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Conversations with Katherine: Megan McAninch—Proof that Age Doesn’t Matter if You Want to Change the World

What would it take to change the world? It’s a daunting question, especially for busy
college students. I’m not old enough to rent a car, let alone change the word! But
when I talked to Megan McAninch, a health promotion and disease prevention major/
international relations minor, I quickly realized that anyone of any age can make a
difference: you just need the enthusiasm.

HC: Last November, you co-organized an event on-campus called TEDxTrousdale. Can
you tell me about the event and the organization as a whole?

Megan: TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and their thing is “ideas
worth spreading.” In 2006, they started recording each talk and then posting one talk a day
online. They’re so varied, it’s incredible: you can go on TED and search anything you want and
I guarantee you there’s been a talk done on it. They talk about their area of specialization in
eighteen minutes or less.

One of my friends actually interned for TED in New York this summer. While I was interning in
Geneva this summer, she contacted me saying hey, I want to put on a TEDx for USC students,
do you want to help me out? “Yes. Absolutely.” So we came back to school and we started
getting our ideas. We really wanted it to be for students, by students.

The great thing about USC is that it’s so diverse and so excellent in so many areas. But the bad
thing about USC is that it’s so diverse and so excellent in so many areas, that there really isn’t a
lot of cross-fertilization of ideas between colleges. You have incredible students that are doing
exceptional things, but unless you’re in that school you don’t really hear about it. So we wanted
to create this platform where we could bring people together and be like, “here’s someone your
age in the school of accounting, and here’s what they’re doing” and things like that.

So what were some of the presentations about?

We had one student in the school of engineering, who was working in a team. They created an Android application: you could take a photo, point it at the sun, and it would measure the air
quality and send it back to you. We have another one who created an iPhone app called Do-It-
Yourself Democracy. It’s an application which locates where you are, and it tells you any and all
of your democratic and civil rights in that area. We had a girl who studied in the North Pole last
summer. I personally gave a talk on hope and health.

Was there a central theme to the event?

It was far more themed towards a platform that would allow students at USC to see the power
of other students at USC. To prove the point that you might be young, but it doesn’t matter. You
can be 22 and do something that can help save the world, in your own way.

How was your experience giving your own talk?

Great. Talking about health in Sub-Saharan Africa, I get giddy and excited so it’s not really
a challenge. I was really excited to bring in this aspect of hope. I was able to bring that in
and incorporate it in the talk, especially because I work with refugees in internally displaced


Wait… Say that again? What are internally displaced populations (IDP)?

See, refugees have to cross the border. To be an IDP you’re a refugee within your village, but
you stay within the same country. So in Darfur or Northern Uganda, where there’s been a civil
war, people are living in IDP camps. It’s very much a refugee camp situation: a lot of people,
very few resources, very small space, a lot of health issues. So being able to play into the
importance of hope in those populations was really great.

So you were there, experiencing the power of hope in these countries: what was that
experience like?

Well I’ve been to Uganda seven times in the last four years. I stay in the villages when I’m
over there: live in the mud hut, sleep on a mat. I speak the tribal language Luo, which is fun
because I’ll go to these communities where they’ve never seen a white person before. I can hear
these children who talk about my hair—they’ve never seen long, blonde hair before. They don’t
understand what it is. So I hear them making these comparisons to a cow’s tail or to the silk of
corn. And then it’s really funny because I kneel down and introduce myself to them and you can
see their faces go, “oh no!” It’s pretty fantastic!

In terms of experiences, I work in a medical non-governmental organization, or NGO. So I work
with providing acute medical care to these communities, as well as focusing on setting up a youth center for these internally displaced populations. It’s giving a kids ages 10-24 a place to
hang out that’s not the camp, but also allows for HIV and other STD testing. It incorporates a lot
of other activities so there isn’t so much stigma associated with going to the youth center: there’s
other acute primary care, they have a drama program, they have sports programs. They have a
lot of different things so that you don’t only go to the youth center to for HIV tests. Northern
Uganda actually has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS because of the internal fighting. So
that’s we took that as a focus: let’s find a way to bring that down.

Of all these incredible experiences, what would say was the most rewarding?

I have two things to say about this specific topic: one of my all-time favorite quotes is by
Tennessee Williams, from his piece The Catastrophe of Success: “The monosyllable of the clock
is loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.” I love that. From the first time I
read that I was just like, every second of my life is going to be the antithesis of my loss.

Probably the most poignant moment of all seven trips was during my first summer in Uganda.
On the weekends I was working at a rehabilitation center. I was meeting with children who
had been abducted and forced to fight with the Lord’s Resistance Army, that since found their
way back or been rescued and now were in psychosocial rehabilitation: learning how to be
reintegrated into society.

A lot of these children either A: don’t know where their families are, or B: had to kill their own
families, or C: their families won’t take them back because they fought with the rebels, even
though it was not by choice. These kids don’t have anywhere to go. And one of these kids, I was
sitting down and talking with him. We’d been talking about all these different things, about his
family, about his life. He’s so dynamic and engaged and it’s fantastic.

He’s eleven. He’d been abducted four and a half years ago and been forced to fight for four
years, so he’d been in rehabilitation for about five months at this point. I look over at the
psychosocial therapist and she gives me the nod, because the toughest question was coming up.
So I ask him: “Tony, how’d you feel about the fact that you killed other people?”

His eyes just went blank. A mask dropped over his face; it no longer belonged to an eleven year
old. He stands up from his chair, he walks around behind me and puts one hand on my shoulder
and one on my neck and leans over and whispers in my ear, “human beings are the weakest and
most worthless creatures in the world. I can knife you here, I can stab you there, I can shoot you
here and you will die without a chance to defend yourself.”

He takes his hands up, walks back to his chair, turns around, looks down at the floor, looks back
up at me, completely reanimated and goes, “what’s school like in America?” Like the last 86 seconds hadn’t happened at all.

The first time he shot a gun at a human, they had shot him up with heroin. So every time he
pulled the trigger, he would associate that heroin high with pulling the trigger. That’s the scariest
thing—these rebel leaders know what they’re doing. They’re smart. And it’s terrifying. So that’s
one of my most poignant moments in Uganda, and one of the reasons that I can’t stay away.

So you said earlier that it doesn’t matter how old you are, anyone can save the world in
their own way. What might you suggest for readers out there who want to help save the
world, but don’t know how to start?

Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you don’t matter. That’s my thing: you may be young,
but you can still make a difference. I think the most important thing, and the thing that I was
most blessed with, was finding my passion when I was eighteen years old. I really think that’s
made the difference: being able to work towards my passion, and using that as motivator.

If you know what you want to do, I don’t care what it is, do it. If you know in your heart that
that’s the direction you want to go then start going in that direction, and if something catches
your eye going the other way, then go back the other way. Follow whatever you want to do,
there’s no right or wrong answer. It all comes through in the enthusiasm for what you’re doing.

One last quote: "Don't worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and
do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."
-- Howard Thurman

More information about TED can be found at http://www.ted.com/. If you’re
interested in participating in next year’s TEDxTrousdale, email Megan at
megan.mcaninch@gmail.com. Information about Medical Teams International can be
found at http://www.medicalteams.org/sf/home.aspx.

Katherine Goldman is a senior majoring in Theatre.

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