After 13 years as the Executive Director of the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE), Dr. Wilhelmina Holder retired in January 2018. She first came to WISE when the position for Executive Director opened up in 2004 and saw it as an opportunity to be involved in her community. “I love education,” says Dr. Holder, “and this was focusing on helping youth and women get educated and empowering them to be successful. That was my goal. I wanted to help other people, so I applied.”
Dr. Holder is an immigrant from Liberia, and she came to the United States in 1985. She originally came for one year via the Hubert H. Humphrey fellowship program at the University of Minnesota. The program was her way to maintain the safety of her family due to the political upheaval in Liberia at the time.
Dr. Holder came to the U.S. with her four children, eventually followed by her husband. Even though her fellowship was only a year long, Dr. Holder was determined to stay in the U.S. She applied for her Ph.D in Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota, and since she already had a medical doctor and public health degree, it was easy for her to get accepted. “I stayed there as a student for seven years until I could get my green card,” says Dr. Holder. “If I hadn’t stayed as a student I would have had to leave and go home.”
By the time Dr. Holder was getting ready to return to her home country, the civil war broke out in Liberia, prompting her to extend her stay in Minnesota. She decided to graduate out of her program with a masters degree, fortunate that her years at the University as a research assistant and teaching assistant allowed her children to receive their undergraduate education there at a reduced rate. Her children went on to pursue different careers from education and law to the arts and medicine.
Plans after Retirement
Dr. Holder retired in January, but she continued as a consultant with WISE until June 2018 on two projects. Her retirement is the first step towards her vision of working with the Liberian diaspora. She states:
“In my spirit, I feel I need to help Libera more. I would have never left my country, and actually, I had no intention of coming to America; but it was the civil unrest and the war, etc. Now that my children are all educated, married, and settled, I decided I needed to start thinking about going back home.”
Dr. Holder explained that the Liberian diaspora project will consist of organizing and mobilizing Liberians experiencing displacement to think about how they can develop their country. This project includes empowering Liberians to be independent and self-sufficient through leadership and life skills training.
Dr. Holder also wishes to go back to Liberia to open a clinic with her son who is also a physician. “I was very happy that I stayed in America, but now my country needs me and I need to go back,” she says. She plans to focus her clinic on the promotion of health and wellness, and disease prevention. She intends to employ the help of Liberian citizens with skills in the areas of construction, farming, canning, brewing, and more, in order to sustain the clinic.
Working at WISE
In her time at WISE, Dr. Holder poured her passion into supporting WISE’ Girls Getting Ahead in Leadership (GGAL) and WeLEAD programs working with middle school, high school and college students. She enjoyed working with other staff that were as equally committed to the agency’s mission as she. “There will always be girls to help . . . As long as we have a strong and committed staff, WISE will always go on.”
Dr. Holder’s most memorable experience at WISE was a conversation she had with a GGAL participant. The young girl explained that when she told her teacher she wanted to pursue higher education, the teacher responded in doubt due to her minimal English language ability. Nevertheless, the young girl stood up for herself, all the more determined to reach her dreams. It was experiences such as this that motivated Dr. Holder to spend so many years supporting immigrant and refugee girls. “For this girl to say, ‘I can do it, and I will do it.’ I was very impressed by her. She was just (assertive)….I love it. It reminds us don’t give up so easily. Don’t let anyone determine your path but yourself, ” explains Dr. Holder.
A Nostalgic, but Hopeful Goodbye
Dr. Holder hopes to see WISE thrive even more in the future. Even though Dr. Holder is moving on to new prospects, she will always support WISE and it’s mission to empower immigrant and refugee women and girls. “My heart will always be at WISE. I will always support WISE and the girls.”
Thank you, Dr. Wilhelmina Holder for 13 wonderful years with the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment!