We recently caught up with former Rasmuson Foundation intern Patrice Gopo to chat about the twists her life has taken since that summer internship, and how her time at the Foundation helped shape where she is today.
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When Patrice came to the Foundation for our 2006 summer internship program, she had just completed her second year of a dual degree master’s program at the University of Michigan. Her goal after graduation was to join a community development nonprofit and work to address issues of social injustice, hierarchy and imbalance that exist in the world.
Patrice’s childhood played a large role in her interest in those issues. Born and raised in Anchorage to Jamaican immigrants, she says growing up in Anchorage was filled with many wonderful moments. But being one of the only non-white students in her classes at Service High School caused Patrice to question her place in the world.
“There was a lot of grappling with identity, and who I am and how do people perceive me, things like that,” she says. “I knew (those experiences) just didn’t fit what was often portrayed as the typical American experience.”
Her interest in those issues continued to grow, and throughout grad school Patrice worked with a variety of nonprofits. She thought the Foundation internship would provide additional insight and round out her experience.
“All of my experience had been on the ground with nonprofits,” she says. “I thought it would be a great opportunity and experience to work for a foundation and see what it looks like from the other side of that world.”
She spent the summer mapping the Foundation’s grantmaking process, from application to funding, which gave her the foundational perspective she was looking for. But the internship had an unexpected impact as well.
“It really exposed me to the reality that if you want to work to make a difference in the world, there are a lot of ways to do that,” she says. “Rasmuson really taught me to keep an open mind to what is possible.”
Those lessons planted a seed that helped Patrice set her life on a new course when, a few short years later, it was hit by what she laughingly calls “a perfect storm of events” that altered her carefully laid-out plans.
Following graduation, she traveled to South Africa for a 10-week internship. While there, she met her future husband. The couple settled in South Africa when they married a year later. Unable to obtain a work visa, Patrice began writing about issues of social injustice and race, and their influence on identity formation. Her writing practice allowed the lessons learned while working at Rasmuson Foundation to fully blossom.
“I realized that, ‘Wow’, this is a really powerful way to address issues that I care about, by telling powerful stories,” she says. Though her writing had always been praised, until that point she’d thought of it as nothing more than a means of communication. But the more she wrote, the more that idea changed.
“As I settled more in to it and started using it to express ideas that I felt more passionate about, I started seeing the beauty and the artistic side to it was well,” she says. “I was just taken with it, that words can serve a purpose, but they can be so beautiful as well.”
Patrice continued writing when she and her husband – now with a child in tow – returned to the lower 48 and settled in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her essays, which draw on personal experience with race, immigration and belonging to find commonalities with the larger culture in which she exists, have been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and several other publications, while her radio commentaries have appeared on Charlotte’s NPR Station.
This fall, Patrice was honored with a North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship, and in 2018 she’ll release her first book of essays, which explore race, immigration, and the search for a sense of belonging.
“I feel really strongly that given our current times, it is a book that is important to where we are as a society,” she says.
More than 10 years since her time at Rasmuson Foundation, Patrice says she couldn’t have imagined the turn her life would take. But she’s grateful for the experiences that brought her there.
“In the absence of the plans and dreams I had anticipated for myself, I found something else,” she says.