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The Survivor: Ethan Zohn

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Courtesy of Gilberto Cardenas
Courtesy of Gilberto Cardenas

“What made you the person you are today?” 39-year-old “Survivor: Africa” winner, Ethan Zohn, asked the audience on last Tuesday evening’s event.

As Ethan Zohn took the stage, his voice filled the room encouraging everyone in the audience to “figure out what makes your heart break and do something about it.”

The two-time cancer survivor, soccer enthusiast and philanthropist said, “Never let a crisis go to waste, it’s an opportunity to make change.”

The Wellness, Health and Counseling Services invited Ethan Zohn to speak about his life as a catalyst to character at the Crystal Cove Auditorium.

“The message that he said about finding out what your true character is about and what you are willing to give up of yourself for others, that’s a message we try to expand upon our student athletes,” UC Irvine’s assistant soccer coach, Chris Volk, said.

Volk and the rest of the soccer team attended the event right after practice.

With much humor and passion, Zohn spoke to the players and other students about knowing where they come from, as he too was once in college. As he spoke about falling into the path most college students do, Zohn said, “My dad had passed away and I wanted to heal the world. I had a nice Jewish mom, I could be a doctor, lawyer or a disappointment, you know, one of the three.”

Zohn lost his father to cancer when he was 14 years old and decided to take the pre-med track. Zohn went to Vassar College, where he majored in biology and minored in marine biology.

He said that he doesn’t think students should know what to do with the rest of their lives at the age of 18, and if Zohn could go back to college, he would have a more “well-rounded curriculum.”

“It’s whether you leave here with what I call, real knowledge, not book knowledge or test taking knowledge but rather who you are, what you care about and how you are going to take challenges in your life,” Zohn said.

One major challenge he faced in his life was leaving everything he knew behind for 29 days for the reality television show, “Survivor: Africa.” During his time there, he was transported to an unknown area to complete obstacles and essentially survive.

He wasn’t allowed to take anything to Africa besides one luxury item of his choice. Zohn chose to take a hacky sack.

Although Zohn also had his knowledge he said, “This is knowledge of self, it is all that one needs to survive and prosper and I ended up giving my hacky sack to some Kenyan kid.”

In that moment when he gave away his one luxury item, Zohn decided that there was a problem of HIV/AIDs in Africa and he was going to do something about it. The story continues with Zohn winning the competition, receiving one million dollars and creating an organization called Grassroots Soccer in 2002. During his visit to UCI, he stood on the stage to speak  to students about the non-profit organization which spread awareness about HIV/AIDS to over half a million people.

While Zohn inspired the audience, he also challenged them with the question: what made you the person you are today?

Zohn answered it himself, “It can even mean you’re on top of the world and then getting cancer … twice.”

Cancer was another challenge Zohn faced and while he showed a clip of his video diaries during recovery, he choked up remembering those days.

“All I wanted to do was just live another day,” Zohn said, who at the time was scared, angry and confused.

“I dug really, really deep and the same things came into focus,” Zohn said, referring to character, value and human spirit. These were the three things that he gained while he was  a contestant on “Survivor,” and continues to use  while battling immune system cancer. Cancer was one of the challenges

“The things that I learned are grouped up  inside of me, they’re burned in me,” Zohn said.