When Hezekiah Williams grows up, he wants to become an influential leader in the black community.
The 12-year-old from the Toronto-based Strong Academy has set his sights on becoming a famous actor, but mostly wants to use that status to make a difference in the lives of others.
Williams was among more than 65 students from the summer academy who shared their dreams with one another during a two-day visit to Brock University. The academy is aimed at advancing the life skills of young black males, aged 11 to 14, by building their educational potential.
“We’ve been learning a bit about the things we want to do and how we can achieve those goals,” Williams said of his trip to St. Catharines, which included a variety of activities on campus and an overnight stay in Brock’s residences on Tuesday, July 17.
During their visit, students learned about post-secondary opportunities, experienced Health Sciences lab demonstrations, took in a forensic psychology/criminology discussion, visited Brock’s High Performance Centre and challenged themselves on the high ropes course.
University President Gervan Fearon spent time with the young men Wednesday morning, speaking about the importance of setting goals and sharing his own story of how he got to where he is today as the first and only black president of a Canadian university.
Fearon spoke about education as key to achieving any goal in life and encouraged the students to set goals for themselves along their path to success.
“Sometimes we think the challenges we face block us from opportunities,” he told the crowd of students. “But some of the challenges you face actually create new avenues and pathways you may not have explored.
“The idea of strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities really becomes about how you internalize it.”
He stressed to the youths that whether or not they realize it, they are each a role model to someone in life.
“You each have something you’re able to teach and contribute to others,” Fearon said. “There are students in lower grades, family members or friends who are looking up to you and saying to themselves, ‘look what he’s achieved.’”
Dwayne Hartley, Strong Academy Leader for Durham, said the summer program is meant to teach youths that whatever they set their minds to, they can achieve.
“Bringing them to Brock University sends the message that we have faith in them,” he said. “We’re planting seeds that we hope will grow over time and help them to become their best academic and human selves by building character and life skills that promote being active citizens of Canada and the world.”
Hartley said the students’ visit with Fearon was particularly impactful.
“It helped to emphasize the idea that even though they may not see a lot of people who look like them in certain positions, it is achievable,” he said. “It’s also helpful for them to understand that President Fearon has had similar experiences in his own rearing that might have been perceived as a limit, but he overcame it.”
Fearon said when he looks at the Strong Academy students, he sees a combination of “possibility, future aspirations and dreams.”
“I also see myself in them,” he said. “And consequently, I hope in a little way that they see themselves in me also.”
The young visitors were also treated to a talk by Brock Associate Professor of Education Dolana Mogadime, who provided them with inspiring words of wisdom offered by Nelson Mandela. Mogadime is currently working with the Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibition at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, where she has been conducting educational workshops for school leaders.
The Strong Academy visit fell on Nelson Mandela International Day, celebrated around the world on Wednesday, July 18, which would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday.
Calling the visit “1,000 per cent a success,” Hartley said he is hopeful the partnership between Strong Academy and Brock University will continue to grow moving forward.
“It really helped them to see that university isn’t this big unknown.”
Fearon said it’s important for Canadian universities to ensure they are accessible to all.
Part of that responsibility, he said, includes emphasizing equity, inclusion and diversity.