With encouragement from a public health nurse she met while in high school, Whalley enrolled in Cornell University School of Nursing, graduating in 1975. After three years as a pediatric nurse, she decided to specialize in pediatric oncology nursing and applied to the UCLA School of Nursing for graduate education. Whalley started the Bone Marrow Transplant Program at Children’s Hospital-Los Angeles, and served as the program’s clinical nurse specialist for seven years. Later, Whalley became interested in politics and healthcare policy, enrolling at the UCLA School of Law and graduating in 2001. In March 2005 she joined the Western Center on Law and Poverty, the state’s oldest and largest legal services support center, as a foster care benefits advocate, and later became the organization’s executive director, a position she held until early 2009.