May 16-22 2003
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IN THIS ISSUE
Bond, Morse, Terry win 2003 Sullivan Awards
Advocate for diversity leads by example
Finals factoids
Music major creates programs for local schools

Tragedy spurs Muslim student’s effort to bring understanding

Finding history among the trees
Community through architecture
Moving toward a more inclusive environment
Jobe leads with faith, activism
Exploring vast worlds with Harrison Awards
Harvey blends work, study with passion for civic participation
Designing women sow success
Merging technology, music and art
From one-room school to athletic field
Persistence pays for Ukrainian student
Swimmer sets her eyes on Olympic event
Firefighting ideal job for Jefferson Scholar
Pruett’s ready to deploy, but not to leave her kids
Cancer survivor helps others

Exploring vast worlds with Harrison Awards

Student helping people see problems as ‘not unconquerable’

Harvey blends work, study with passion for civic participation

Some of the children who live at Kasisi
Photos by Elizabeth Whelan

“I still haven’t reconciled Zambia,” writes Elizabeth Whelan in the introduction to her honors thesis, which documents in photographs and poetry her time spent there in the Kasisi Orphanage. Above are some of the children who live at Kasisi. Whelan’s thesis also includes photos and poems that reflect her time in Honduras, and how people, like this farmer tending his cornfield (below), are trying to rebuild following the devastation of Hurricane Mitch.

By Robert Brickhouse

Elizabeth Whelan, a photographer and writer, has few illusions that anyone can solve all the world’s social problems and inequalities.

Elizabeth Whelan
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
From Elizabeth Whelan’s Honors Thesis, "Rainy Season"
I’ve always been drawn to art, but I’ve questioned its practicality. For a long time I wished to have an interest in medicine or something that could produce a tangible, beneficial response to a problem. Though I never saw my artistic tendencies as more than a source of pleasure, art always naturally found a space in my life. But somehow my perspective has undergone a radical shift. I increasingly see art as having the potential to be both beautiful and useful. The process of trying to express suffering is part of the process of its diminishment. The action of creation is bound up with justice. In this sense, there is nothing more practical than photography and writing.

But she believes a bigger danger is to give in to despair or cynicism. So she uses her frustration to work for change, “even if it appears to be insignificant.” She’ll spend next year with a National Hunger Fellowship, one of about 20 people in the country selected by the Congressional Hunger Center to work at grassroots levels with national anti-poverty organizations.

A Phi Beta Kappa English and religious studies major, Whelan once volunteered to teach preschool at an orphanage in Zambia, took hundreds of photographs and, through an independent study project, created a Web site with a photo essay. It has helped raise funds for the Kasisi Orphanage in Lusaka, where many of the children have AIDS.

The next summer, with a Harrison Undergraduate Research grant, she spent six weeks at a remote village in Honduras, documenting the role of religion in people’s daily struggle to recover from Hurricane Mitch. This essay, including photos and poems, was published in U.Va.’s undergraduate research journal Oculus and presented to several forums. Another article and more photos about the village appear in the current issue of the Women’s Center’s national-circulation journal, Iris.

“If you pass someone from this place on one of the steep mountain trails and greet them, when you ask how they are they will often respond, ‘luchando,’ or fighting,” she wrote. “This is how they understand themselves: as fighting for survival in a world that is indifferent. ... I would have called their fields idyllic if I didn’t see how hard they worked. Every so often they would stop hoeing, look up at me with my camera, and laugh.”

Photography has been one of Whelan’s passions since high school. “She’s a natural with a camera,” and her skilled handling of black-and-white “is becoming a rarity,” said one of her advisers, the photographer-anthropologist David Sapir.

Whelan said she hopes the people she photographs are seen as “someone not all too different from the viewer.” She doesn’t want anyone to think “how sad” but, rather, “This problem is not unconquerable. How can I help?”

farmer tending his cornfieldEncouraged by her parents, she has always been interested both in art and social issues and has managed to put the two interests together. Among a handful of students accepted into the English department’s poetry-writing major, she credits several of her teachers, including the poets Rita Dove, Debra Nystrom and Lisa Spaar, as helping her see that creativity and social concerns aren’t mutually exclusive.

Whelan also has been awarded several scholarships for public service and leadership at U.Va. She was co-founder and president of a group called HOPE that promotes discussion about eating disorders. “Many young women at U.Va. worry about these issues,” she said. Like hunger, an eating disorder is a nutrition problem and an indicator of something amiss in our society, she said. “Food is an obsession for most people, whether one has it or not.”

Whelan was brought up in a socially conscious family. Her mother, a teacher, and her father, an agricultural economist, took her and her brothers and sisters to Africa for an aid project and wound up staying for five years. They lived in a comfortable house, but “it was not unusual to find my mother collecting food in the pantry for a hungry passerby at our door,” Whelan recalled. “I learned that hunger was, and is, everywhere.”

When she went back to Zambia as a U.Va. student to volunteer, she suffered a period of disillusionment. She didn’t see how such work did much good. She remembers seeing a once-lively girl she had known who was now stricken by AIDS. Whelan’s brother Matthew, a U.Va. alumnus in the Peace Corps, advised her to try writing poetry to deal with her frustration. Soon she joined him in Honduras for another photography-and-writing project.

Another brother, Kevin, also joined the Peace Corps after graduating from U.Va. Her younger brother Joseph will enter U.Va. in the fall.

Whelan herself, with her Congressional Hunger Center fellowship, will work for six months at a food bank or community kitchen and then go to Washington for six months at the headquarters of a national organization involved in the fight against hunger or poverty. And, of course, she plans to keep on with her writing, poetry and photography.

 


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