Nate Whittaker2016 Rising Alumni

Nate Whittaker photo

For two decades, Nate Whittaker has been either a student or employee at the U of M. Nate has an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree with a minor in leadership, and a master’s degree in youth development leadership from the School of Social Work. Today, he is an advisor with the TRIO program on campus. In a great testament to his work, one of his former students said that she would not still be at the U of M if it weren’t for the confidence that Nate instilled in her and the advocacy he did on her behalf. Nate’s passion is social justice, and he is the volunteer director of an after school program in Cape Town, South Africa, which is also a service-learning site for a global seminar he teaches. He has been recognized for his work in increasing the number of underrepresented students who participate in study abroad. Nate gives back locally as a community activist and, in his spare time, runs a record label.


Associate Academic Advisor, University of Minnesota TRIO

CEHD Degree

B.S., Youth Studies, Sociology, and Educational Psychology Integrated Degree Program with minor in Leadership, 2001
M.Ed., Youth Development Leadership, (Focus: social justice and critical education), 2005

What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?

My work in South Africa, particularly my global seminar, has had an impact on the number of underrepresented students learning abroad. In five years, we have been extremely successful in recruiting a diverse student pool, with over half of the global seminar students being Pell recipients and 40% representing both low-income and first-generation populations. The past five seminars have also been chronicled as the most diverse student cohorts in relation to ethnicity in global seminar program history.

I have also advocated strongly for policy changes affecting barriers to study abroad for low-income students. With the support from the campus-wide Low-income Student Barriers Group, policy changes have occurred, including the deferment of program fees (Bridging Loan). The Bridging Loan was nominated for The Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education, which was given honorable mention in 2015.

Are you involved in any volunteer activities?

Currently, I am the Director of International Programs & Initiatives of a new after-school program in Cape Town called Bridges, which is a volunteer position. I am working with South African partners in the development of the program as a non-governmental organization in the township of Bellville South, Cape Town known for its substandard schools, lack of jobs, high rates of HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and crime. I am working on program development particularly related to best practices, organizational collaboration, international funding, and a pipeline for University of Minnesota students seeking service-learning or internship experiences abroad. I also serve on the Advisory Board and direct the “Building Bridges Buddies (B3)” program for sustained international funding in a socially just and responsible manner. I also developed the program’s website, all marketing, and brand.

Other volunteer experience includes:

  • Volunteer | Black Lives Matter | Minneapolis, Minnesota | January 2014 – Present.
  • Educator | Educo Afrika | Groot Winterhoek, South Africa | January 2011 – Present.
  • Volunteer | Afrika Tikkun | Cape Town, South Africa | December 2010 – January 2015.
  • Volunteer | National College Fair | Minneapolis, Minnesota | 2009 – 2014.
  • Member, Board of Directors | Project Legos | Minneapolis, Minnesota | June 2005 – June 2006.
  • Volunteer Team Member and Website Developer | J. Cameron and Associates Professional Development Consulting Company | April 2003 – June 2005.
  • Volunteer Website Developer | New City Charter School | May 2003 – December 2003.
  • Volunteer | Public Achievement | Belfast, Northern Ireland | January 2003.
  • Volunteer | Healthy Youth Development Space Initiative (HYDSI) | Minneapolis, Minnesota | September 1999 – May 2001.
  • Volunteer | African American Youth Leadership Training Initiative (AAYLTI) | Minneapolis, Minnesota | February 1994 – January 1998.

Individual Distinctions

  • Recipient of the Josie R. Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award | University of Minnesota Office for Equity and Diversity | 2013.
  • Recipient of the Distinguished Award for Global Engagement | University of Minnesota Global Programs and Strategy Alliance | 2013.
  • Recognized as learning abroad ‘Game Changer’ | International Studies Abroad | 2013.
  • Personal achievement profile featured on College of Education and Human Development website | 2013.
  • Featured in College of Education and Human Development Connect Magazine, “Global Learners: How Study Abroad Experiences Impact Students” | University of Minnesota | 2011.
  • Community Honorary | Minnesota Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild | 2005.
  • Program Winner | Living with a Disability 3 | University of Minnesota Housing and Residential Life | 2003.
  • National Residence Hall Honorary National Bronze Pin Recipient | National Association of College and University Residence Halls | 2000.
  • 4-Year Achievement Award | National Association of College and University Residence Halls (NACURH) | 2000.
  • Best University Program Award | Midwest Affiliates of College and University Residence Halls (MACURH) | 1999.
  • Top Ten Program Award | Midwest Affiliates of College and University Residence Halls (MACURH) | 1999.
  • Program Winner | “Living With A Disability” | University of Minnesota Housing and Residential Life | 1998.


  • Nominated for the MacJannet Prize for Community Engagement | Talloires Network and the MacJannet Foundation | 2013.
  • Nominated for the College of Education and Human Development Multicultural Recognition Award | University of Minnesota | 2013.

Group Distinctions

  • Lillian H. Williams Award in conjunction with University of Minnesota TRIO Programs | University of Minnesota Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action | 2014.
  • Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education honorable mention in conjunction with the University of Minnesota Learning Abroad Center | Institute of International Education | 2014.

What’s your favorite memory from UMN?

I have many wonderful memories from the U of MN; I have been either a student or employee on campus since 1996 so it’s difficult to think of all the incredible moments that had a large impact on my life. One memory that sticks out is the moment when I met Terrance Kwame Ross from Youth Studies. I was told by an advisor that I needed to meet this guy – that we would get along. I wasn’t a YOST major yet and I we had 30 minutes scheduled. After three hours with him, he had me in the YOST major, became a treasured mentor to me, and got me involved in his HYDSI program (Health Youth Development Space Initiative). For me, it was a major trajectory change!

What is a good book you would recommend to others?

Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer by Fr. Michael Lapsley…


A People’s History of America by Howard Zinn.

What professors and courses were most influential during your time in CEHD?

I have had too many influential professors/mentors to name yet there are a few who were vital to my success. Mike Baizerman, Terrance Kwame Ross, Leon Rodrigues, Lisa Albrecht, Lisa Kimball, August Nimtz, Rashne Jahangir, Bruce and Sharyn Schelske, and the late LeRoy Gardner and Harvey Carlson to name only a few. With regard to courses, I think the seminars required in my graduate program (Youth Development Leadership – YDL) were a wonderful way to gain hands-on practice to youth development as well as an opportunity to develop our own pedagogy. I really gained a lot from: WCFE5412: Experiential Learning Theory & Practice; WCFE5125: Critical Pedagogy; WCFE5411: Everyday Lives of Youth; GC1851: Multicultural Relations; and, YOST1001: Intro to Youth Studies.

What was the impact/benefit of your educational experience in CEHD?

My graduate program (Youth Development Leadership) included critical pedagogy, experiential learning, self-guided scholarship, and lasting relationships that changed the way I see, and understand, the world. The “banking system of education” was the first thing out the window in my experience, which put the power back in the hands of learners (learners who were teachers and teachers who were learners). No hot-button topic was left off the table: sexuality, oppression, ageism, co-cultures, experimentation, and more. This left us all with an authentic, safe, and hungry need to fill our brains and get into the community to work for the common good.

Who has inspired you the most during your career?

Without doubt, I have been inspired by TRIO students who climb walls on a daily basis and continue to forge forward. I am also inspired every day by my South African team: Mark Gamble, Mickayla Smith, Anthea Jansen, Wendy Noble, Sindiswa Mlilwana, and many others.

What skills are important to succeed as an emerging professional today?

In my opinion, it is not enough to build a race/class consciousness without asking ourselves to also develop a political consciousness simultaneously – to make change where the “rubber hits the road.” In social justice work, we know that the definition of “insane” is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results; we need to take more risks because our choices and actions have real effects on oppressed populations.

Existential meaning is also important to me: people who know why they are a professional in a certain arena of higher education make huge impacts on the institution. The ability for professionals to follow their passions, their vocational calling, creates change for the common good.

Curiosity is also important. Folks who absorb and seek out new creative skills and information on all types of topics really bring a lot to the profession.

When you have 30 minutes of free time, how do you spend it?

30 minutes? I never have 30 minutes. In reality, I work in TRIO full time, work on South Africa projects outside of the normal work scope (which includes my global seminar and NGO), am a professional DJ/producer, run a record label, and am an activist in the community. If I do have time, I tend to watch the Minnesota Wild games, play with my dog, or listen to music.

Who are you? How would others describe you?

I think most people would describe me as passionate. However, I also have been told that I am intimidating by many people, which is extremely bizarre to me.

Even though I’m enormously introverted, I’m often the focus of the party for some reason. I would say that “passionate” is accurate. I have an unwavering belief in equality for all and would sacrifice myself for the cause. This has led to relationship challenges at times. However, it is not well known that I am extremely reconciliatory and loving. I see the blueprints of my life very clearly and history is important to me. I have a pretty bad case of imposter syndrome; my history is full of trauma and I think this has a lot to do with the belief in myself. I have a lot of rhythm and need music to endure.

If you could have coffee with anyone from history, who would it be?

Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Fidel Castro, Karl Marx, or the Beastie Boys!

What gets you excited about work?

I really, REALLY, like my team in TRIO. They make each day fun, interesting, educational, and safe. Greg, Kirsten, Amy, Fran, and the other TRIO professionals (McNair and Upward Bound) are brilliant people who have together, created a space like no other on campus. A space where we are free to be ourselves (which is not necessarily common on campus) and where we can experiment, challenge, yell, laugh, and be a bit inappropriate at times when we need a good laugh and an escape from the reality of the challenges facing our students and program. I am so terribly lucky to be in TRIO. Important work is happening here.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be an astronaut. Once I was in high school, I shifted towards wanting to be a pilot.

Outside of your job, how do you grow professionally?

Community education and activism with others; there is so much learning on the street that it has changed my life.

What’s a fun fact about you?

I am an animal lover: I have a wonderful Labrala dog named Dio whom I love with all my heart and also collect aquarium fish, particularly African Cichlids. In the past, I had another dog (Barney the Beagle), cat (Mitsy), and Ball Python (Reznor).