When Larrick Potvin heard about an immersion program in Senegal, the UW-Eau Claire social work major knew he wanted in.
Traveling to Africa has long been a dream, and working with an international organization after graduation is an interest, Larrick says.
Paying for the immersion program was a problem, however, Larrick says, noting that his mom works two jobs and he works three jobs just to keep him in college.
Instead of writing off the opportunity, Larrick turned to his go-to person at UW-Eau Claire, Dennis Beale, assistant director of Blugold Beginnings, who found monies to help fund what Larrick now describes as a life-changing experience.
The immersion in Senegal — and Larrick’s willingness to ask for help to make it happen — is just one example of the senior’s determination to make the most of the many high-impact experiences that UW-Eau Claire offers students.
“So many people were and are still involved in helping me get into and graduate from college,” says Larrick, a senior from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. “It really did take a village to raise me. I owe it to them and to myself to take every opportunity offered.”
Those opportunities have included joining and later leading Civil Rights Pilgrimages, completing an internship in Alabama, participating in immersion programs in Costa Rica and Africa, volunteering at a Twin Cities adoption agency, and being active in student organizations that support Blugolds from marginalized groups.
“My mom did everything she could to be sure I was ready for college,” says Larrick, whose father died when he was young. “But neither of us guessed that I would be traveling to these places in college to learn about different cultures and lifestyles or have so many other experiences.”
The wealth of opportunities he found at UW-Eau Claire is even more surprising to him since he based his college decision mostly on cost, says Larrick, a first-generation college student.
UW-Eau Claire was the most affordable option among the schools that interested him, he says, adding that he never even visited the campus before applying.
“I didn’t know what to expect until I got here,” Larrick says. “Once I was here, I found all these opportunities and I knew I had to jump on them.”
The experiences that allowed him to explore his African-American heritage, like the immersion in Senegal, were especially powerful, he says.
“For many African-Americans, we don’t know our heritage or where we originate from in Africa,” says Larrick, whose mother is white and whose father was black. “All we learn about in schools is how slaves came from Africa.
“To travel to Africa was the experience of a lifetime. I almost cried when I got off the plane in Senegal because I knew this was my history. It was humbling to be there.”
Before traveling to Senegal, his impressions of Africa came mostly from images and stories in the media, he says.
“This experience showed me that not every place is how the media portrays it,” Larrick says. “Growing up, I constantly was hit with images of Africa as a dirty and helpless continent. In reality, Africa is such a beautiful and loving place.”
The friendliness and openness of the Senegalese people was inspiring, he says.
“It was really cool to see how they value peace and share love,” Larrick says. “That is just who they are. They are always looking at the brighter picture. They help others no matter what.”
Visiting an island in Senegal where slaves were once held before being auctioned off was an extraordinarily emotional experience, he says.
“It’s a part of history I was never exposed to,” Larrick says. “I got chills being there.”
Larrick’s interest in black history also motivated him to join the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, an immersion that takes Blugolds to the South, where they visit historic sites important to the civil rights movement, participate in slavery and Selma march re-enactments, and talk with people who were part of the civil rights era's most influential and memorable events.
Through that journey, he realized how little he knew about that critical time in U.S. history.
“Growing up, I learned about the civil rights movement from the white perspective,” Larrick says. “I went on the pilgrimage thinking I knew a lot but realized I knew nothing. Meeting people who were part of the civil rights movement was humbling. Visiting a plantation where we saw the names of slaves and where they were from was hard. I knew one of those names could easily be my great-great-great-grandma.”
The following year, Larrick was a leader on two CRP trips, an experience made all the more meaningful because his younger half-sister joined him on one of the trips.
“To share it with her was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life,” Larrick says.
In the summer, he again headed South, this time for an internship with what was then called the Freedom Foundation in Selma, Alabama, a nonprofit organization that provides programs and services to underrepresented youth in Selma.
As part of the internship, Larrick participated in nonviolence training and studied the principles and strategies of nonviolence used during the civil rights movement.
Larrick also traveled to Costa Rica as part of a faculty-student team charged with finalizing plans to establish social work internships in that country.
His time in Costa Rica immersed him in yet another culture, broadening his worldview.
Closer to home, Larrick volunteered at a Twin Cities adoption agency, where he learned about the role social workers play in the adoption process.
“By shadowing a social worker, I got a look into a field that I might want to go into,” says Larrick.
Larrick also serves as a mentor in Blugold Beginnings, a UW-Eau Claire program that aims to educate and inspire young people, especially underrepresented, low-income or first-generation students, to believe that a postsecondary education is important and possible.
Two student organizations, UW-Eau Claire’s Black Student Alliance and Black Male Empowerment, have been an important part of his college journey, helping him develop strong friendships, as well as connections and skills that will help him personally and professionally.
When he was a freshman, he was one of just a few students in the Black Student Alliance.
Now, he says, it has more than 25 members.
“We’re creating a community; we have space for everyone,” Larrick says. “I love having the black students come together. It gives us space to be ourselves.”
Being part of Black Male Empowerment also has been an incredible experience, he says.
BME members offer each other support, encouragement and advice as they work to better their lives while also changing the perceptions of black males on campus and in the world.
“We are a family,” Larrick says. “If one of us succeeds, we all succeed. BME is growing and flourishing. Students and faculty notice us. We dress up every Wednesday and meet every week to talk about resumes, internships, opportunities or challenges.
“Many of the students in BME are from inner cities like Chicago, Minneapolis or Milwaukee. We have had different experiences but still connect and learn from each other. We have similar goals. We all want to do well and make each other proud."
Already, he says, BME members are defying the odds by finding success on campus, making positive change in the community and earning their degrees.
As he completes his final semester of classes and prepares for a semesterlong internship in the fall, Larrick says he already has accomplished more than he thought possible when he arrived four years ago.
He hopes his successes will inspire others to dream big and embrace opportunities.
“I didn’t have an easy path to get here,” Larrick says. “Now that I am here, I want the degree. I want to show people back home that they can do it too. People in Brooklyn Center do not see many people who look like me doing these things. I want to show them they can do it.”
While he is proud of what he has accomplished as a Blugold, he already is looking to the future.
Working as an international social worker is a possibility, but his long-term goal is to open a center in his hometown so he can help young people find a path forward.
He also wants to be a role model for people of color, especially black men.
“You never should be limited to being a stereotype,” Larrick says. “I am a black man, first-generation student from a single-parent household from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
“Statistics say I shouldn’t be here and in the position that I am in today. I am not a statistic. I am Larrick J. Potvin and my power of AND is Limitless.”
Watch the video version of Larrick's story.
Video credit: Jesse Yang