The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Hekima Scholars is a leadership group comprised of young men of color from various backgrounds that identify and share their experiences at a predominately white institution while promoting higher education, scholarships, and service in the community.
The program was developed in 2018 to address the educational barriers facing young men of color at UWL. This is done through community building and professional development. Hekima, or wisdom in Swahili, is viewed as a journey for those involved.
“This experience has bettered me as a person and has played a large part in my growth as a leader. We spent significant time this semester learning and talking about leadership, and legacy, about passions, and projects, but these aren’t things built overnight,” said UWL Junior and member of Hekima Scholars, Gurtej Grewal. Grewal is also serving as co-chair of ASO (Asian student organization) for the 2020-2021 academic year.
The Hekima Scholars program is a one-credit course that men of color can take during the spring semester. The course is “LS 200: Career Exploration and Planning.” In the course, they learn from people of color who are alumni, business owners, legal professionals, community members, and nationally-known speakers.
Grewal said that he became involved with the Heikma Scholars program last spring when he was asked by Thomas Harris, the assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Student Services (OMSS), to be an undergraduate mentor for the program.
“Hekima was my introduction to OMSS and eventually as a number of multicultural student organizations. This spring I had applied for and was selected for the same position. It has been my role to be another resource for the students in their journey at UWL. Although I may have been a ‘mentor’ for the group, I would say that the group has benefited me in the same way it has many of the students,” he said.
In 2019 the group was able to participate in a multicultural leadership retreat in Minnesota called “Knowing One’s Identity and Celebrating Our Authentic Selves” which focused around a multicultural leadership experience. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group was unable to attend this year’s multicultural workshop. Grewal said that the group is now meeting once a week virtually over Zoom and maintain a weekly guest speaker.
Some of the guest speakers that spoke at the virtual meetings included La Crosse County Circuit Judge Ramona A. Gonzalez, La Crosse criminal defense attorney Keith Belzer, Apple Valley High School athletic director Virgil Jones, member of the school district of La Crosse Tony “Nauhoua” Yang, and La Crosse community leaders Ge Vang and Shaundel Spivey.
“This semester was obviously a little different than usual for all students; however, Thomas and Dr. Gerardo Aponte-Safe, the two advisors for Hekima, and Jose Rubio-Zepeda [OMSS Transfer Retention Specialist] did a phenomenal job in trying to maintain a sense of normalcy as best they could,” said Grewal. “Before the COVID-19 pandemic required a campus shutdown, we would meet as a group once a week in Centennial Hall. During these meetings we would always begin with a debrief – students would be able to talk about their week, they’d be able to vent, and really just speak about whatever was on their mind. The group would also usually have a guest each week.”