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Oxford second-year student excels in classrooms and on the court
profile photo of Justin Whitening

Justin Whitening arrived at Oxford College with interests in zoology and basketball. Through curiosity and connections across campus, he’s managed to excel at both while also giving back to his community.

Justin Whitening came to Oxford College with two keen interests: zoology and basketball. As he immersed himself in campus life, he realized he’d found a place where both of his passions could flourish. 

“Education was my top priority in coming to Oxford,” said Whitening, originally from Stone Mountain, Georgia. “The opportunity to play basketball was another big reason I decided to come here. But mainly I wanted an academic experience where my professors would be accessible and I could form personal connections.”

A shared passion

With Oxford’s small class sizes, Whitening formed those connections — especially with Natalia Bayona Vasquez, assistant professor of biology. Vasquez, who primarily researches marine life, bonded with Whitening over their shared interest in nature and ecological environments. For Whitening, who hopes to become a zoologist, that interest has been with him from the beginning.

“I’ve always been fascinated with animal behavior and how they have certain instincts, how the environment around them changes the ways they move,” he says. “I’m interested in both the physical aspect of the animal as well as the entire ecosystem. I’m drawn to nature; it’s so beautiful. When I see something, I want to observe it and do more research.”

That level of curiosity, Vasquez said, is what makes Whitening a natural scientist: “Justin has been a fantastic biology student thanks to his passion and curiosity. He identified quickly how using biology as a lens to understand the world brings a unique perspective based in knowledge and evidence.

“He is passionate about zoology, and that has been his foundation to dig deeper and think critically about complex and detailed processes that occur at cellular and molecular levels. That was his motivation, I believe, to persevere, be consistent and be disciplined — and to reach learning goals while gaining skills in the study of nature.” 

Whitening made a strong impression on Vasquez in her Biology 141 class. He was the first volunteer to step into the Oxhouse pond — a small reserve about a mile from campus for scientific research — to catch fish for a project comparing aquatic microbial communities. Putting on rubber waders, he trudged into the water with a seine net to collect his samples. 

“It made me realize how much fun it can be to work and conduct research as a scientist,” he says.

Recently, he’s explored his budding fascination with marine life by volunteering at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Not only is he engaged in extracurricular work related to his studies —such as Oxford’s Ecological Society — but he is also a member of the Black Student Alliance and the Class Gift Committee. He gives back to his hometown community, too, by visiting with and mentoring basketball players at his old high school.

All the right moves

That should come as no surprise given that Whitening has excelled on the basketball court at Oxford. He is a do-it-all player, willing to defend and share the ball to get teammates involved. In January, he hit a game-tying shot in the final 10 seconds of regulation to force overtime against Oglethorpe — his fondest memory from his two years on the team — in a game Oxford would go on to win.

“Justin was the heart and soul of the men’s basketball team,” notes Head Coach Roderick Stubbs. “His positive attitude and enthusiasm could be felt by his teammates every day. He would not shy away from difficult situations and would always step up to take the hardest defensive assignments. He would go above and beyond to assist the team to achieve a victory.”

“He’s somewhat of a father figure on campus,” Whitening said of his relationship with Stubbs. “He’s instilled a certain work ethic. Playing basketball has enhanced traits I already had within myself, like leadership and community-mindedness, since [our team] volunteers a lot on campus.”

As for what’s next, Whitening is looking forward to being on the Atlanta campus for his final two years at Emory, where he will take advanced biology courses such as Animal Behavior and Genetics.

In reflecting on his time at Oxford, Whitening said he’ll most miss “the close-knit community feel and hanging out in the Student Center” where it often felt like the whole student body gathered for certain events. His favorites were movie nights and, as a sports lover, when large crowds formed to watch the World Cup and the Super Bowl. 

“Just seeing the whole campus in one spot — the community coming together and knowing everyone — that’s what I’ll miss.”

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