Cisco Networking Academy Creates Role Models: Meet John Gillespie


Get all the backstories of our 2023 Cisco Networking Academy alumni award winners in this five-part series. In this second story, you’ll see how misfortune didn’t deter Rise Above award winner John Gillespie from achieving his academic goals and how Cisco Networking Academy supported his ambitions.


Frequently stories of people with successful careers ignore an unspoken aspect of that success: luck. This may be why stories of people overcoming obstacles or bad luck can be so inspiring.

In the submissions for the 2023 Cisco Networking Academy Alumni Awards, there were numerous stories of people overcoming obstacles to find success.

“What made the decision-making process so difficult was the number of compelling and passionate journeys of this group of alumni,” says Agostino Santoni, VP for Cisco Europe and South, who sat on the judging panel for the Rise Above Award. “I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to all the candidates who participated.”

For meeting challenges head-on, overcoming hardship and adversity, and emerging as an inspirational individual, John Gillespie from Ireland is a deserving winner of the Rise Above Award.


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Misfortune strikes

John was the first person in his extended family to attend university, and not just any university, but the prestigious Queen's University, studying Computer Science.

“A misfortunate motorcycle accident forced me to leave as I broke my back and was in a body cast for eight months,” he says.

After a long recovery, he wanted to return, only to discover the criteria for entry had changed and he was no longer eligible.

“Soon afterwards, due to family circumstances, I became the full-time carer for my little sister, who demanded 24/7 attention.” he says.

Despite his dedication to looking after his sister, John still managed to do some night classes, earning two National Vocational Qualifications in welding, and then AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A (Advanced) level modules in the same year in the hope of getting more points towards going back to university.

“I was my sister's primary carer during this period for seven years but unfortunately, she passed away when she was 10 years old,” says John.

“After my sister died, I was extremely low and was listening to self-help videos on YouTube to try and keep me motivated,” he says.

Ambitious dedication

John decided he needed to go back to university to pursue his ambition to work in tech. “I set myself the goal of obtaining first class honours whatever the cost. This was one of the greatest sacrifices that I have ever made, to commit to something on this level. I was studying remotely and had a job, so was working seven days.”

John says the only way he could achieve his goals were with “laser-beam focus.” Not letting anything stand in his way meant sacrificing not just time, money, and lifestyle, but also a successful professional job, albeit one that wasn’t fulfilling.

“I knew that the cost of not doing my degree was severely hindering my career progression,” he says.

His hard work and dedication paid off when John graduated with first class honours, and he landed his first job in computing as a Network Engineer as a result.

After being advised to get CCNA qualifications, John enrolled in Network Security with Open University, which was a full-time post-graduate course encompassing Cisco Network Security and Cisco CyberOps Associate courses.

“Three weeks after completing the Cisco Network Security and CyberOps Associate courses I got a promotion to Network Security Engineer,” he says. “Afterwards, I was able to get a job as a Cyber Security Operations Analyst thanks to those same courses.”

John’s story of rising up to overcome adversity is an inspiration to us all, but none more so than his little sister. “I have even managed to inspire my little sister who is not academically proficient to study for her degree with the OU and she is starting her third year part-time,” he says. “She has seen the direct benefits to me of the sacrifices I made to challenge and develop myself.”

John has met significant challenges head-on, showing us that with the right attitude bad luck is not necessarily a barrier to success.


The Cisco Networking Academy Alumni Awards honor alums who have maximized their potential in the digital universe. Next “call for nominations” will be in May of 2024. If you missed our first story featuring the Changemaker award winner, you can read it here.