A legacy of service

One family makes a 15-year mark on the University of Virginia

Kate Whelan was the last of five siblings to attend the University of Virginia in a row. Her older brother, Kevin, received a Sullivan Award in 2001

When students decide to attend a college following in the footsteps of a relative who attended previously, they are known in university admissions-speak as a ‘legacy.’ It’s a bit of a grandiose term for a pretty common occurrence. Not so, however, in the case of the Whelan family at the University of Virginia.

The family consists of parents Pam and Will Whelan—who moved the family to Vienna, Virginia 30 years ago in part because of the excellent public education system in the state—and their five children: Matthew, Kevin, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Kate.

The siblings took full advantage of that educational system. All five attended the University of Virginia and created a streak in which at least one Whelan was a student over a span of 15 years, from 1996 to 2011.

The commitment to U.Va. is not the only thing the Whelan children have in common. The family has always emphasized service. In fact, Kevin, the second oldest Whelan, received a Sullivan Award upon his graduation in 2001.

“Service has always been important in our family,” says Will Whelan. “As a father that really makes me proud. That tells me that Virginia is a good place, an outstanding university, where service is cultivated.”

Fifteen years in five careers

Matthew, 33, graduated in 2000, majoring in religious studies and English. After graduation, he worked for the Peace Corps in Honduras and earned a master’s degree in agriculture in Costa Rica.

Kevin, 32, graduated in 2001 from the honors program in government and foreign affairs. He won the Raven Award in addition to his Sullivan Award, recognizing in particular his deep involvement in Madison House volunteer service programs. In the summer of 2000, he had a fateful internship with the policy-planning unit in the office of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright; he now works as a lawyer for the State Department.

Elizabeth, 29, was a Phi Beta Kappa English and religious studies major in the class of 2003. A passion for photography began in high school and led her to do several U.Va. photography projects, including documenting the Kasisi Orphanage in Lusaka, Zambia where many of the children have AIDS. Funded by a Harrison Undergraduate Research grant, she documented the role of religion in a remote village in Honduras struggling to recover from Hurricane Mitch, with the resulting photos and related poems and essays eventually published in U.Va.’s undergraduate research journal, Oculus, and the Women’s Center’s journal, Iris.

Joseph, 25, earned his bachelor’s degree in 2007, majoring in religious studies and anthropology, then joined the Peace Corps. He now works as a ranger at Denali National Park in Alaska. He does interpretive work and interacts with visitors in three languages.

Kate, the last Whelan to graduate, worked with the Catholic Student Ministry group and lived in and worked for a Catholic shelter in New York City for women and children facing domestic abuse or homelessness. Her first job after college was with the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate those wrongfully convicted of crimes and pushes for other reforms that might prevent future wrongful convictions.

A lasting impact

While this group of siblings certainly has a great deal in common, each of them found their own way.

“None of us felt as if we were conforming or following in footsteps,” Kate said. “It was a coincidence in a way.”

And just as U.Va. had a profound impact on the Whelans, the family left quite a mark on the university.

“My gratitude to the Whelan parents, Pam and Will, is enormous,” says Vanessa Ochs, a religious studies professor. “They have raised up the kind of young people that teachers dream of educating: smart, focused, compassionate, self-critical, and always aware of the big picture.”

Ochs and her husband Peter, also a religious studies professor, taught all five of the siblings at one point or another. The families have become close friends.

“I would be altogether bereft,” says Ochs, “if not for the fact that there are tiny Whelans who may one day come our way.”

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