For Journalists




Student Helping People See That ‘No Man Is An Island’

May 7, 2003 -- Elizabeth Whelan, a photographer and writer, has few illusions that anyone can solve all the world’s social problems and inequalities.

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 grass-roots levels with national anti-poverty organizations.

A Phi Beta Kappa English and religious studies major, Whelan once volunteered to teach pre-school 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 appears 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?”

Encouraged 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. One of her activities has been as 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 went in 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, D.C., 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.

Contact: Lee Graves, (434) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


UVa News Sources UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa News Sources UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page

Top News site edited by Dan Heuchert (; maintained by Karen Asher (; releases posted by Sally Barbour (
Last Modified: Wednesday, 07-May-2003 15:41:33 EDT
© 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia
Top News Information: (434) 924-7676.


News Sources UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page News Sources UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa News Sources UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa News Sources UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar Uva Home Page