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Introducing the Black Emerging Leaders Academy for Undergraduate Students

Black Emerging Leaders Academy (BELA) logo

The Black Emerging Leaders Academy (BELA) is an all-new program within UIC Business that provides African-American/Black undergraduate students with multi-faceted support throughout their first two years of college. Benefits of BELA also include a $3,000 scholarship for students who complete the program.

Launched during the summer of 2023, BELA featured a two-week long bridge program that introduced students to learning and development opportunities related to leadership, team building, time management, wellness, and more. Students also became familiar with a variety of campus offices: the Business Career Center, Disability Resource Center, Commuter and Off-Campus Life, Gender and Sexuality Center, and Study Abroad. Additionally, Karen Wells, Chief Strategy and Diversity Officer of Make-A-Wish America, delivered a moving presentation about her leadership journey titled, “The Only One in the Room.”

Continue reading for more about BELA and the program’s impact on students.

A Conversation with BELA Founder, Shonta Durham-Wiersema, Assistant Dean, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Heading link

Black Emerging Leaders Academy students and staff posing for a group picture

Where did the idea for BELA come from?

The idea for BELA was really grounded in listening to the student experience, seeking to fill a gap in which Black students were expressing the need for a sense of community within UIC Business. One of our main goals in creating this program was to foster the social belonging for Black students that contributes to their ability to thrive during their college experience.

Can you further explain the experiential, professional development, etc. activities that students participate in during BELA?

We have a host of workshops to engage students beginning during the two-week summer program. The workshops are designed around three pillars: identity exploration, leadership development, and campus engagement. Each of the pillars feature a series of workshops, including a series of dialogue sessions, designed for the students to explore their personal and social identity in a way that encourages them to practice communicating with others who carry different lived experiences.

Also, leadership workshops challenge students to create and articulate their own leadership leans while also examining their core values as well as the core values of selected businesses. Finally, students meet with various campus support resources, including the African American Academic Network (AAAN), Business Career Center (BCC), Gender & Sexuality Center, and the Disability Resource Center to hear from the many people who are invested in their success.

What do students gain from these activities?

It is our goal that students will gain an introduction to UIC through these activities, as well as a deeper understanding and confidence in terms of who they are as the next generation of diverse business leaders.

What should students do to make their BELA applications stand out?

We are looking for students who have been engaged during their high school experience and are eager to join the UIC Business community. Highlighting high school leadership experience and an excitement to begin in the college will be important for future BELA applications to stand out.

What is your take on the results that BELA produced this summer?

I have been so thoroughly impressed with the inaugural BELA 2023 cohort of students! The students were so engaging and open to the BELA experience. It felt like they had known each other for a long time. The students were present, thoughtful, and openly and vulnerably shared their experiences in a way that allowed each of us to learn and grow.

Student Perspectives Heading link

Jalen Tucker, Business Entrepreneurship Major, Computer Science Minor, ‘27

“BELA provided me with tons of information about campus life and options for studying abroad. Also, we were all taken on tours of UIC’s campus. My favorite highlight was visiting the African American Cultural Center.

The biggest piece of advice I would give to future BELA students would be to try to make as many friendships as possible. You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but make sure that you find a group of people that you like to be around because it will make the whole experience 10 times more enjoyable.”

Jalen Tucker, Business Entrepreneurship Major, Computer Science Minor, ‘27

Ashley Moncrief, Marketing Major, Leadership/Management Minor, ‘24

“From the moment that the BELA staff introduced themselves, I felt like everyone on the team was rooting for my success, not just by their words, but most significantly by their actions. For example, I explained to Shonta that I was applying for an internship and was interested in her help with my resume, and she helped me with no problem. I truly appreciated that.

Also, Karen Wells made a significant impact on me as well. Hearing about her accomplishments and her story was so inspiring, especially since she majored in Marketing while she was in college. I related to her in so many ways.”

Ashley Moncrief, Marketing Major, Leadership/Management Minor, ‘24

“As a business student, I am really looking forward to participating in many outstanding leadership and community service roles and then putting everything that I learn into a job that’ll eventually turn into my own business.

I want to emphasize the thanks and gratitude that I have to all the presenters and faculty that helped get this program started. There were times when I would pull one of the program leaders to the side to just talk about the life and the real world. They would give me real world and personal information/advice to help me see my problems differently. They are mentors with wonderful talents who enjoy helping us young Black leaders take it to the next step in life. It was such a blessing to meet them all.”

Markell Fields (Not Pictured), Business Administration Major, Communications Minor, ‘27

Words From BELA Staff Heading link

Sam Thornton, Program/Student Advisor, BELA Program Advisor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

“Participating as a Black leader, first-generation scholar, and Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion advocate, BELA holds a special place in my heart. BELA allows me to serve, equip, and provide our incoming student leaders with a safe environment to tackle complex ideas, flourish academically and socially, and embrace their true authentic selves.

Participating in BELA also gives me the ability to help cultivate a sense of belonging for our student leaders to bring forth their values and experiences to build unity further.”

Sam Thornton, Program/Student Advisor, BELA Program Advisor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Words From BELA Liaisons Heading link

Bernadette Poole, College Recruiter, BELA Lead Recruiter

“BELA allows students to build community, gain a sense of belonging, and motivates students to begin their college journey as their authentic self. I would love to see this program continue to grow. The transition from high school to college can already be challenging, but can be even more challenging for students that are adapting new surroundings and searching for a sense of belonging.

BELA helped students feel empowered to have a voice, to openly discuss their fears in a safe place and to know that they have a team of people in their corner. It took me some time when I was a student compared to half of what BELA was able to give in a two-week period.”

Bernadette Poole, College Recruiter, BELA Lead Recruiter

James Alford, Academic Advisor, BELA Academic Advisor

“BELA is very instrumental in preparing students for the first day of classes and letting them know what they should be prepared for on their new journey. Making that first day and first week of classes less stressful.

My favorite moment was seeing some of the organic interactions and communication from students. During the first week of the program, we had an outside game day in front of University Hall. When our formal BELA session ended, some students were still around hanging out and enjoying each other’s company.”

James Alford, Academic Advisor, BELA Academic Advisor

To learn more about BELA, please visit Business Connect. You may also email with additional questions.