Special kid now a special adult working on next chapter

·7 min read

Oct. 10—Facts are facts, and reporters are called on to report them dispassionately.

But today, I'm making an exception in an indefensible cause: to even a score.

During our recent interview, Lisa Patel told me I was "so old for us" back in 1988, when she was 14 and I, at 34, accompanied her and Sarah Bendure to Atlanta to cover the Democratic National Convention for the News-Sun's Children's Express Press Club.

So it is with some pleasure that I report two facts about Patel:

Fact 1: At 47, she is now 13 years older than I was in 1988.

Fact 2: She now fully admits to being "actually the oldest" student in the fall class of the Master of Arts in Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Here I'll add Fact 3: That when she sent me a note about her plans, I was particularly pleased. Because, even at 14, she was one of those special kids I wondered what would become of.

As it turns out, Patel has become a kind of citizen of the world who's more aware of the goings on around the globe than most of us — and whose life's work has been to make a difference on that much wider stage.

In a way, a future she was born to.

After immigrating from India to Chicago in the 1960s, her father later brought her mother along, and the family relocated to Springfield in December of 1987 so he could pursue a business opportunity.

"I was only here until the summer of 1989," Patel said. But that was long enough to finish her seventh grade and eighth grade year at Northwestern Middle School, then her freshman year at Northwestern High School.

In that time, she joined the press club, and with the strong encouragement of English teacher Mary Ann Schuller wrote and entered the essay that won her a trip to the convention.

And in July of 1988, when Bobby McFerrin could be heard everywhere singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy," she was in Atlanta. There she saw the "Run, Jesse, Run" lanyards encouraging the candidacy of Jesse Jackson; saw Jackson's son flirt with one of her high school-age editors; waved back at beaming former president Jimmy Carter as he walked by; and, on the evening of her 14th birthday, was on the convention floor to report on the roll call of the states that nominated Michael Dukakis for president.

"The journalism bug kind of bit me there," she said.

So, when her family moved to San Diego the following year, she joined the Mt. Carmel High School newspaper and, as a result, "discovered my joy of writing."

Her path in college was shaped by two other experiences.

One came before her arrival in Springfield, when, at age 10, she went to India with her mother and sister to care for a grandmother who had suffered a stroke.

"The image I remember most vividly is from my first day," she said. "A mother with her baby cradled in her arms (was) begging under the hot sun. Even as a young girl I could understand how the circumstances of where and when I was born resulted in the starkly different opportunities and choices I would have in my life, especially as a female."

The other influence was the five years she spent volunteering for an agency that responded to domestic violence in the San Diego area.

Both experiences have motivated her to work for a more just world.

A bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley first led to a master's in public health with a concentration in international health from the University of California, Los Angeles. It then segued to a Ph.D. in Maternal and Child Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with a certificate in international development.

Her master's at UCLA involved field work in the Himalayan area of India, where "I saw women dying during childbirth. Even though abortion was legal, still people went to illegal providers" because of access issues.

That, again, connected to a doctoral dissertation in which "I was looking at how can we use mid-level providers" instead of exclusively doctors to "increase access to good health care in Northern India."

As adept as she was at research — several published papers list her name first — she found herself wanting to leave academia to serve as a bridge to connect research with real-world decision making.

Her first thought was to join an NGO (Non-Government Organization), the kind of group that applies for government funding but operates independently in tackling health issues around the world.

But after a short stint doing so, she changed her mind, deciding that she might have more influence if she worked on the funding side of the equation. So, she signed on with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a sister organization to the U.S. State Department, though one that enjoys a greater degree of independence.

In areas of greater need, she said, "often USAID will have more employees than the State Department."

In 2011, she joined the organization's foreign service arm working with local governments on projects funded by USAID.

While posted in Tanzania from 2012-14, she helped to manage several large programs, including one addressing HIV and AIDS. While there she had a moment as vivid as her 14th birthday on the convention floor.

When then President Barak Obama visited Tanzania as part of a three-country African tour, Patel was called on to help manage logistics for the White House press corps.

As she shuttled reporters to hotels and halls and rode in buses with them. "I totally thought I was in a movie," she said.

And when the moment came to shake the president's hand, she found herself at a loss for words. "All I could say was, like 'Thank you, sir.' "

Patel eventually returned to Washington, D.C., and USAID's Global Development Lab, where, as project manager, she worked with the clothing company GAP, Inc., on a joint health initiative.

"Often, these big companies are in the same countries we're in," Patel explained, and "there is some commonality" of interests.

In India, just as USAID was working to improve the health of the population, GAP needed healthier employees. The project also dovetailed with one of Patel's personal and professional interests.

"The majority of textile workers are women, and a majority of the agricultural work is done by women," she said.

Her studies and travels have taken her to South Africa, Swaziland, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan and Bangladesh, as well.

A reorganization of USAID during the Trump Administration and the general monkey wrench thrown into the world by the coming of COVID-19 led Patel to do what so many subsequently did: Reconsider her future.

Single, without the responsibility of children and with lots of choices, "I was itching to do something different, and I just couldn't figure out what that next thing was."

But she noticed her thoughts "kept going back to writing. I also like to dig for data and research. And just fighting for the underdog drives me."

Ultimately, "The journalism thing kept coming back and coming back."

Last summer, she found a program at the University of Toronto that help train people who are experts in their fields to be journalists. She was accepted to the program, but wait-listed for a year.

Then in January, "one search led me to another to another" and she ended up at the website of the investigative journalism program at the Walter Cronkite School.

Soon, she was writing an advanced version of the kind of essay she wrote to land a spot on Children's Express staff for a long ago convention — one that mentioned her Children's Express experience.

She found the Cronkite School's offer of a full scholarship and stipend one she couldn't refuse and is now in the intense journalism bootcamp the program provides for those just entering the field.

"I'm going in just being really open," Patel said. "I have no particular goal in mind. I just want to be there to learn and soak in what I can and see what comes out of that.

"I'm really feeling really positive and looking forward to this next chapter."

And so am I.

Even at the advanced age of 47, the special kid who has grown into a special adult clearly has more things in store for us.

And I hope to be able to report on that one more time.

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