By Melissa Gentry
When Megan O’Brien started talking with incoming first-year Carolina students about sexual assault prevention as an orientation leader in summer 2015, she had no idea it would lead her to find a passion for educating students and later be recognized by Vice President Joe Biden for her efforts.
But earlier this month, her dedication to impact change on the UofSC campus culminated when she was one of three undergraduate students from across the nation honored with the It’s On Us Courage Award. O’Brien attended the 21st annual Violence Against Women and It’s On Us reception in Washington, D.C., where Vice President Biden presented her with the award.
“Receiving this award was an incredible honor, and to say that I was surprised is an understatement,” said O’Brien, a senior biology major and psychology minor from Ringoes, N.J. “I didn’t believe it was real until I got an official email invitation from The White House! I am so happy to be recognized for my efforts, but I’m even happier that me receiving this award has brought more attention to the It’s On Us campaign. Sexual assault education and prevention has been an integral part of my undergraduate career, and bringing awareness to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses is what matters most to me.”
It’s On Us is a national initiative launched by The White House asking students to help prevent sexual assault by changing their own attitudes and intervening in necessary situations. Anyone can take the It’s On Us pledge “not to be a bystander to the problem but to be a part of the solution” at www.itsonus.org.
“To me, the pledge is about committing to make change,” O’Brien said. “It’s about saying that enough is enough, and we can do something about it. It means that when you see someone who has had too much to drink, is unable to give consent and they’re about to be taken alone to another room, you step in. It means that when someone brags about having sex with someone who doesn’t remember it, you tell them that they have just committed sexual assault. It means believing survivors and offering support. It doesn’t mean asking them how much they drank or what they were wearing. This pledge is a commitment to changing your actions, standing up to sexual assault and making a difference on our campus.”
O’Brien, a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, was nominated by one of her Kappa sisters for this award recognizing active bystanders. In just over a year since she started speaking with first-year students, who, according to O’Brien, were mostly unfamiliar with the prominence of sexual assault on college campuses, she has made it her mission to educate as many students as possible.
After her sorority’s officers watched The Hunting Ground, a documentary focusing on sexual assault on college campuses, she created a program requiring all of her chapter members to attend a screening of the film. Each member of the sorority signed a banner taking the It’s On Us pledge.
Several members of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity attended the screening, and one of them, later elected vice president for recruitment for Fraternity Council, showed the film to all potential new members during Spring 2016 fraternity recruitment. O’Brien credits this to helping her realize how powerful education can be.
“This was exciting because it gave a group of men a chance to see how assault can affect women – and men,” she said. “Once you start to educate a small group, word travels.”
O’Brien was elected vice president of programing for Sorority Council, where her main role is to plan all Greek-wide events. Inspired by that passion for education, she scheduled another screening of The Hunting Ground, this time during the annual Greek Week, using an event during the week of friendly competition as a way to educate the entire Greek community.
“The best part about this is seeing other people become more passionate about sexual assault education and prevention” she said. “I’ve had sisters approach me and ask how they can support a friend who’s been sexually assaulted. I’ve had people tell me that the film gave them the courage to report their sexual assault. I’ve been asked to give presentations about supporting survivors.”
In addition to her roles in Sorority Council, New Student Orientation and Kappa Kappa Gamma, O’Brien also serves as president of Order of Omega, a peer consultant at the Student Success Center, research intern at the USC Parenting and Family Research Center, historian for Phi Delta Epsilon International Medical Fraternity, hospital relations committee member for USC Dance Marathon, a Magellan Research Ambassador, member of Omicron Delta Kappa, and a Capstone Fellow.
After she graduates in May, she plans to go to medical school with the goal of becoming a pediatrician or pediatric psychiatrist.
“The communication and leadership skills that I have developed as a student leader at Carolina will be invaluable as I continue to pursue medicine,” O’Brien said. “I’ve learned how to communicate with different audiences and how to educate people about a difficult topic. These are skills that are essential for physicians. Attending medical school and becoming a physician will put me in a position to have an even greater impact and provide assistance to those in need.”
O’Brien has certainly made an impact on the Carolina campus, and she’s passing the torch to other student leaders to continue educating students on this topic.
“The work I’ve done surrounding sexual assault education and prevention has been influential, but I know that there’s more to do. I’m so proud of [student body president] Michael Parks and the Student Government-led It’s On Us initiative for promising to continue to make a change at USC.”