Modeling a legacy of service

04/06/2014 8:49 PM

04/06/2014 8:50 PM

Emily Learner is out to improve the lives of others, be it helping children understand the importance of physical activity, seeking a treatment for muscular dystrophy or helping society put away gender stereotypes.

The University of South Carolina senior exercise science major says it’s significant that women who are proud of who they are and what they have accomplished serve as role models for other women and girls.

The Columbia resident and Cardinal Newman High School graduate recently punctuated that assertion when she was named the university’s 2014 Outstanding Woman of the Year.

Learner is a member of the South Carolina Honors College, Phi Beta Kappa honor society and a recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award. She has been an active volunteer on campus, including with Cocky’s Reading Express, and in the community through her church.

Learner was chosen from 95 women nominated for the award that recognizes academic achievements and recognitions, campus and community involvement, service and contributions to the university and to other women, and other extracurricular activities. She spoke recently about the award and her passion for service.

What was your general reaction to being named the University of South Carolina’s 2014 Outstanding Woman of the Year?

“I was really surprised especially after hearing about the activities and honors the other finalists had. I was really impressed by the many service and academic achievements they had. I was very honored and humbled to be chosen.”

We understand you were nominated by your best friend and roommate. What, if any, special significance did that add to the honor?

“Leila (Heidari) is one of the most phenomenal women I know, and it really meant a lot to me that she would nominate me for this honor, especially when I thought she was most deserving of it. Her intelligence, humor and compassion have always been an inspiration to me and I could not be more proud to call her my best friend. It made receiving the honor that more memorable because I was sitting right next to my best friend.”

What things have helped guide some of your community outreach activities?

“I always had a fondness of reading and one of my dreams was to be a storyteller, so I knew volunteering with Cocky’s Reading Express would be something I would like to do. It is really rewarding to see the smiles on children’s faces when they receive a book of their own from Cocky. I would also consider myself a woman of faith, which made me want to be involved in my church community. I have found working with youth ministry to be incredibly rewarding. The teenagers I work with have a way of renewing my faith and inspiring me by their caring and loving spirits.”

What has been the driving force behind your interest in helping discover a treatment for muscular dystrophy?

“I got involved working on a project focusing on Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy because the research mentor I was working with had a project focusing on that. I am really interested in skeletal muscle and how it is affected by certain disorders and inflammatory pathways. Because of this interest, studying diseases like muscular dystrophy hold a special interest for me.”

How do you hope to use your exercise science degree in the years ahead?

“I am going to take a year or two dedicated to discern where God is calling me to serve. Because of all of my experiences I have an interest in education, research within the exercise science field, and physical therapy, so I need some time to figure where my gifts and talents can be best used to serve others. I know the knowledge I gained in my exercise science courses will be put to good use no matter what profession I go into as I encourage others to live a healthy lifestyle.”

So what are some specific things you experienced in your own physical therapies that you will draw from in the future?

“I think the experiences I had through physical therapy have really helped me to relate and empathize with the patients I have worked with. I understand the physical and psychological effects of going through therapy, and while each individual deals with an injury differently, I think patients will feel more at ease knowing that I have had similar experiences. I also learned the pay-off of hard work and determination which have definitely paid off in my time at USC and that will be beneficial regardless which field I go into.”

You have said you think being a woman at USC has shaped your perspective on the importance of being an active leader on campus. Can you talk about some specific ways that perspective has been shaped?

“Through my time at USC I was able to take several psychology courses, and it was interesting for me to learn about gender stereotypes and how both men and women are portrayed in society. In magazines and television a certain type of female beauty is often portrayed, and I feel something I and many of my female friends have struggled with is trying to fit these often unattainable ideals. For me, the beauty I notice the most is inner beauty, which shines through someone making them truly radiant. Stemming from this viewpoint, I knew I wanted to be an active leader on campus and in my community to encourage women and men to let their inner beauty shine by sharing the gift that they are to those around them, whether that is through research, in the classroom, in organizations or in service to others.”

How do you think you have evolved the most as a student, and a woman, while being at USC?

“Coming to USC I think I was lacking a lot in self-confidence, but through my involvement in research, my success as a student, and, mainly, through the encouragement of others, I began to gain some confidence. There are still times when I am unsure of myself and lack confidence, but I truly have the best family and friends who have provided me with love and support. Also, at USC I have gained so much knowledge both in the classroom and beyond that has expanded the way I think.”

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