Life humbles us quickly. We spend so much time believing we alone know what is right for ourselves. But sometimes we are encouraged to take unexpected paths that lead us where we need to be.
My name is Tionna Evans. I’m a communications major at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. As I was wrapping up my sophomore year this spring, I was looking forward to a fun-filled summer of travel, parties and leisure time.
My career coach had other ideas. She encouraged me to apply for an internship with the Walton Family Foundation, which has supported students from UAPB for summer positions the past three years.
I’ve worked as a sports reporter and I love telling stories. So the chance to work in communications for a national philanthropy seemed like a great opportunity to develop those skills.
I took the leap and applied. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life.
Working with the foundation has exposed me to the value of community collaboration, the importance of inclusive education and the impact that storytelling can have on driving change in the world.
It’s also taught me about the power of personal connections, the importance of listening to diverse perspectives and never settling for less than I expect for myself.
The power of personal relationships
It turns out that camping is one of the best ways for new colleagues to build bonds!
At the very start of my time at the foundation in Bentonville, Arkansas, my fellow interns and I camped overnight at the Ozark Natural Science Center.
I'm typically not an outdoorsy person (this was my first camping trip ever) but I am always up for an adventure. I imagined that “glamping” would be glamorous. It's in the description, right? But it’s basically sleeping on the ground under a tarp. With bugs.
What I learned is that shared experiences bring people closer together, especially if there’s some shared discomfort. Through that one-night experience in the Ozarks, I formed an unbreakable relationship with my fellow interns. We went on group hikes, competed in nature challenges and took a night walk together.
We laughed and cried together, and complained A LOT. But we were in harmony.
Always challenge yourself, never settle for less
My first major project was helping host a National Public Radio reception in Bentonville, featuring reporters and station directors discussing the importance of community collaboration.
At the reception, I met an NPR reporter from Dallas. He inquired about my motivation for storytelling – to give a voice to the marginalized. His advice – Don't settle and never look back – profoundly impacted me.
It has become my mantra, driving me to constantly challenge myself, exceed my limits and pursue excellence as a writer and storyteller.
Listening to and sharing diverse perspectives
The highlight of my summer was helping organize “Our Future, Our Legacy” in New Orleans. The event provided a platform to share the findings of the foundation’s survey of Black-Gen Z’ers views on their preparedness for life beyond K-12 education. It raised awareness about educational injustices by elevating diverse perspectives and promoting inclusive outcomes. I was inspired to meet and learn from panelists like author Danielle Prescod and author and advocate Blair Imani Ali.
I will never forget the moment when one of the panelists talked about being comfortable with the uncomfortable. "Be comfortable being the 1% in the group. Remember you're in that room for a reason." In times when I feel defeated or uncomfortable, that memory comes to mind. I'm here for a reason.
Building lasting bonds
Throughout my internship, I found the personal connections I made every bit as important as the professional ones.
My fellow interns and I shared our aspirations and supported each other throughout our journey together. Collaborating with them has fostered a deep sense of camaraderie.
They are friends, like J’Mya Smith, who interned with the foundation’s Home Region Program. She cites a meeting of Arkansas nonprofit leaders in Little Rock as a highlight of her experience.
“We discussed ways to authentically reach diverse audiences and challenge dominant narratives about power and accountability in grantmaking,” J’Mya says.
Tendai Musinga interned with the foundation’s Environment Program. She explored the Colorado River Basin, learning about the challenges caused by climate change, drought and water shortages.
“It was an eye-opening experience to witness the dedicated efforts aimed at protecting and restoring the Colorado River,” she says. During a field trip to Wyoming, Tendai met Conservation Corps members who “gave me hope for environmental conservation in the region.”
As my internship comes to an end, I’ve realized I am not ready to leave. From camping trips and hosting national events, to insightful conversations with reporters and collaborating with fellow interns, each experience has left an indelible mark.