As I was chatting with senior Victor Sikeley on a Thursday afternoon, I soon realized he is going to change the world for the better. Sikeley, who’s a double major in leadership and management along with legal studies in business, was born in Ghana, West Africa, where he grew up in a refugee camp before immigrating to the United States in 2005. He now lives in Plymouth and is planning on attending the University of St. Thomas School of Law next year.
“A lot of things I went through back then truly inspired me to be what I want to be and do what I want to do, and part of the bigger reason why St. Thomas really resonated with me,” he said.
In my opinion, the truly remarkable aspect of Sikeley is that he is the founder of the company Initiative for a Better Africa (IBA, for short), which strives to make Africa a better place for everyone to learn. Sikeley’s project management class, taught by Ernest Owens, PhD, gave him the motivation to start this company, something he had been wanting to do for a long time. “It started out with just me. I [then] recruited five of my best friends growing up in high school who are also Liberians and born in refugee camps because of the war. We now have a team of 15 people; we have a team of eight in Liberia and [have] two partner schools we work with right now.”
But there is more to Sikeley than just IBA. He is passionate about school and learning, teaching and interacting with children, and dancing. With graduation slowly approaching, I had the chance to ask Sikeley why he chose St. Thomas in the first place, what he will miss about the school, and how St. Thomas helped make him the person he is today.
What made you come to St. Thomas?
When I was looking for colleges, I looked everywhere but St. Thomas. My dad got his master’s degree from St. Thomas so after awhile I said, “Maybe I should consider going there.” When I started to read and do a lot more studies about St. Thomas as a whole, [I found that] it was the perfect fit for me. I am very big on giving back to my community and doing work that betters the lives of others, and the whole concept of advancing the common good resonated so much with me. This is a place where I feel like what I am trying to do with my life is certainly going to be welcomed, encouraged and fostered. That was a big deciding factor. I am strong in my faith, I am a Christian, I love God and it was God giving back education. It [St. Thomas] was all in one, and I was like, “Why not?” Not to mention, I got offered the Dease Scholarship, a full-tuition scholarship, and that is an incentive I could never turn down, especially at such a great school.
Tell me more about Initiative for a Better Africa.
It is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to change Africa through education. Growing up, I had to walk 5-6 miles everyday to school because there was no transportation. I started kindergarten and first grade literally sitting underneath a tree with one of the elders in our village basically teaching us … there wasn’t a formal classroom. When I was able to go to a formal classroom, I didn’t have books. I had to pay tuition because school wasn’t free. My parents could afford school but couldn’t afford my books, and then when you got to school you didn’t have the resources you needed to learn. Classrooms would be one big hallway divided into multiple classrooms. It made learning really hard. I struggled to learn in that environment, and coming to the U.S. and seeing the education system, seeing the power education has, at IBA our goal is to deliver that same experience.
One of the biggest things we do is we try to get more girls in school, because in Africa, women and education are not simultaneous. I believe true change can only take place when the majority of women are on board. The reason why is our mothers are more caring and nurturing and they have the ability to really push social change, so I think when we educate women, as well as men, and show that girls can do just as much as boys can do, we would have a much better Africa. We have an initiative to get more girls in schools, empower them, and we also want to pay attention to children with disabilities who get zero to no attention in Africa because we just don’t have the resources. Everything has to do with education, improving it, supplying kids with school supplies, recreational resources to improve the young mind, to be inspired. We aren’t going to change the world but we are going to inspire those who will.
What’s one of the highlights from your time at St. Thomas?
Interactions with my professors have been one of the most impactful things I have experienced on this campus. Running a nonprofit organization like any other business is hard, but when you can get world-renowned consultants for free, who are your professors with years of experience, and they’re willing to meet with you outside office hours to have a conversation, to help you incorporate what you’re learning in the classroom in the real world, I think that has been such an amazing experience. I love every single bit of my time at St. Thomas.
What will you miss about St. Thomas after you graduate?
Hopefully if I get into the law school, not quite as much, but what I will miss on this campus are the different opportunities offered at the undergraduate level to further yourself. You don’t come here, pay your tuition, get a degree and leave. No, you come here and they’re like, “Hey, we have these speakers and these tutors, this opportunity and that.” They give you so much opportunity to see the world and explore the options you have. I will certainly miss that about St. Thomas and it is one of the most fortunate things I have had to experience at St. Thomas. There is help when you need it, whenever you need it. There are opportunities whenever you need it, and if you have a question about something, even if it isn’t about class, there is someone you can always ask. They will always point to where you need to go. [St. Thomas is] one of the most helpful places I have ever been in. I love every single bit of it.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
People like to say I am a glorified babysitter. The previous five years, I used to work with the YMCA; I was a youth development adviser. I worked during the school year with school-age students and my job was to provide an after-school space for them to be comfortable in, do homework, hang out, play with them and build that environment of positivity. In the summertime, I was a camp counselor. This past summer I was an assistant camp director, so basically I would do things from running a high ropes course, to lead a group of kids out onto the lake, canoeing, kayaking; just doing everything outdoorsy. Typically, the outdoors isn’t my place, but hanging out with a bunch of young kids who I see myself through has been so fun.
I work with youth in my spare time whenever I get a chance to. Now I work with the city of Brooklyn Park as a recreational leader where I work with teenagers and high schoolers to give them a safe space so they are not out on the streets causing trouble. I love that job because as a young black man in America, I understand the challenges that you go through, and I understand what it’s like to not have someone to look up to. I work with these kids as a mentor to help point them in the right direction; I couldn’t ask for more. When I am not doing that, I am going around to local elementary, middle, or high schools and speaking with groups of kids, inspiring them and show them that, “Hey, if you put your mind to it, no matter what you look like, what your differences are, you have the capabilities to succeed.” If I am not doing that, I am running IBA full time.
Describe your perfect day?
My perfect day would be showing up to class in the morning, especially my business law classes, learn some things, and go back and forth with my professors. Then I would go to work where I get to, no matter what mood I am in, hang out with a bunch of kids that challenge you, test you, and play with you. I go from having an argument or heated debate with a kid to all of a sudden having a Connect Four tournament with a group of 6-7-8th graders, to talking about the importance of getting a good grade to student-athletes who think it is more about athletics and less about school. For me, that is my ideal, perfect day. Not for most people, but for me. When I am done with that, I am usually either in the gym lifting or going out for a walk, or just having a conversation with my friends, just cracking jokes and laughing. Typically, that is how my day goes, so I got to say I live a happy life.
What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
I think the best one would have to be a Migos concert in Milwaukee my freshman year. I drove off campus, got on a bus, and drove all the way to Milwaukee for Migos and it was the most amazing experience of my life. It was so fun. I am a big fan of Migos, and I like dancing, so I was just out there dancing and doing my thing.