San Diego, California - When Chase Whittaker crosses the stage for two separate commencement celebrations this weekend, his family sitting in the audience won’t be the only ones beaming with pride. On the other side of the world, dozens of students and teachers in Zambia will be celebrating his achievement. 

During Whittaker’s time at San Diego State University, he made a difference in many people’s lives near and far. SDSU is recognizing his efforts with the 2018 Zahn Spirit of Innovation Award, given annually to a graduating senior for exceptional entrepreneurial achievement.

A born San Diegan, Whittaker always wanted to see more of the world than his cozy corner of the United States. After transferring to SDSU in 2016 from Grossmont Community College, he knew he wanted to study abroad—preferably somewhere in Africa, where he could experience languages, environments and cultures radically different from those he knew. 

He eventually decided on Zambia, where he spent a month in 2017 volunteering at an elementary school in the city of Livingstone. There, he saw children unable to attend school because their families needed them to work to make a living. He saw schools that weren’t able to pay their teachers. Yet he saw also mountains of generosity, compassion, intelligence and diligence. The Zambian people opened their hearts to him, and he couldn’t help but open his in return.

“My time in Zambia fundamentally changed and reinvigorated my drive to give back to my community and theirs,” Whittaker said. “Seeing a country full of people in need—yet with the brightest, warmest and most welcoming personalities I’ve ever encountered—impacted me in a way I can hardly describe.”

Building a foundation

When he returned to campus, Whittaker founded the SanD/Stone Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to providing education and hygiene-focused interventions for vulnerable populations in Zambia, the United States and Mexico. It’s an intentionally broad mission, he said, so that it can pivot to a diverse array of challenges without being hemmed in by too narrow a focus.

By sourcing grants from philanthropists and funding agencies and seeking partnerships with local and national companies, non-governmental organizations and governments, SanD/Stone has provided funding for nine months of education for children at a Zambian primary school and helped subsidize teacher salaries and school supplies at that school and others. SanD/Stone also provided more than $2,000 worth of play equipment to nearly a dozen schools and organizations in Zambia.

Closer to home, SanD/Stone has worked to deliver hygiene and self-care packs to homeless people living in San Diego, and given cleaning supplies, clothing and other needed goods to an orphanage in Tijuana.

Whittaker estimates that his initiative has had an economic impact of $70,845 across its various national and international ventures since it was launched last year.

Recognition of effort

In recognition of his initiative’s success, a committee of SDSU’s administrative, business and research leadership  selected Whittaker as the winner of this year’s Zahn Spirit of Innovation Award, which will be presented at the College of Health and Human Services commencement ceremony on Friday, May 11 at Viejas Arena.  

“Chase is an exceptional young man, who has shown both great creativity and great drive in tackling very real problems, from international issues in Zambia to local problems in San Diego,” said Stephen Welter, SDSU’s vice president for research and dean of graduate affairs.

Whittaker said he is humbled by the award, which in many ways is a validation of the lessons he learned from his studies at SDSU: that most things in the world are influenced by politics, but there is almost always a way to leverage people’s generosity to help others improve their lives.

"Winning this award and earning the respect and recognition of the committee has been one of the single most humbling, unforgettable, and life-changing experiences of my life,” he said. “I really can't express just how massive of an honor this truly is.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, the dual public health and political science major plans to attend an accelerated paralegal program at the University of California, San Diego, later this summer. After working as a paralegal for a while, Whittaker intends to go to law school and specialize in international human rights law, immigration law and civil rights and liberties.

The Zahn Spirit of Innovation Award is funded by Irwin Zahn and the Moxie Foundation and comes with a $25,000 scholarship. Zahn’s philanthropic giving goes beyond this annual scholarship. His donations also created the Zahn Innovation Platform Launchpad and the Zahn Professorship of Creativity and Innovation.