Humanizing the Homeless

Debbie Whaley ('78) creates "incubator" to protect natural resources.

I love having these experts around and coming together to look at a problem in an area that needs more conceptual thinking.

I didn’t want to sit in a lab,” said alumna Debbie Whaley (BA, Geography and German, ’78). 

So she didn’t. 

The executive director of Sacramento State’s new Institute for Water, Energy, Sustainability, and Technology (iWEST) has spent her nearly 40-year career in the public and private sectors addressing some of the world’s most pressing natural resource and waste management issues. 

Whaley began her career working with government and corporate agencies to clean up some of the nation’s most contaminated sites. In the mid-1990s, she turned her attention to the water sector, and traveled the globe as vice president and sales director for the consulting firm CH2M. There, she led interdisciplinary teams to develop sustainable water and wastewater strategies and infrastructure, before returning to California in October to found iWEST.

“I think all of that is driven by a love of nature,” said Whaley, who regularly backpacks, skis, and explores the outdoors with her family. 

The alumna grew up in Fremont as the daughter of first-generation Americans. Her mother, an office manager, and father, a geologist whose work for the US Geological Survey took their family up and down the West Coast, always told Whaley and her younger brother that they were expected to go to college. 

At Chico State, her professors “were all about teaching and showing us the places you could go and things you could do.”

“I had no idea I was going to grad school,” said Whaley, who was devastated by her father’s unexpected death her senior year and wasn’t thinking about her future until Professor David Lantis pushed her to pursue a master’s in geography at Northern Illinois University.

“Their doors were always open,” she said of Chico State’s faculty. “Coming to Sac State, it felt like a chance for me to give back by working with faculty and getting students involved, and showing them how many opportunities there are to do sustainability work, even if you’re not an engineer.” 

With the institute being less than a year old and, until recently, being a staff of one, Whaley has been busy building the infrastructure to position iWEST as an “incubator” for cross-college collaboration. She’s working with a communications professor to develop its website and other communication materials, and meeting with policymakers, industry experts, faculty from across campus, and her counterparts at other universities to identify and begin filling research and funding gaps in the areas of sustainable energy, resource management, and technology.

“It takes a lot more work here,” said Whaley, who is coming from a corporate environment and quickly learning how busy faculty are as she tackles the historic disconnect between much of the work being done in the disciplines of water, energy, sustainability and technology. 

She’s already identified a few research partnerships, including a California Energy Commission grant proposal led by Fresno State that will look at how local entrepreneurs use energy-efficient technology. 

The most rewarding part of Whaley’s current work—and her career as a whole—has been putting together interdisciplinary teams and chasing new projects, she said. 

“I love having these experts around and coming together to look at a problem in an area that needs more conceptual thinking,” she said. “And then coming up with some research that can put bones to the answer.”

Nicole Williams (BA, Journalism, ’09) is the advancement writer for Public Affairs and Publications.