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Nate Whittaker has a passion for social justice, South Africa, and student advising

As an academic adviser to low-income, first-generation college students, Nate Whittaker, M.Ed. ’06, can relate to the often untraditional path that his students take to get to college. His own family moved a lot while he was in high school, and he also faced health issues, so his grades suffered. College wasn’t an automatic next step for him.

“I was undergoing a lot. I think I had what it took but had too many issues at home,” says Whittaker. “I knew nothing about college, but something was always there telling me I needed to go.”

After a semester in community college, Whittaker was admitted to the University’s former General College in 1996. He says he immediately felt supported by his advisers and the new friends he made in the residence halls. But he struggled academically until he tapped into his interests in social justice and youth work—issues with which he felt a personal connection after living with an abusive stepfather. An adviser encouraged him to meet with Terrance Kwame-Ross, an adjunct faculty member in the youth studies program.

“I had planned a half-hour meeting and ended up spending more than three hours with him,” Whittaker remembers. “Taking the first introductory course in youth studies changed everything for me. I finished college really strong.”

After graduation, Whittaker followed his passion for working in social justice by moving to South Africa. He had always been interested in understanding apartheid and was able to witness firsthand the country’s restorative justice approach to the human rights abuses of apartheid.

“This idea of forgiveness in exchange for truth was profound to me,” he says. “I went around the country talking and listening about reconciliation and came back a profoundly changed person.”

In South Africa, Whittaker worked at two youth organizations and was a member of the South African National Association of Childcare Workers. One of the goals he set for himself was to continue his education. So when he moved back to Minnesota, he started the master’s program in youth development leadership. While completing the program, he got a graduate assistantship as an adviser with the TRIO programs and has been there ever since.

“I’ve learned a lot about access to higher education and been surrounded by phenomenal people that have helped me grow professionally,” Whittaker says.

Whittaker has also found a way to remain connected to South Africa. Since 2010 he’s taught a global seminar in South Africa over winter break, Tracing the Footsteps of Social Change. The course, offered in collaboration with two youth organizations, emphasizes service learning and volunteerism; students attend an entry retreat provided by Educo Africa and then volunteer through Afrika Tikkun.

“A lot of students want to know how they can be helpful as an American going into these poverty-stricken areas,” says Whittaker. “So we ask these organizations what they need, and try to do what we can. They often need the support of everyday mundane things, like the gardens tended and buildings painted.”

In exchange, the students are shown township life. They make home visits and experience a free clinic; sometimes they go out in the streets to hand out toys to kids. Students reflect on their experiences in a class blog.

Whittaker says a lot of the students come back to the United States completely changed. Some decide to change their majors so they can focus more on social justice, and many end up enrolling in the social justice minor. One student started a racial-dialogue group at her high school with her mother. Some students have returned to Africa for another study abroad experience.

Whittaker considers South Africa his second home and would like to live there again, possibly while he completes a Ph.D. In his limited free time, he’s also a house music producer and deejay and is starting a philanthropic record label named Pluralistic Records. Artists will donate a portion of their royalties to nonprofits that work with youth and the arts.

“This record label is kind of a way for me to match my academic and music lives,” he says. “I’m very busy but I love it.”

Nate Whittaker won the University’s 2013 Josie R. Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award. Learn more Whittaker and about the youth studies and youth development leadership programs in the School of Social Work.

Story by Christina Clarkson | February 2013

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