Public Sector to Non-Profit – Harrison Tsopelas ‘09

Public Sector to Non-Profit – Harrison Tsopelas ‘09

Interviewed by Mateo Vazquez ‘21

MV: How has everything been since graduating from Trinity?

HT: It’s been pretty good. When I saw the email I thought it was a good time to re-engage as I am an alumni that has had little contact with Trinity since I left. I did put my poli-sci degree to work which is one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you. I did some political internships at school both during the year in the CT General Assembly and then back in Boston, which lead to me getting a job in politics and government right when I got out of school.

MV: Did you follow up with the internship from Trinity?

HT: I worked for Rep. Fleischmann in the CT General Assembly. He was co-chair of the education committee when I was there and then in my sophomore summer I was interning for Gov. Deval Patrick (MA). He actually hired me full time when I graduated. I started working in his scheduling advance office. Eventually I slowly worked my way up to going to events ahead of time, making sure it was set up, receiving him when he got there, giving him notes for his speech, and kind of just, you know, holding his hand during certain events. I did that for about a year and a half.

MV: And that was right out of Trinity?

HT: That was right out of Trinity. There just happened to be an opening in the department that I interned in. So, because of my internship, I just stepped right in and continued doing the work that I did as an intern, but you know getting paid. I was not getting paid anything at that first level, but slowly made my way up. After about a year and a half of doing that I transitioned into the MA office of international trade and investment. What we did there was help the governor plan his foreign trade missions with UK, Israel, China, Colombia, and Panama. We organized all these trips with business leaders who attended as part of a delegation hoping to help increase the business expansion outside of MA but also encourage that business environment within MA itself. We weren’t waiting for the federal government to step up and do our international relationships if you will.

MV: It sounds like you guys stepped up and looked for it. Was there a project in particular that you enjoyed working on?

HT: Yes, certainly planning and facilitating international trade missions was fun. One of the things that I got the most joy from in that role was I ran a grant program for the small business association. I gave money to MA companies who wanted to do international work. I was basically giving money from the federal government to these local businesses to offset some of the cost. That was fun. I got to make a lot of friends, travel around the state, visit those companies, and give a lot of checks which is always fun. So I did that for about two and a half years and then did a short term as deputy chief of staff for Housing and Economic Development for MA. I kind of rose up into that position, but had no background and didn’t really understand housing issues or economic issues at all. Got into that job and realized that I knew nothing about it and then I made my transition out and that was around the end of the Governor’s term. That’s when I transitioned into my current job in the non-profit called YouthBuild. It is headquartered in MA, but we are operating in 260 programs across the U.S and another 81 in about 23 countries across the world. We are doing educational, vocational and life skill training for out of school and unemployed youth age 15-25. I think of it as a continuation of my public service, but it is a little nicer and more fun in the non-profit.

MV: What are some of the differences between the private, public and non-profit?

HT: We are working for something where our outcomes from the work that we are doing are easier to see; it is right in front of us every day and we get to meet the people and follow up with them and create these relationships. Whereas, in the public sector it was more random tasks, it is kind of harder to see the impact that you are making and harder to see the whole from the little work that you are doing in front of you. That is my biggest change. I have always been someone who has realized that I never would be able to do a job if it wasn’t building toward the greater good. I knew that back at Trinity which is why I followed the poli sci path and it has helped define my path since I left. Here (current job) it is a little easier to see the impact of my work and the good that I am doing for the world in my current world.

MV: That is amazing and good to hear. Do you think there was anything at Trinity, whether it was poli sci, a club, or maybe a role on campus that you had that you used later on in life that definitely had an impact?

HT: Certainly the internship that I had in the CT General assembly was very helpful in just getting my feet wet and help me understand the culture of politics. The other thing that really impacted me was that I was the Associate Director for the J-ZAMP. I am not sure if that is still around. It was an after school program at the Hartford Magnet Middle school where we did academic tutoring for middle school students. You were assigned to youth that were having trouble in school. They would come after school and work with you as Trinity students, you would help them with their homework, you would also kind of get them excited about going on to high school and showing off Trinity. I was Associate Director and it was honestly part of doing that which helped me to get into the work that I am in right now. I am working with youth that have been met with trouble, whether social, education, or criminal justice related issues here and across the country. That was certainly very impactful for me. I did that for all four years.

MV: That is great to hear. That is interesting how it started here and you’re doing similar work now. Is there advice you would give to an undergraduate now?

HT: Never really know where life is going to take you and it’s kind of just–for me I just found myself doing kind of exactly the things that interested me, but I hadn’t realized it yet. Realizations of what’s important to you–they are all things that I developed during my time at Trinity and it’s just important to kind of be able to have that space to think about those things even if you don’t realize it in the moment. I guess my only advice would be to go easy on yourself; you don’t need to know what you want to do when you leave or even while you’re there and studying, but you will figure out what you want to do and it may be by doing a lot of things that you probably don’t want to do first. Or you won’t know until you do it.

MV: How is your day to day at a nonprofit? Do you find yourself using your poli sci degree a lot?

HT: I absolutely do. We are funded by the government and private sector companies where I have to put on my happy face a lot. Treat people with respect even if they’re being a little bit meaner to you. I certainly learned to navigate office politics and those constituent relationships while doing some of that political work. That has really helped me do what I need to do here.

MV: Is there anything that you would like other Alumni to know about you or what you are doing with your work right now?

HT: If you’re someone like me who wants to make a difference then look to the nonprofit sector. There are 1,000’s of NGO’s focused on a variety of issues. If you have that desire then you will find something that will align with your views on the world and you will be able to find something that makes you happy that you can do for work.

MV: Was there any poli sci class that you look back and remember being very influential?

HT: Yes. My senior capstone on transnational network and thought that was really cool in theory when I took the class. Now I am actually using and referring to a lot of the books still from that class. One of our bigger focuses at YouthBuild is we are trying to create a global network opportunity of youth that are unemployed and that can just talk to each other and be aware that their peers are going through similar issues across the world not just subject to their community. It has actually become a big part of what we are doing here.

MV: How does the international part of YouthBuild work with your role?

HT:  I am part of the international department. I am part of a team of five people. We provide training and technical assistance in running the YouthBuild programs that are operating in 23 other countries most are located in Latin and South America and now some expansion into Africa. That is where the predicted majority of unemployed youth will be. We are trying to get our programs in place to offset some of that issue.

MV: Sounds like a lot of work, but very rewarding.

HT: It is, it is great. I feel like I am really making a difference now and to tie it all back together it is really a product of Trinity and my degrees that gave me a leg up when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do.