Josh Walehwa (center), associate director of residential life, talks with junior Sarah Lyon (right) and senior Mick Biehl in the Village House. “I think students view Josh as a down-to-earth person,” says Caitlin Hearns, 2010 WUSTL graduate and intern in the Office of Residential Life. “He is friendly, approachable and receptive to students’ needs on campus. It is very easy to communicate with Josh on a personal level, but he is also great at providing sound advice on more serious matters.”
Since Josh Walehwa and his family left Uganda and the dictatorship of Idi Amin in 1976, Walehwa has been surrounded by teachers who have encouraged and inspired him to aim higher and think bigger. But no mentor has been as important as his mother.
“She worked really hard and always had a couple of jobs,” says Walehwa, 35, associate director of residential life at Washington University. “She had five kids, was a single mom, and did extra work to save money to send back to Africa. She’s a survivor, and her strength really shone through. That’s been a big drive for me.”
It was her hard work — as well as the care Walehwa and his family received from many others — that instilled in him an ethic of wanting to be of service, an ethic that has carried through to his work today helping to guide the residential experiences of WUSTL students.
In his present position since 2007, his primary responsibilities include the supervision and evaluation of residential college directors and overseeing programmatic and facilities requirements that enhance the undergraduate experience for more than 1,500 students.
Whether it’s picking up supplies so an event goes off without a hitch or cleaning up a wet floor so no one slips, Walehwa takes pride in doing what it takes to get the job done.
“Like many jobs, it can be thankless at times,” says Walehwa, who participates on several university committees, including the Campus Diversity Collaborative and the LGBT Advisory Committee. “You don’t expect a thank you, but there’s always a way to help out.”
Walehwa’s res life colleague, Jill A. Stratton, concurs with his self-assessment.
“Josh leads by example and serves as an excellent role model for our students,” says Stratton, associate dean of students and director of residential academic programs.
“His commitment to student success combined with his thoughtful personality enables him to connect with and positively impact those around him,” she says. “Josh makes a difference on a daily basis with his keen awareness of how students best learn and develop. He is a creative, compassionate educator whose classrooms have no walls.”
Uganda, California and Iowa
After Walehwa and his family left Uganda with the help of Christian missionaries when Walehwa was 1 year old, they settled in Los Angeles. He watched the news of the ever-changing rule in Uganda from afar over the years.
“It’s a different place now, but back then, there was a lot of unrest,” says Walehwa, whose twin brother is a police officer in California. “My parents were motivated to get out and had support from the missionaries.”
So Walehwa grew up in California in the 1980s and ’90s, witnessing everything from break dancing to drive-by shootings.
“It was an interesting place to be, and I thought California was the center of the world,” he says.
So naturally, he went to college in … Iowa?
Walehwa had developed a childhood affinity for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes after his best friend, a Nebraska Cornhuskers fan whose mother was from Iowa, passed off his Hawkeyes hats, T-shirts and pennants to Walehwa. Walehwa later wrestled in high school, which solidified his relationship with the University of Iowa, a perennial favorite in college wrestling.
He showed up at Iowa in 1993, just after the great flood, having never stepped on the campus before move-in day. He arrived with a raincoat, an umbrella, two suitcases and $400.
“After two weeks, I was crying and ready to go home,” he says. “I was done. My mother told me to stick it out, and, of course, after a few weeks, it was fine.”
Without a doubt, those early days at Iowa influence and inform the work that he does now with WUSTL students, he says.
“Being 18, on your own and away from home are all significant transitions for young people,” he says. “I really have a lot of empathy for that. But I also feel very confident that after a few weeks, these students can make it.
“If I got through what I went through, the vast majority of these students can make the transition,” he says. “I’m happy to be part of that.”
Josh Walehwa (right) with his son, Harold, 11. Josh enjoys watching Harold play soccer, football and participate in martial arts.
An artist in higher ed
At Iowa, Walehwa studied art and art education, a passion that began in kindergarten when his twin brother gave him some figure-drawing tips.
He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in art and then, before he could begin his career in art education, caught the higher education bug.
“I started thinking about college students who weren’t doing that well, why that was and how I could be part of the solution,” he says.
Whether it’s his background in the arts, the ethic of service instilled by his mother, or some combination of the two, students are drawn to him, according to Caitlin Hearns, an intern in the Office of Residential Life.
“I think students view Josh as a down-to-earth person,” says Hearns, a 2010 WUSTL graduate in women, gender, and sexuality studies in Arts & Sciences who first met Walehwa when she was a student and a residential advisor.
“He is friendly, approachable and receptive to students’ needs on campus,” Hearns says. “It is very easy to communicate with Josh on a personal level, but he is also great at providing sound advice on more serious matters.”
Always an opportunity to help
Outside of work, he stays busy by being involved in the St. Louis art community, working out, and keeping up with his 11-year-old son, Harold, who attends Wydown Middle School not far from campus.
“I can stop by his school and embarrass him whenever I want,” says Walehwa, who enjoys watching Harold play soccer, football and participate in martial arts. “He recently dislocated his elbow and broke his wrist doing a backflip off the swings. I didn’t know I had a daredevil for a son, but apparently that’s part of being 11.”
Walehwa, who recently became engaged to a St. Louis therapist with a nine-year-old daughter, served as a residential college director at WUSTL from 2003-06 and then left St. Louis for what ended up being a one-year hiatus from WUSTL at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he served as assistant dean of students and director of residential life.
While he enjoyed the experience at the small liberal arts college, he was happy to return to St. Louis when his current position became available.
“I really wanted to have responsibility for professional staff supervision,” says Walehwa, who recently participated in Focus St. Louis’ Leadership St. Louis program. “I wanted to take another step in my career and be challenged in a different way.
“I feel like the longer I’m in this career, the more I’ll have the opportunities to help people in different ways and more significant ways,” he says. “Whether it’s policymaking or coming up with a new initiative or a new challenge, there’s always an opportunity to help. That’s what keeps me coming back.”
Fast facts about Josh Walehwa
Education: BA, art, 1997; MA, art education, 2000; MA, student development in postsecondary education, 2002, all at the University of Iowa. He also is working toward a doctorate in educational policy and leadership studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Family: Son, Harold, 11, is a student at Wydown Middle School. Josh recently became engaged to Dorlene Dunne, a therapist and artist with a daughter, Doris, 9.
Currently reading: As a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and policy studies, he’s reading Statistics for People Who (Think They) Hate Statistics. He’s also reading A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer and enjoys reading James Patterson’s Alex Cross mysteries.
Hobbies: Working out and fishing