Carolyn Gopaul addresses participants of MIC-IT’s Unlocking Series, 2018

At 50, Carolyn Gopaul says she feels contented and fabulous. Having grappled with a mysterious void in her heart and the concerns of being a full-figured woman, the acting Human Resources Manager of Metal Industries Company-Institute of Technology (MIC-IT), has found her strength. She has come to embrace herself; from her purple, red or blue hairstyles right down to her blinged-out matching manicures and pedicures.

“It’s a blessing to be this age and be at the level that I am at personally and professionally. I wouldn’t trade my journey for anything in this world,” Gopaul told the Sunday Guardian recently, her hair a luminescent green and dark blue short cut.

In her 29 years as an employee of MIC-IT, Gopaul has seen projects like the Monogram Products programme of the early 1990s where locals produced hand-painted plastic figurines and Christmas decorations for Hallmark Cards Inc, the steelpan manufacturing programme and inroads in the local manufacture of plastic moulds and containers.

MIC-IT was established in 1974 to develop the local manufacturing industry and focussed on tool and die making and precision engineering. It currently offers Technical and Vocational Training, Industry Services, and Construction Services.

As part of the institution, Gopaul has championed the advancement of administrative professionals and alongside the principals of the Training Division, helped facilitate the success of trainees. When one graduate of MIC-IT landed a job in the construction of the 443-feet tall London Eye on the River Thames, Europe’s tallest revolving observation wheel and the UK’s most popular tourist attraction, she was there to celebrate with her colleagues. Through most of her experiences, however, Gopaul carried a deep void which only two major life-changing events could fill.

Having worked her way up from a telephone operator/receptionist at MIC-IT, Gopaul moved to various clerical positions and then became a secretary in the institution’s Training Department and later an administrative assistant in the Corporate Division. Despite her professional advancements, a piece of her was missing, she felt. Unable to fully identify the reason for the emptiness in her soul, she sensed that it was tied to her low self-confidence as a result of her body size. Her mother’s death 14 years ago would propel Gopaul to re-invent herself.

“When my mum left me in 2006, I was devastated. I was the last; the spoilt child and when she left I felt alone although I had my brothers and sisters. I felt incomplete. Then I started learning that I had to pick myself up. I said to myself maybe this was my calling to be as strong as my mum was.”

Having observed her mother take on the task of raising eight children when Gopaul’s father passed away, Gopaul remembered her mother as a woman with an indomitable spirit, never looking to others for handouts.

“None of the others was old enough to work, so she made whatever pension benefits she got work. The way my mum would handle things is she never relied on anyone. She raised her family almost single-handedly,” recalled Gopaul who was seven when her father died.

“My mum always said to me: If I wash on the river stone, my children have to wash in a washing machine.”

Determined to emulate the older lady and encouraged by her nieces, Lindsay and Kavita, and nephew Amit, with whom she had a close bond, Gopaul re-dedicated herself to her academic development in her late 30s. Already the holder of an Associate’s degree, she completed a first degree and eventually gained a Master’s in Human Resource Management in 2017 at the School of Business and Computer Science (SBCS) via its Heriot-Watt programme.

Along the way, she progressed to Senior Administrative coordinator, Training and Development at MIC-IT and also became a member of the YTEPP board. Change would also come in how Gopaul saw her physical self.

“I have a friend. Her name is Patricia Alleyne. I remember the day I ironed a white T-shirt and square-looking jeans and wore them to work. She pulled my T-shirt which I felt looked so good and said to me: Does everything you wear have to look like a tent?”

Initially offended by the comment, Gopaul ended up on a shopping trip with her friend and was amazed at the endless flattering possibilities for her full-figured body.

“I was never that flamboyant. I was never that brave. I always felt as a full-figured woman, I needed to hide myself,” she admitted.

After observing some students do hair colouring, manicures, and pedicures as part of their beauty and cosmetology course at YTEPP, she presented herself for a hair colour makeover.

“I went with purple and the purple looked hot!” she recalled.

Next, she experimented with green, then flaming red and has since made her choice of hair tone dependent on her mood. She has also come to cherish spa days for mental and physical self-care.

“The flamboyance came as an awareness to embrace who you are. Love yourself as you are. It’s also a signal that hey, I am coming. I am here.

“Because you’re plus-sized it doesn’t mean you have to blend into the background. You have to represent; show that you’re here; big and beautiful…brave,” she added.

A trip to Australia sponsored by her niece Lindsay last year would complete Gopaul’s healing. Unenthusiastic about spending another vacation in the US, Gopaul was pleasantly surprised one day when she opened an email and found plane tickets from Lindsay, who lives in Australia.

A scenic drive along the Australian coastline and through rainforests on the Great Ocean Road and visits to Twelve Apostles—limestone pillars in the ocean—the Sydney Opera House, the Ottaway Tree Top walk—an iron bridge walkway 800 feet in the air above the trees—and trips to several beaches were snapshots of her vacation. Despite thoughts that she might just expire in the 40-degree C heat, Gopaul thoroughly relished the exciting experience and returned home completely revitalised.

“I just knew when I came back from Australia I wasn’t the same person I was when I had left. Australia completely healed me without even a scar,” she said.

As for her new role as Human Resources Manager, Gopaul said she has had lots of help transitioning. Her long-time boss, Keith Toby, whom she likened onto her mother, has been a great mentor, as have the “dynamic” executives who always lend support to her.

She is appreciative of the young team in her charge and believes her renewed spirit can only bring benefits.

“We have to remember we are here to lead each other home. We are in competition with no one and we need to help each other be the best we can be,” she said.

Q&A with Carolyn

What are some of the lessons your mother taught you?

My mum shaped me into the person that I am. She directed me to get involved in the church and always encouraged me to do good, be honest and treat people fairly… live a good life. And because of this, I don’t feel that I’m better than anyone.

What kept you going through your toughest times?

My nieces and nephew, Lindsay, Kavita, and Amit. Although I don’t have children, I consider them my children and they’re fiercely protective and supportive of me. Because of them, I went back to school to do my first degree and then my Master’s and then I’m always trying to develop in some way. I think God must have crafted them specifically and placed them into my life and said: You’re going to need these three so hold on to them. I also had the support of family in terms of who I was becoming, especially my elder sisters, Lynette and Grace.

MIC-IT is responsible for well-known programmes like HYPE (Helping You Prepare for Employment), MuST (Multi-Sector Skills Training), the National Skills Development Programme (NSDP) and Renewable Energy programmes, among others, tell me about some of the programmes and achievements, like in Steelpan Manufacturing for instance.

The pan is our national instrument and it was the brainchild of our chairman Prof Imbert to bring the Mechanical Engineering for developing the steelpan. It’s going on in Laventille. We have always supported national culture. Unlocking Your True Professional Potential is one of our crowning glories. Later on, we fondly referred to it as The Unlocking Series. It is geared towards administrative professionals. We felt it necessary to have a forum to introduce leaders in our society to share their experiences about where they came from and where they are now. The first one was held in 2007. In 2019 we held it on a smaller scale and the last time we held it publicly was in 2018 when our beloved AG, Faris Al-Rawi, was our feature speaker. The response was always awesome. When people see others mapping their lives, and yes there are going to be rough waters, some rough times, but they see that if you navigate it they too can get there; be persistent, have a plan. MIC-IT also buried a time capsule for Indian Arrival Day 1995 for the 150th anniversary of the arrival of East Indians in T&T at the Maha Sabha grounds. It’s to be opened on the 200th anniversary.

How has the pandemic affected operations at MIC-IT?

We have classes online. Our management met frequently virtually although we were on national lockdown at one point. We encourage students to stay the course, get their certification because it’s important. When this pandemic breaks by early next year, I’m being hopeful, we have to get back to normal. We have navigated some tough waters, but admin is pulling things together, so we seem to have gotten the support of the students thus far.