Taking the Lead

Peter Huynh/New University

Nikishna Polequaptewa, on-campus director of the American Indian Resource Program, has been selected this year as the inaugural fellow of a UC Leadership program designed to groom people of color for leadership positions within the UC system.


Polequaptewa, who helped  create the position, has been matched with the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at UCSF. Vice Chancellor Gomez will help to mentor Polequaptewa for a year to help prepare him for a leadership position. Polequaptewa was chosen for this position because of a dearth of Native Americans in leadership positions in the University of California. This position allows him access to a new skill set which he may be able to apply later in his career.


“The fellowship is designed to create more qualified Native American senior level managers in the UC systems,” said Polequaptewa.


“Right now there’s zero in all 10 campuses. We have staff members and professional staff like myself, but no upper management.”


The leadership fellow program is not designed to create positions for people of color in the UC but to create more qualified applicants for those positions. If the pilot year is successful, the program will rotate annually between campuses. Polequaptewa began his work in the fellowship in January 2012 and will continue until 2013.


Polequaptewa, who received his bachelor’s and master’s in UCI’s computer science program, attends monthly meetings with the vice chancellor and his staff in San Francisco. Together they address policy issues which help to prepare Polequaptewa for an executive position. Polequaptewa emphasizes, however, that he is not the only person to benefit from this arrangement.


“I work with the vice chancellor and his entire leadership team. I get to meet with them one-on-one and see how they make their decisions and why, what is their purview and what is the most difficult thing for them to do and I get some advice and offer some advice and help them with their programs. We work to develop a mutually beneficial situation.”


Polequaptewa is the first Native American to benefit from such a program. Though it is his goal to see more people of color in leadership positions, he says that he does not believe that affirmative action should be the sole priority of the program, but rather to present a different perspective to leadership officials within the UC.


Polequaptewa’s first project as a leadership fellow will be to help create a multicultural center on campus at UCSF similar to the Cross Cultural Center at UCI. He says he hopes his method for establishing this center will be used to help set up similar centers on different campuses. He insists that the nature of this center is purely coincidental, and is trying to avoid being pigeonholed as someone who only confronts Native American issues.


“I’m actually a little worried about it,” said Polequaptewa.


“Being a person of color and coming from an underrepresented minority group, you don’t want to get pigeonholed. I think that’s very limiting. I can advocate and understand those issues and problems in the community, but that’s not all I do. I’ve seen it happen to other people, especially Native American program directors. You get established and you get a reputation for being the person who handles native stuff. There’s nowhere up from there. There’s no Vice Chancellor of Native American Affairs.”


Though Polequaptewa is thankful for this opportunity, he is hesitant to make plans for the future. He says that he has faith that the creator will steer him in the right direction. Though the fellowship will be challenging, he is optimistic for the future. “I think this fellowship is a key that will allow more Native American staff members into leadership positions. We don’t want diversity so far as affirmative action, that doesn’t help anybody, but as a person from a Native American heritage and background I have different values and understandings of problem solving and the world and a lot of times if you try to solve problems from the same perspective every year, you can get the same result but if you look at it from different angles, I would be more inclusive because sometimes you can get better or different results.”