Content warning: This story makes reference to child abuse and neglect.
Just hours after the Des Moines Lincoln High School homecoming game, Athena-Sade Whiteside was in tears as she walked two miles to a friend’s house. She needed a place to spend the night; she needed a shoulder to cry on. Whiteside had run away from home. It was an emotional, uncertain moment but also a moment of defiance.
It was the moment she took control of her life, a decision that set her on the path to uncovering her operatic singing talents and becoming a first-generation college graduate .
That night, she had arrived home late from the homecoming game she attended with friends. This led to a yelling match with her mother about curfew. The argument nearly turned physical when Whiteside’s mother raised her fist in frustration, ready to strike Whiteside as punishment for her lateness.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened — Whiteside said her mother physically and emotionally abused Whiteside and her three brothers for years. But something about that night — maybe the adrenaline left over from the homecoming game, maybe the exhaustion of putting up with such horrible treatment for so long — made her finally take a stand.
“I struggled so much already to get out of the house and go to school and make something of myself, and it wasn’t working with that being my home life,” said Whiteside. “So I grabbed her fist, turned her around, pushed her into a closet, grabbed my purse, walked right out and never went back.”
She didn’t know it then, but as she stormed out of her mother’s house, she was taking the first steps toward a new life and success as a University of Northern Iowa student.
A safe haven
After running away from home, a police officer told Whiteside about Buchanan House, a youth shelter in her home town of Des Moines, and she was able to secure a spot in just a few days. Once she moved into Buchanan House, she was connected to therapists and case workers. She was placed into foster care and, eventually, in an independent living program. For Whiteside, the hardest part of the experience was coming to terms with her past.
“The worst part was definitely the emotional side of things. I was in therapy. I cried all the time,” said Whiteside. “It was very hard, but I always knew that it was better than living with my mom.”
Through Buchanan House, she also received help applying for college, which is a goal she never lost sight of, even as she was facing difficulties at home.
“My home life had been so awful, I knew the only true escape was for me to go to college,” she said. “Living at Buchanan House, I had people that helped me apply and made it a lot simpler for me. I knew college was the right option and I was very excited to go.”
Whiteside also found activities that helped take her mind off her troubles. She developed a passion for music and found another network of support in her high school’s show choir program.
“I loved show choir so much. It was the only class that I never skipped,” she said. “Having friends who loved me and helped me, who held me when I cried in the practice rooms before class started, it was just very good for me. It was my safe haven.”
A new passion
Through show choir, Whiteside was able to see the caliber of UNI School of Music graduates first-hand. Her class regularly had student teachers come in to lead lessons, and one student teacher from UNI stood out for their comprehensive lesson — they were one of the only student teachers she worked with who could play warm-ups.
“We had had multiple student teachers from many different universities, but this specific student teacher from UNI had done the best job,” she said. “I was just like ‘Hmmm, seems like they might be doing something right at UNI. That might be the place for me.’”
But when Whiteside came to UNI in 2015, she was surprised to find that the singing she’d be doing as a vocal performance major would be a little different from the contemporary pop hits she sang and danced to in her high school show choir.
“I did my first school of music audition and they said, ‘Alright, we are an opera school, and you will learn how to sing opera,’” she said. “UNI was my first introduction to operatic singing. But I just went with it. They said, ‘We’ll teach you how to sing it,’ and I believed them.”
Whiteside would go on to develop not only a skill but a passion for operatic singing. And she credits it entirely to the supportive environment created by UNI students and faculty.
“There was definitely a point where I realized I actually did love it. I think it was just that I was a freshman and I was singing next to grad students with big, beautiful voices and nobody made me feel like I was less talented or less skilled,” she said. “UNI does a very good job about making you feel like you’re not being compared to other students, which is a very nice thing, especially in a field where all you are is being judged and compared to other people.”
Now, Whiteside is the grad student with the big, beautiful voice. After finishing her undergraduate studies in 2019, she decided to continue developing her voice in graduate school, at the encouragement of her voice teacher Jean McDonald, a UNI professor.
“Dr. McDonald has helped create some amazing opera singers that have gone to the Met very quickly after graduating from her studio, and that was definitely very inspirational for me,” Whiteside said. “I knew that she had plans for me to keep singing and to develop my voice over a couple of more years, so I was just like, ‘Might as well stay and get as good as I can.’ She was a very bright light in my career here.”
Though UNI did play a strong role in Whiteside’s success, she also gives herself credit. From escaping a difficult home life, to excelling in college as a first-generation student, her work ethic and positive outlook are what have carried her through. She’s making something of herself, like she always knew she would.
“Honestly, my mom was a good example of what not to be, and I wanted to be the exact opposite,” said Whiteside. “I didn’t get the self-esteem or love I needed from my parents, so I just had to give it to myself. I always knew I was very smart and talented and skilled. I’ve always had high hopes for myself.”
As for what exactly Whiteside hopes to make of herself, she plans to become a voice teacher when she graduates. It’s a way for her to give others the type of support and encouragement she received through her involvement with music. She’s also open to the idea of continuing to perform opera professionally. Wherever she ends up, she plans to keep taking care of herself the way she learned to when she first left home at sixteen.
“I’d say my biggest goal right now is to be a voice teacher because it’s a one-on-one relationship with somebody where you can truly impact. I want to help people see that there are good people in the world and that there's love in the world,” she said. "I’m hoping that I will push through these next three semesters of grad school and hopefully a school will have a position for a voice teacher. That would be ideal. But living and being happy, that’s my main focus always.”