugee camp, you’re in constant survival mode. You want to keep going and moving and achieving. The luxury and gift of being in a safe and secure country is you can put your bag down. You can thrive. I don’t need to be constantly moving to survive. We all have crises we need to survive in our lives, but surviving is not living. If you constantly survive in crisis mode, you’re not living your life in all its full expressions.

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