May 25, 2011 — Kate Whelan's graduation Sunday from the University of Virginia marked the end of an era. As the youngest of five Whelan siblings – all of them now University alumni – Kate ended 15 continuous years of Whelans at U.Va. with her walk down the Lawn.
No members of the U.Va. community were more affected than Peter and Vanessa Ochs, religious studies professors in the College of Arts & Sciences. Between them, they taught all five – Matthew, Kevin, Elizabeth, Joseph and Kate – four of whom went on to major in religious studies.
"My gratitude to the Whelan parents, Pam and Will, is enormous," Vanessa Ochs said, "for 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."
Over the years the Whelan and Ochs families have grown close, and the Ochs invited the Whelans over on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Kate's graduation and all that they have shared together. As has been a common custom for thousands of years, but is ever-less-common in modern America, the Ochs prepared a feast, then toasted and exchanged gifts with the Whelans.
The Ochs' repast of Middle Eastern and Eastern European Jewish foods was reminiscent of feasts several of the Whelans studied or helped prepare as part of Ochs-taught courses on "Introduction to Judaic Traditions" or "Feasting, Fasting and Faith in Jewish and Christian Traditions." The meal featured a celebratory "kugel" (a Jewish casserole of egg noodles, cottage cheese, raisins, almonds and cinnamon); a salad of fresh greens from the Ochs' backyard garden, to honor Matthew Whelan's work in agriculture; a "shepherd's plate" of dates, cashews and caraway-spiced cheese; baba ghanoush and pita; grape leaves stuffed with rice; and Balkan and Jewish styles of halvah, a sesame seed paste confection.
The uniqueness of the feast was a fitting acknowledgement of just how unusual it is to have five siblings attend the same college. That alone would be rare, Vanessa Ochs said, but to have all five siblings connect with the religious studies department, and with the Ochs ... "I've never heard of anything like this among any of our colleagues," she said.
When moving to the Washington region more than 25 years ago, the Whelan parents chose to settle in Vienna, Virginia partly because of Virginia's strong public universities, Will Whelan said. "It felt funny to be considering that when our oldest child was in first grade." But the decision turned out to be a fateful one.
Although the younger siblings, Joseph and Kate, grew up with fond memories of visiting U.Va. for long weekends and graduations, each Whelan sibling independently chose to attend U.Va.
"None of us felt as if we were conforming or following in footsteps," Kate said. "It was a coincidence in a way."
Although each Whelan charted their own path through U.Va. and beyond, each has also demonstrated a common commitment to their family tradition of faith and service to the most needy, Vanessa Ochs said.
"Service has always been important in our family," said Will Whelan, a senior food security advisor in the Office of Food for Peace in the United States Agency for International Development. After graduating, all five children have gone on to do service. "As a father that really makes me proud. That tells me that Virginia is a good place, an outstanding university, where service is cultivated.
"They are learning leadership here. The elements of leadership are not always obvious. They are intellect, charisma, energy, information, position. Those kinds of characteristics are nurtured here."
Matthew, 33, graduated from the College 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. Now married with a 2-year old daughter, he is enrolled at Duke University pursuing a Ph.D. in theology with a focus on the intersection of moral theology and agriculture.
Kevin, 32, graduated in 2001 from the honors program in government and foreign affairs. He won the Raven Award and one of his class's two Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards, recognizing excellence of character and 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. He is married and has a baby daughter.
Next came Elizabeth, 29, 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. After several jobs involved in the fight against hunger and poverty, she is now working on a master's degree in food policy and applied nutrition at Tufts University.
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 Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and was unable to attend Kate's graduation weekend.
An Echols Scholar, Kate, 21, double-majored in religious studies and global development studies, making her part of the first graduating class of global development studies.
Kate's essay on "The Transmission of Memory through Food" for Vanessa Ochs' class on "Judaism, Medicine and Healing" won honorable mention in the 2009 Jewish studies essay contest, and she graduated with "Highest Honors" in the Religious Studies Distinguished Major Program.
Kate worked with the Catholic Student Ministry group, supported by St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish. Last summer, she lived in and worked for a Catholic shelter in New York City for women and children facing domestic abuse or homelessness.
Following in the footsteps of her parents, who met while working for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in the 1970s, Kate's first job will be as a JVC employee in New Orleans, working for the Innocence Project, which has chapters all over the country, including at U.Va. The Innocence Project works to exonerate those wrongfully convicted of crimes and pushes for other reforms that might prevent future wrongful convictions.
Kate's possible future interests include law, social work and counseling, but she intends to gain some experience in those fields before committing to a career, she said.
Saying goodbye Sunday evening, as the sun dimmed behind clouds, there were tear-streaked cheeks mixed with smiles, but mostly an atmosphere of deep affection and appreciation.
"I would be altogether bereft," Vanessa said, "if not for the fact that there are tiny Whelans – Matthew's and Kevin's toddler daughters – who may one day come our way."