It’s a program that will empower and support Black students at Western to gain valuable leadership experience in the community as they prepare for future careers.
The newly launched Western Black Leadership University Experience (Western B.L.U.E.) program provides paid part-time leadership experiences for 20 Black students. Funded by the university and hosted by organizations in the London, Ont. area, students work alongside a dedicated mentor on a challenge identified by the community partner.
“The fundamental principle of Western B.L.U.E. is this: Given opportunity and support, Black students excel, thrive and are successful,” said Opiyo Oloya, associate vice-president of equity, diversity and inclusion. “This initiative not only provides opportunities for Black students to gain practical work experience, it also provides space to acquire, develop and hone leadership skills. It sets our Black students on the path to success when they graduate with the skillset, experience and motivation much sought after by industry today.”
The idea for the program was spurred by advocacy from Black students at Western who identified that one of the major barriers to employment was gaining meaningful work experience in the community and being paid for the work.
The project was coordinated by Jessica Ouko, project associate in the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion who was hired as part Western’s Career Launch Program.
“It is one thing to have an idea, and another altogether to turn it into a practical initiative,” said Oloya.
The program is part of Western’s commitment to creating a diverse and equitable campus, and to support opportunities and partnerships that advance Black inclusion on campus and in the wider community.
“It is well-documented that Black and other racialized individuals face significant barriers when applying for jobs and moving into leadership positions within the organizations they work for, and this program is an important step to removing those barriers,” said President Alan Shepard. “I’m proud of the progress we’re making at Western to support Black and other equity-deserving students and we are committed to doing more.”
As part of Western B.L.U.E., third-year psychology student and Black Students’ Association member Olateju Julianah Obisesan was matched with mentor Yvonne Asare-Bediako, the City of London’s Black community liaison advisor. Obisesan will be involved in community outreach to gather feedback and input from the Black community in London as the city begins work on its action plan to address anti-Black racism.
“Being able to be in a position where I can listen to the Black community about what they need, their lived experiences and where they come from, and contribute to an action plan is going to be really fulfilling and really empowering,” said Obisesan. “I’m also so excited to be able to be a pioneer in this program that has never existed at Western before, and I’m so thankful to everyone who made it happen.”
As a community partner, Asare-Bediako hopes the program will help these student leaders learn new skills through experiential learning, get mentorship from others in the field and build networks as they transition from university into a career. “You need networks and people in the field who can support and guide you on this journey,” she said.
Also a Western grad, Asare-Bediako, PhD’14, says she wishes a program like this had existed when she was a student trying to find her way and fulfill her passion for community work.
“As a Black woman, I can attest to the many barriers experienced when Black people – especially Black women – attempt to transition from academia into the workforce. I’m so excited not just for the opportunity to mentor, but for the mentees because they have a brilliant opportunity to find themselves while learning, exploring and honing new skills.”
Western B.L.U.E.’s key objectives are to demonstrate the passion, talent and knowledge of Black student leaders in the community, to help Black students develop transferable skills through work-integrated learning and community partnerships, to create meaningful income-earning opportunities and to develop a strong network of Black student leaders who can offer guidance and mentorship to future program participants.
For Panashe Nyaude, an international student from Zimbabwe, the program is an opportunity to further her passion for health care.
“Growing up, I have always wanted to do something in the health-care space, and I want to part of something that helps communities have better health care systems for themselves,” she said. “Being able to work on an independent project with the support of a mentor helps to build you as a person and creates opportunities for growth.”
Matched with the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, she will be researching medical leaders who are from underrepresented groups and who have made significant impacts on the health sciences and medicine in Canada. The goal is to help stimulate more diverse nominations for its laureates.
The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame is one of 12 community partners who submitted a challenge as part of the program. Organizers are hopeful community engagement will continue to grow.
“When we heard about the B.L.U.E. program it just seemed like such an awesome win-win,” said Canadian Medical Hall of Fame executive director Lissa Foster. “B.L.U.E. is helping us to act on our own equity and inclusion strategic priorities while giving a student valuable and relevant work experience.”