The circle of learning has many models. For Sophie Johnson ’08, none is more profound than her acquaintance through Whitman with journalist and social activist Salim Muwakkil.

Salim Muwakkil and Sophie Johnson Sophie Johnson ’08, right, invited her mentor, Salim Muwakkil, to speak at Whitman.

In the fall of 2006 Johnson traveled to Chicago, where she lived and studied for a semester as an intern in the Urban Studies Program of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. The hub of the program is a directed-study course; the spokes are community-based projects.

Johnson’s course was “Race, Media and Politics.” Her professor and mentor was Muwakkil, senior editor for In These Times and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

“He taught us by bringing up the tough issues and asking us the tough questions,” said Johnson, one of 12 in the class. “We had such intense conversations. It was so not about theory. It was so actual.”

Johnson went to Chicago as a traditional English major. When she returned, her first order of business was to add an emphasis in race and ethnic studies

to her study plan. Her second or third order, as

co-editor of the campus newspaper, the Pioneer, was to imagine Muwakkil as guest speaker for the Hosokawa Journalism Awards.

“I didn’t think there was any way that we’d get him to come all the way out here,” said Johnson. “Salim is an incredibly busy man. When the confirmation came, I was floored. I was ecstatic.”

She was equally honored to introduce Muwakkil to a crowd at Reid Campus Center on the occasion of the Hosokawa awards. She listened to him talk incisively about “Presidential Politics: Race, Gender and the Media Frame,” and heard in his words the echo of all the transformative discussions she shared a year earlier. The circle was complete.

“I feel I’ve learned a lot more about journalism as an English major at Whitman than I would have in the journalism school of a university,” said Johnson, whose

52-piece poetry project, “city upside down,” is one of the first two creative theses to be approved at the college. “What you write about doesn’t happen in a classroom or newsroom. It happens in the world.”

Somewhere on Chicago’s South Side, Salim Muwakkil is nodding.