From the Conga Line to the Front Line

The top fundraisers Emma McCune, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Matthew Nersesian, University of California Berkeley.

Emma McCune/Matt Nersesian

Throughout the 2014-2015 school year, thousands of college students have stood UP 4 THE FIGHT at dance marathons—raising more than $435,000 to support the mission of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) to end AIDS in children. However, the adventure is not over yet for top fundraisers Emma McCune, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Matthew Nersesian, University of California Berkeley. Both students will be going from the conga line to the front line, traveling to Tanzania to see their fundraising dollars at work at EGPAF supported sites.

These passionate advocates surpassed more than 3,000 fellow dance marathoners, each raising more than $15,000 for a virtual tie. We recently sat down with Emma and Matt to learn about their Dance Marathon experience and to listen to their thoughts about their upcoming trip.

Matt Nersesian, a 22-year-old Chemical Biology major and graduating senior, has participated in Dance Marathon at UC Berkeley for three years, ending his final year as executive director of the organization.

“I feel like with my generation AIDS has been…around for our whole lives,” Matt told us, when asked how he first became aware of HIV/AIDS. “I have been exposed to the vocabulary since elementary school and middle school, but I didn’t really understand until I was in high school.

“I was a science kid back then, too, so I really developed a biological understanding of the disease,” Matt continued. “I was very technical, but I didn’t understand as much of the social implications until my early years of high school. In college I understood much more.”

Traveling with Matt will be Emma McCune, a 21-year-old Human Biology and Society major, who is entering her senior year. As a two-year member of UCLA’s Pediatric AIDS Coalition, Emma continues to explore her passion for public health, as she has been doing so her entire life with her father, Dr. Mike McCune, a former member of EGPAF’s board of directors.

“When I was young, [my dad] would always tell me stories of patients of his,” says Emma about her awareness of HIV. “I've learned a lot of the science behind HIV/AIDS from my dad and my education, but I think I’ve gathered more awareness and understanding of the social impact of the epidemic through my involvement with Dance Marathon.”

The UP 4 THE FIGHT Dance Marathon program has given students the platform to learn, grow, and experience the battle against pediatric HIV/AIDS beyond what they knew when they first signed up to hit the dance floor. As a dance captain this past school year, Emma spent 26 hours with students, freshmen to seniors, encouraging and supporting them throughout Dance Marathon.

“It’s really interesting to watch people’s attitudes change during the event,” Emma shared. “Most people come into Dance Marathon ignorant to the cause, thinking it’s just going to be a fun dance party. But as they spend more time there, and they learn more about the epidemic, there is a noticeable change and I can see them actually develop a passion for the cause and desire to make a difference.”

As the top fundraisers of the UP 4 THE FIGHT program, both Matt and Emma spoke enthusiastically about the fact that they will soon meet the beneficiaries of EGPAF programs and the health workers who are fighting HIV on the front lines.

“I’m looking forward to seeing all the work EGPAF’s doing on the ground just getting a better understanding of [EGPAF’s] impact around the world,” said Matt.  I’m excited to have a personal connection past fundraising for dance marathon. That alone has lit the fire of my excitement of this trip.”

“I really don’t know what to expect. But I’m just so excited,” added Emma. “It’s still kind of surreal to me the idea that I get to go. I just know it’s going to be life changing and inspirational, and I’m excited for that. I hope this trip will help give me a direction and help guide me what I want to do with my future.”

As the UP 4 THE FIGHT Dance Marathon advisor at EGPAF, I am proud of each dancer, donor, and supporter who has and will continue to help us reach more mothers, clinics, and nations to end the threat of AIDS to children worldwide. We are incredibly excited to be able to share this experience firsthand with two passionate advocates this June.

“This isn’t just an experience for me, it’s an experience for my whole school, our whole program, and hopefully all the UP 4 THE FIGHT programs eventually.” – Matt Nersesian

For more information about the UP 4 THE FIGHT program and how you can be even more involved, please email up4thefight@pedaids.org and check out www.up4thefight.org.