Feb. 20, 2001

by Rachel Swartz

In his book Domers, author Kevin Coyne once said college students are inclined to think that they can change the world, but Notre Dame students are more likely to actually try. Irish rowers Katherine Burnett and Meg Starnes could be the ones to actually do it.

Instead of spending their summers hanging out on the beach or working odd jobs back home, Burnett and Starnes experienced the darker side of society volunteering at inner-city abuse clinics in the Los Angeles area. Starnes worked at a clinic operated under the auspices of the Los Angeles County Women and Children’s Hospital, while Burnett cared for patients at Good Sheppard, a safe haven for victims of domestic violence who have left their abusers.

Burnett, a junior majoring in biology and anthropology from Germantown, Tenn., and Starnes, a sophomore anthropology/pre-professional major from Pasadena, Calif., hope to attend medical school some day. But neither were prepared for what this summer brought them.

Between the two of them, they dealt with victims of brutal drug raids on neighboring buildings, violent sexual assaults and domestic violence. As horrifying as these experiences were for the duo, both learned a great deal and have made it their life missions.

Starnes described her mentors as very strong women who approached the graphically violent situations they encountered every day with and unique outlook.

“Their motto was let’s help – get them healthy both physically and mentally so they can break the cycle [of violence],” Starnes says.

It is amazing both remain so animated and energetic, even when speaking of a subject that tends to emotionally deaden both the speaker and the listener.

Starnes talks proudly of being able to use her Spanish skills demonstrating to the largely Hispanic, Spanish-speaking client base at the clinic that while she may look like a typical “gringa,” blond hair and all, she understood and respected them all the same.

She recounts speaking to a young woman who had been held captive in an abandoned warehouse for three days and assaulted, and marvels at the inner strength of the woman. After seeing such brutality on a daily basis, one must admire the drive Starnes herself has channeling so much energy into helping heal victims of humanity’s worst impulses.

Burnett readily admits it is scary working in the clinics.

“You have to realize there is so much you can’t fix. It’s not until you work with a population different from yourself that you realize there are so many problems in this world that you can’t solve. You only hope you can help.”

Burnett warmly recalls teaching the children at Good Sheppard math and of field trips to the beach where she would teach her young charges how to swim.

Burnett further channels her talents and inclinations to lead and heal serving as a leader for Young Life, a national youth organization, in the South Bend area.

“The group I lead is from Adams High School and from all different backgrounds. On Sunday nights, we get together for Bible study, and on Monday nights, we do something. I don’t have a lot of spare time, but I like to stay busy. I love everything I do so much and wouldn’t want to give any of it up.”

Starnes feels much the same way.

“Being busy keeps me on task – it figures out my whole day for me. It makes me really respect other athletes, and anyone who has multiple commitments in their life. Sometimes I feel like I’m not home enough with my roommates, or I struggle academically, but I think life’s too short not to experience something because you’re afraid of carrying the burden. Sometimes, you have to go for it, each day at a time. Sometimes it’s difficult, but I really enjoy it.”

They each bring the same energetic, can-do attitude to the Notre Dame’s rowing team. Burnett rows in the first varsity eight boat, while Starnes is a member of the novice team. Neither of them rowed prior to their collegiate careers at Notre Dame, but have taken to the sport like a duck to water.

Burnett, who along with former rower Katrina Ten Eyck became Notre Dame’s first winners of the National Scholar-Athlete Award, was a member of the varsity eight team which took home the gold medal in the fall at the Head of the Elk Regatta, while Starnes’ crew placed third in the second novice eight race.

After an outstanding fall season, Burnett and Starnes are also celebrating the recent news that the rowing program will receive the full NCAA complement of scholarships over the coming years.

“We will consistently compete with the top programs in the nation like Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State. We are almost there now. We just need time to grow, and we’ll be in the NCAAs competing with the best of them,” Burnett says.

“We’re going to be a powerhouse,” echoes Starnes.

“We have an awesome coaching staff and the caliber of athletes you get from just the walk-ons is incredible. They’re going to be in the top 10. Notre Dame just has that way with sports.”

Burnett and Starnes also see bright futures for themselves. In 10 to 15 years, they both hope to have finished medical school and on their ways to helping others in places that need their help most. Burnett dreams about running her own clinic in the future, while Starnes is considering working with an organization such as the international humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders. Burnett also has one other goal for herself in the next 10 years.

“I want to finish an Ironman Triathlon. I ran a marathon last summer, but my goal is by the time I’m 30, to have done an Ironman.”

The demands of both academics and athletics are not easy, yet both women have succeeded in balancing them, and enriching their lives and those around them. Starnes seems to sum up their similar goals and philosophies best.

“The more I interact with different people and different sports, the more I learn about myself. It’s a real discovery. It’s like the road not taken – I try to take them all.”

As they take their roads, not only does their journey help them grow, it continues to benefit others.