2015 Millennium Fellow John Kotey is a recent graduate of Columbia University with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. He was born and raised in Ghana and moved to the U.S. in 2012 for his undergraduate education. Always torn between his artsy side and his love for technology, he resolved to use tech for social good during his gap year between high school and college.
Tell us about your experience with MCN, how did it impact you? MCN’s MCC15 at the UN in 2015 was a major turning point in my life. I had been contemplating what to do after school and the urge to join corporate America was so strong. The pressure to just get a job to pay the bills and think about solving problems later came from all angles - family colleagues and mentors. Coupled with my frustration with higher education as “teaching students to be changemakers” but not giving them the necessary support to radically alter the status quo, I once again contemplated another gap year. Moreover, my perception of the UN as being all talk with little action made me skeptical of a conference geared towards grooming the next generation of global changemakers. MCC15, however, provided that much needed calm during my storm. The energy and enthusiasm of fellow delegates, driven to ensure that the soon-to-be launched Sustainable Development Goals were fully realized by 2030, renewed my faith in humanity. Learning about grassroots student movements centered around non-paternalistic and community focused development gave life to my desire of using tech to address humanity’s basic needs. After the conference, I convinced Columbia University's First-Generation Low-Income Partnership to apply for the Millennium Fellowship. The National First-Generation, Low-Income partnership was born during those transformational eight months during the fellowship.
What work are you currently involved in? Started with other Millennium fellows, the National First-Generation, Low-Income Partnership (FLIP National) is a non-profit which focuses on providing equal opportunity for first-generation and/or low-income (FGLI) students in institutions of higher learning. FLIP National aims to establish campus-based chapters and promote collaboration among institutions in addressing issues that first-generation and low-income students face. FLIP National has earmarked seven “Target Areas,” namely Food Insecurity, Student Homelessness, Academic Development, Student Wellness & Community Building, Financial Support, Professional Development and Awareness & Visibility. We hope to raise awareness about the issues that hamper the academic success and well-being of FGLI students and pursue sustainable solutions through establishment of initiatives and advocacy for policy change at the institutional, national and international levels. FLIP National currently has four chapters at Columbia, Emory, Lehigh and the University of Pennsylvania, with many more chapters in the works. Through its participation in the Millennium Fellowship, FLIP National gained significant insights into professional non-profit management including SMART planning and monitoring of key performance indicators which have since ensured our sustainable growth. So far, FLIP initiatives at the national and chapter levels have been overwhelmingly successful. FLIP at CU’s Book Lending library has over 2,500 textbooks in circulation, CU Meal Share has facilitated the exchange of over 1,000 meals swipes and Microgrants has awarded over $5,000 in emergency grants to students in need. We recently joined thousands of students worldwide in celebrating our 2nd annual Gen Day, the International Day of Visibility for First-Generation and Low-Income students.
What was most valuable to you about MCN programming? I cherished MCN’s commitment to addressing tough issues that many people in international development have avoided for decades. Issues such as the negative effects of "voluntourism," managing donor demands versus commitment to impactful change, and working to ensure the communities we serve become self-sustainable in the shortest possible time. Through my participation in MCN programs, I have formed life-long friends that are committed to real, demonstrable, sustainable change and found partners that are unafraid to challenge the status quo even when the act of doing so may threaten their livelihood. I have also cherished MCN’s focus on grooming grassroots student movements and working tirelessly to address pertinent problems worldwide. MCC15’s #sidekicksUNite hashtag has made me comfortable with being a support figure. I have since noticed that leaders are often more efficient when they serve in silence in a supporting role.
Any advice for current students? Take that leap of faith. Take that gap year. My most productive years have come during my years off of school. My most productive years have come during my years off of school. I have had the opportunity to synthesize what I have learned to determine how to put the skills I have acquired to benefit society. I wish gap years would be mandatory to allow students to unwind, refuel, and re-evaluate their life choices and career goals, but that’s another conversation.
Also, don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo especially while you are still in school. This is the time to ask tough questions about the systems that exist around us; to ask tough questions about access to food, healthcare, affordable education, equality. This is the time to constantly check your own privilege; to assess how much you’ve been given to know what’s required of you. Over time, I have adopted this ideology: "Privilege is not absolute but relative." Hence one does not need to be the richest, hold the highest position, or highest degree to spearhead the change he/she wishes to see. So go out there and start working for the world you wish to see now. Changemaking takes active habit forming. It doesn’t come with degrees or high ranking positions. You must go out there and be proactive. Seek to solve problems at every stage in your life, wherever you are in life. Only then will you become a true changemaker.