Garrett Whipkey has always been interested in politics, but he never really saw it as a career path until recently.
The 2010 Hobbton High graduate and senior at Western Carolina University experienced the epiphany gradually, as his involvement in WCU’s Student Government Association grew — first as a member of the college Democrats and later as an SGA senator and eventually senator pro tem — and with it his love of all things political.
“The more involved I got, the more I loved it,” Whipkey attested during a stop at The Sampson Independent offices. “It was sort of a natural progression that took me to where I am today.
Already smitten, Whipkey’s love of SGA, his campus and his belief in the importance of being involved to make a difference cemented the Sampson native’s decision this spring to seek higher office — the highest, in fact, for a Western student, that of its SGA president.
“Remarkably, I won,” Whipkey said, a slight blush rising on his cheeks. “I was humbled to have been elected, there’s no question about it.”
But as humble as Whipkey is, with his aw-shucks Sampson County drawl and genteel manners, his air of confidence emanates from the room, a young man assured of who he is and where he wants to go.
Whipkey said he ran for a spot on the Western SGA senate in 2013, and back in December when the Senator Pro Tem stepped down, he ran for — and earned — that position.
“I got a good taste of campus politics and I was hooked,” Whipkey admitted, noting that his stint as Senator Pro Tem led to his decision in early spring to seek the president’s position.
He chose as his running mate a Republican, Caroline Pierce, proving, he said, that Democrats and Republicans can get along and work together if they only try.
The two made a strong political pair and the student body, now numbering over 10,000, chose them to lead for the next year. Their term runs from April 2014 to April 2015, a time, Whipkey said, when he and Pierce will work to make their mark both on campus and beyond. “I know that together we can help a lot of students,” he stressed.
But his goals run deeper than even that.
“My biggest goal is to build up the SGA senior corps, which is an organization already in place but with a need to be more active, particularly as it relates to outreach. I want to see our students be more involved in the community, making a difference where we can.
“There is a storied history of poverty all through Applachia and I believe our SGA senior corps can make a vast difference. That, at least, is one of my main goals moving forward as president,” Whipkey said.
Drawing from his Sampson County roots, steeped, he said in a belief in helping those less fortunate than himself, Whipkey hopes to instill in his senior corps the desire to extend their helping hands into the community, sharing their talents, their time and their hard work with them.
“With the talent and energy I have seen within the SGA, I see so much potential, not only as an outlet for students but within the great community, where outreach is really needed. I want to tap into that and use it for specific issues that need to be addressed in Cullowhee and across western North Carolina.”
His thoughts of outreach are deeply embedded in his belief that helping those less fortunate is a responsibility many should shoulder.
“I have always wanted to help people, especially those who have less than I have, the people who society looks at as unworthy or undesirable. I’m really rooted in tradition. I grew up going to church and learning that we all should love one another and help one another.”
Politics, he said, is the perfect way to make a difference if it is used for good and not merely for power. “I know it sounds like a line, but helping people should be what politics is all about. It shouldn’t be about furthering your own agenda.”
He admits his goals as SGA president are ambitious but he believes they are, without question, surmountable ones.
“I really believe Western can be for our region what Chapel Hill is to the Triangle area,” Whipkey said matter-of-factly. “It’s not impossible at all. It’s a matter of us, as the SGA and as members of the student body, putting our mind and our talents behind that belief.
“There’s so much we can do, I really believe that.”
Whipkey has a double major, pursuing his love of music and adding to that political science. Because of the added major, he plans to stay on an additional year at Western before looking to further his education and his career, one he thinks right now will take him into law school, hopefully, he said, at his beloved UNC-Chapel Hill.
Eventually, he hopes that career will take him into the political arena. “I’ve looked at the possibility of a congressional internship, at least I’m thinking about that experience. And I’ve also thought about state-level politics at some point.”
He would love, he said, an opportunity to sit down and talk with Sampson’s own senator, Lauch Fairlcoth. “That would be a wonderful experience for me; I could learn so much,” Whipkey said.
The son of Lisa Cain and Erick Whipkey, the SGA president has one brother and three sisters. He also acknowledges his late aunt, Nettie Rae Matthis, who died in January. It is her influence, he said, that has fueled many of his political and educational aspirations.
“I really give a lot of credit to the example she set. She instilled in me the belief that I had to have an education and that I needed to treat people, all people, kindly, remembering that we never know what they are going through.”
With that in mind, Whipkey has worked to follow Matthis’ example.
“It’s what I think about as I work toward my goals at Western, and it will be what I take with me into the future,” he said.
(Sherry Matthews can be reached at 910-249-4612. Follow her on Twitter @sideditor1960 and the newspaper @Sampson Ind.)