Alumni Spotlight

John Maki ’98
Executive Director
John Howard Association of Illinois    

Majors: Philosophy & English (Whittier Scholars Program)

What first attracted you to Whittier College? I knew a few people who went to Whittier who seemed like they knew what they were doing, and having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I liked the idea of living in California. 

Why did you choose to study philosophy? My first day at Whittier, I met Professor Michael Praetorius, who was the faculty master attached to my freshman dorm and a professor of philosophy. He was probably the first adult I had met who I wanted to be like. Talking with him, reading philosophy together in and out of classes, and just being around an adult who clearly loved what he was doing—it was like feeding on something I was starving for my whole life, but hadn't known about it till then.  Professor Praetorius passed away suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of my freshman year. Remembering him and the impact he had on me almost 20 years ago still brings tears to my eyes.

Describe your experience at Whittier College. Who was your favorite professor(s)? I cannot separate my experience at Whittier from my professors. My relationships with professors like Praetorius, Kjellberg, Furman-Adams, and Adams changed my life. I think that's the real value of a liberal arts education, particularly when you study philosophy: it provides a unique opportunity to examine complex ideas about life, and, in so doing, learn how to think about yourself and the world. The relationships you have with your professors drive this process. They not only teach you different ways of thinking, but more importantly, they show you why critical thinking is important by embodying it in the classroom and their relationship with their students. 

What was your most memorable moment at Whittier College? The most memorable part of my time at Whittier was not a moment, but the feeling of my life opening up to me for the first time and realizing that I could do anything if I wanted it bad enough and was willing to work for it. 

What was your first job after Whittier? What are you currently up to? How has your Whittier education benefited you professionally? After I graduated from Whittier, I took a year off to apply to Ph.D. programs in literature. Graduate school took me to Chicago, where I realized after a handful of years that I did not want to be an academic. I then taught high school for a few years and tried to figure out what I wanted to do. I started volunteering at various places, which eventually led me to community organizing and advocacy work around poverty reduction and criminal justice reform.

Today, I'm the executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, which is one of a small handful of organizations in the country that monitors their state's prison system and advocates for safe and cost-effective criminal justice reform. I don't really have a job description for what I do because I do a bit of everything, from writing op-eds on the need for prison reform to managing staff, from raising money to lobbying for legislation. Whittier prepared me for this work, which I absolutely love, by teaching me how to be curious about the world, to follow my passion, and, ultimately, to have the confidence to attack big and seemingly intractable problems.

What advice would you give to future philosophy alumni when they graduate? Discover what you love and find a way to do it until you die.

Finish this sentence: I am a ‘Poet for Life’ because…Whittier taught me how to how to change and take control of my life.

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