IT degree cemented the creative career of graphic designer Vanessa Courtot

This month La Trobe University awarded two scholarships to encourage women to study IT. It’s a rapidly growing industry hungry for new talent, yet still, women are slower than men to take up the challenge.

When La Trobe alumna Vanessa Courtot studied a Bachelor of Information Technology in Bendigo, she was one of five women in the course. She was also early proof of the value of embedding the Arts in STEM education.

Vanessa is the Senior Graphic Designer for Federal Government agency IP Australia, which administers the Intellectual Property rights for trade marks, patents, designs and plant breeders’ rights across the nation.

“I would never have been able to maintain working as a designer if I hadn’t had the IT experience and qualification behind me,” Vanessa says. “It’s opened a lot of doors.”

Ironically, when she embarked on her first La Trobe degree in Bendigo, in graphic design, she didn’t even know computers were involved.

“I had no idea what I was doing, which was hilarious,” she says. “I didn’t even realise that graphic design was done on a computer, and for my portfolio I hand drew everything.

“The lectures asked me, shouldn’t you be applying for fine art? I got a rude shock when I turned up for my first class and everyone was on a computer. I had no idea any of the graphics software even existed.”

So, Vanessa took a six-week evening TAFE class in Illustrator, Photoshop and Quark Express to catch up. Which is indicative of her drive and thirst for knowledge. She was the recipient of the 2002 Seins Acquisitive Photography Arts Award and graduated with Deans honours in 2003, then began her first job as a designer, at the Bendigo Weekly.

Vanessa was quickly headhunted by an Adelaide company with the Nike Asia Pacific account, who’d seen her online AGDA portfolio, so she relocated to the South Australian capital to work on the instore promotions for Nike’s concept stores, including window displays, podiums, and photoshoots with the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Marion Jones. “My feet ended up on her body, because when she was photographed she didn’t have the right shoes on!”

After a host of jobs at other agencies, Vanessa returned to Bendigo to work part time for the newspaper again, and to begin building her freelance work. More and more she was tasked with designing websites. “I went, I don’t think I understand this, it’s bigger than my graphic design knowledge, I need an IT degree to understand what people are talking about,” she says, and so in 2009, took herself back to La Trobe.

Again, Vanessa graduated with Dean’s Honours and was the recipient of a scholarship in her final year. She then applied for five competitive graduate programs and got the pick of them. She accepted a position as an IT graduate at Customs and Border Protection, in Canberra. Only five people were selected from thousands of applicants and Vanessa was the only female out of the group of five. “I could have gone anywhere, but I was drawn to customs because of that sense of keeping people safe and doing something for the community,” she says.

Eventually Vanessa drew on her two degrees to work in communications.

“Over the years I’ve learnt you have to have an understanding of ICT, and what you can and can’t do, when designing something,” she says. “You can’t have one without the other now, and a lot of people are keen to have someone in my position that has that understanding. I’m quite often translating for stakeholders between the two mediums.”

Vanessa says although IT is a constantly-evolving field, the degree she did 11 years ago set her up to succeed. “Everything changes so rapidly, a degree is just the base to start with, get your foot in the door and understand what people are talking about,” she says. “Some of the programs I learnt at uni, they’re gone, but it gave me the base to keep up with the next thing.

“I loved La Trobe and still do. I loved the students, the lectures, they were like a family. If you’ve got that thirst for knowledge they’ll  bend over backwards to help you and see you succeed.”

Vanessa doesn’t know what the next thing will be and says for now she’s happy in a creative role that allows her to work as an out posted worker while being mum to her six-year-old daughter.

“I really value and appreciate my government job, the stability of it, but this is the 39th job I’ve had in my life, and I’m coming up to ten years with the government. It’s probably not the last one – I may hit 40.”

Vanessa’s advice to anyone is to “change jobs a lot”.

“Get as much experience as you can,” she says. “My daughter asks me, can I be a vet? Or a detective, or work in a pet shop? And I say, absolutely! Do it all. Every job helps you become a stronger, better person, and most skills are transferable.”

‘Keep studying’ is another mantra. Vanessa also has diplomas in government, project management, certificates in legal studies, and she’s currently completing a Graduate Diploma of Law, which is a personal interest.

“Everyone thinks I’m mad,” she says. “I might do medicine next, who knows?”

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