Dr Akuch: Trending ‘only black’ PhD graduate speaks

Dr Akuch: Trending ‘only black’ PhD graduate speaks

Three months after La Trobe University in the State of Victoria in Australia awarded Akuch Kuol Anyieth the Distinguished Alumni – Young Achiever Award, social media caught up with her latest achievement – being the only Black and the youngest PhD graduate at the University. This is a feat that made her trend for a better part of last week, with her South Sudanese compatriots in Australia and South Sudan picking and sharing her achievement on social media.

The City Review caught up with Dr Akuch Kuol Anyieth, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Afterlife of Violence and the Reparative Quest at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

By The City Review

At the Union Hall at La Trobe University in Australia, something was conspicuous among the PhD cohort. There was not just one black doctoral graduate, but a female Dr. Akuch Kuol Anyieth – a South Sudanese-born Australian.

Social media would later become awash with her graduation photos, as South Sudanese in Australia and back home felt the pride in what she had accomplished, given her difficult beginnings as a refugee immigrant.

But that was not all. She received the Nancy Millis Medal, awarded to only 5 per cent of outstanding PhD theses in Australia based on examiners’ reports, endorsement by the School Director of Graduate Research and approval by the Board of Graduate Research.

After her family fled South Sudan as a child, she spent more than nine years with her family, living in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp. Her family moved to Australia in 2005, speaking no English, which she has captured aptly in her biography, ‘Unknown: A Refugee’s Story’, which was shortlisted for the 2023 National Biography Award in Australia.

But in a perfect case of turning a lemon into lemonade, Dr Akuch became the only Black PhD graduate at the La Trobe in 2024. She holds a Bachelor of Legal Studies (2014), a Master of Justice and Criminology (2015) from RMIT University and a second Master of Arts (Research) (2020) from La Trobe University. A PhD in Law and Society. Her PhD thesis focused on examining Family Violence Intervention Orders in the South Sudanese-Australian Community and their impact on victims’ survivors, the perpetrators and the community.

When we caught up with her via phone, she had already moved to South Africa as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Afterlife of Violence and the Reparative Quest at Stellenbosch University.

“I am happy that my people, friends and colleagues have acknowledged the hard work I have put into this. I commend La Trobe University’s teaching and non-teaching staff for helping me walk this journey. I cannot forget the community – particularly the South Sudanese-Australian community that I have worked with for years and my family. When you achieve something, and people from far and wide congratulate you, that is a good feeling. I feel nothing but gratitude, she says.

Making Africa peaceful continent

She says her postdoctoral research at Stellenbosch University will help her examine the experiences of African students from other African countries, cases of xenophobia and issues around like—extreme cases of violence and trauma.

“Ideally, you cannot be a foreigner in Africa when you are from Africa,” she says. “I moved to Africa not because I didn’t have a good life in Australia and not because of making a salary, but because I truly care about Africa, and I want to be a part of those who are working tirelessly to build a peaceful Africa, we all want to see. I love my work, and I can do it even if no salary is attached”.

A second layer of research in South Africa will focus on the process of repair from acts of violence meted out on an individual or community and the underlying issues long after the acts of violence are meted out.

“I am open to the practical side of things as much as being an academic. I want to work with youth forums, government and policymakers to ensure that public law principles in our nations are implemented, respected and monitored according to international and domestic laws,” she says.

She adds that in as much as women and girls experience gender-based violence in almost every country, the numbers peak in developing countries. She intends to invest a lot of energy in advocacy for the eradication of gender-based violence because it has long-term consequences.

“Research does show that empowering women catalyses productivity and economic growth. So I intend to work with NGOs, policymakers, universities, and governments to make sure that some proper policies and procedures do not only protect women but the family unit as well because safer families mean safer communities and society. But when families are in chaos, it affects society because the society comes out of a family unit and the government comes out of the society and is supposed to protect the society. This is the whole point of democracy – a government for the people, by the people.” says Akuch.