Posted 12:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, 2024

Will Van Roosenbeek, director of the UWL Pride Center, received this year's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award. The award recognizes La Crosse area leaders who are committed to building community, enhancing diversity and working toward justice for all.

Van Roosenbeek drives change on campus, in the community

Will Van Roosenbeek’s goal in life was to find a job where he would “love what I do and do what I love.” 

At UW-La Crosse, he has found exactly that. 

Van Roosenbeek, ’92 & ’97, has been the director of the UWL Pride Center since 2001, supporting the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ students and allies, and promoting the push for equity and inclusion on campus. 

UWL is where Van Roosenbeek not only discovered his potential as a first-generation college student and graduate student. It’s also where he found his professional calling. 

“Helping people get their needs met, figuring out the systems and supporting them along the way is an amazing job,” Van Roosenbeek says. “I also love educating the campus and the community about LGBTQ+ people. When I graduated from UWL with my undergraduate degree, I knew I would return and go into Student Affairs, and I am still loving it.” 

For his impact on campus and the community over the past two decades, Van Roosenbeek received this year’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award, recognizing La Crosse area leaders who are committed to building community, enhancing diversity and working toward justice for all.

Stacy Narcotta-Welp

Will is a true gift and treasure not only to UWL, but the greater La Crosse community,” says Stacy Narcotta-Welp, interim vice chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion. “His work over the years to advocate for the LGBTQA+ community, as well as those who are part of underrepresented groups, has broadened understanding and created spaces of belonging and inclusion. Will finds ways to bring people together over often contentious issues, and he has this uncanny ability to listen, reflect, and then find common ground to bridge the differences within those issues for deeper connection and understanding.” 

For Van Roosenbeek — who learned about King’s impact during a spring break trip to Atlanta in 1992, and later attended a Freedom Ride with area high-schoolers and community partners — the award is heavy with meaning. 

“This award is very special to me. Spending time at the King Center and learning all about Dr. King and nonviolence had a major impact on me,” Van Roosenbeek says. “So being recognized by the committee and the community means a lot to me. I am humbled and honored to receive this recognition.” 

Van Roosenbeek serves on the 7 Rivers LGBTQ Connection Board and the La Crosse Habitat for Humanity Family Selection Committee. He also volunteers with the La Crosse Community Foundation’s June Kjome Fund, which promotes local educational efforts around social justice issues. 

On campus, Van Roosenbeek says he is most proud of the Pride Center’s scholarship program. Each year, the Center awards $500 to an incoming student, $5,000 to a student studying abroad, $1,000 to a returning student and $1,000 to a QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color) student. 

Students established these scholarships using money raised during their annual drag show, and they are now supported by One Day for UWL. 

As someone from a first-generation, LGBTQ+ background, Van Roosenbeek knows the importance of providing students with ample resources and a strong support system. 

“(It) helped me to understand how complex college is and that if you do not have previous experience or people who can help you, you can get lost,” he says. “No two students’ experiences are the same, and it is up to me to create an environment where people feel comfortable asking for what they need or for help.  

“I saw students, faculty and staff who were hurt by the system, forgotten or who left. This helped me understand what I needed to do, the areas that I needed to focus and what to fight for.” 

As time passes, Van Roosenbeek says he continues to learn more about privilege, racism, ableism and other forms of prejudice — as well as the importance of speaking up and pushing for change. 

At UWL, he says, he’s met so many people who are eager to share their knowledge and work toward a common goal. Now, after 20-plus years, Van Roosenbeek can say he has been that person for others. 

“UWL offered me many opportunities to learn and grow,” he says. "This is something you never stop learning about.”