At 27 years of age, Nana Meriwether has accomplished a lot: attended Duke, UCLA and USC, became a two-time All-American in volleyball and reached the Final Four while at UCLA, founded the Meriwether Foundation, and is now the current Miss USA titleholder.
Campus Circle: What led you to transfer from Duke to UCLA?
Nana Meriwether: I went to Duke my freshman year, first semester and I played volleyball there. My dad went ther, and I decided to follow in his footsteps; it was similar to my upbringing. It was very private and in the middle of nowhere, but it's such a prestigious school and even just that one semester, I got so much out of it academically. My reasons for leaving were not academic; I was just looking for more of a life experience. I think you learn so much off campus, so I transferred to UCLA, and it was one of the best decisions of my life.
CC: While you were at UCLA, what were some of the places you enjoyed hanging out?
NM: I unfortunately didn't hang out much on campus, but I used to hang out in the peripheral neighborhoods like Hollywood and Beverly Hills. And because I was an athlete, a lot of my friends were on the football team and basketball team, so my social life was built around athletics and athletes. I used to hang out at Maloney's – they’ve now changed the name. I would also go to a lot of house parties. It was a good time. I really enjoyed UCLA, and I liked having the opportunity to live in L.A.
CC: You were a two-time All-American at UCLA with the volleyball team and went to the Final Four. Tell us about your experience with the athletic program.
NM: Well first of all, UCLA is the most accomplished athletic school in the nation, if not the world. To be part of that tradition was such an honor. I learned so much from sports: discipline, work ethic, time management, (and) leadership skills. I just learned so much that has carried out into my life afterwards. While I was there, I was playing at the most elite level in the country; it was the best time of my life. My teammates and I were having so much fun on the court, and it really reflected on our success, and we made it to the Final Four. I was disappointed that we lost and couldn't participate in the final game, but things happen for a reason and after that, I played professionally. I moved to Puerto Rico off the pacific coast of San Juan in the middle of nowhere. It was gorgeous, a bit lonely, but I had a great time. Overall, the Final Four opened doors for me in life, and I got to play overseas.
CC: You grew up playing various sports. What made you select volleyball?
NM: I started playing volleyball in 8th grade, and then in high school I played volleyball and basketball. I played varsity sports every season of my high school career. I could have gone to college and played basketball or track, but I chose volleyball. I really love the team aspect. There is cohesion between teammates that doesn't really exist in any other sport.
CC: What's your favorite memory from your time at UCLA?
NM: Some of the most memorable were in pre-season. You would come to campus before school started to train, and they would also drive us to Mammoth (Mountain) so we could train in the altitude for better conditioning. We had double days. We would also have running tests, and if you didn't pass, you had to do something called ‘Breakfast Club.’ You had to get up at 5 a.m. and go on a 2-mile run in the middle of nowhere. You were always in pain and mentally distraught from being yelled at, so you really had to lean on your teammates to get through pre-season. But that was such a wonderful experience, being on the mountain. And our coach really knew what he was doing; he taught us so much, and that’s why we became great.
CC: You have completed your pre-med studies at USC, correct?
CC: What made you choose USC, and how was that experience?
NM: Being a Bruin, it was very tough; UCLA and USC are rivals. I was a political science major at UCLA with a focus on international studies. Then I took my LSAT for law school. Then I took a trip to Africa with my parents, and I would watch my father, who's a doctor, donate his time and do his medical work. That really inspired me so I changed my mind and decided to try out for med school. There are post-graduate programs for med school, and I volunteered at Cedars-Sinai, which is one of the best hospitals on the west coast. UCLA did not offer the program I wanted so I was forced to go to USC. I was admitted, and I went. My brother was also at USC for pre-med, and he was a year ahead of me. So he would give me all his notes from classes, and my younger brother would tutor me in science. USC was great but a very different experience from UCLA.
CC: What is the purpose of the Meriwether Foundation?
NM: My mom was born in South Africa during the time of Apartheid, so she had no opportunities in her country as a black woman. Today, she's a lawyer and has a business degree. She was studying in D.C., and she met my dad who was practicing as a doctor. He and my mom travelled to South Africa in the early 1980's and planned to stay for a year, but they ended up staying for eight years.
At the time, there was a war in Mozambique, so South Africa was getting a lot of refugees, and it was very dangerous. My parents would drive around at night, picking up refugees and would admit them to the hospital. Then the South African government gave them permission to start a refugee camp. Their work inspired me and in 2006, I started a non-profit with my mom called the Meriwether foundation.
We are now in five countries in southern Africa, and we have opened schools. We're building a hospital…we've opened orphanages and started water projects. We've become part of the infrastructure, and we can't leave. These people depend on us so much, and it's something I will continue doing for the rest of my life. It's something that my children will do; it's something I'm very passionate about.
CC: You're very gifted, both athletically and intelligently. How did that help you prepare for the Miss USA pageant?
NM: I believe I've worked hard. If I want something, I will go for it. I've been blessed with that ambition. Also, pageants and sports are very similar. You have a goal, you work physically and mentally to achieve it. I have to say, a lot of people focus on the physical, but 80 percent is mental, and I don't think many girls focus on that. I think one of the reasons I won was because I was very mentally tough.
CC: What do you have in your agenda for the next few months?
NM: Eating a lot. This has been such a gift, and I live every day as such. I love meeting people and staying in contact with them.
Your days as Miss USA are all planned. You get an email around 6 p.m. telling you what you'll do the next day. You work 9-to-5, and then you have events at night and on the weekends. It's more than a full-time job. You're on 24/7. It's quite tiring, but the upside is that you have an experience that no one else has. I've done lots of traveling and sometimes the office will ask me if I want some time off, but I say “no” because I only have this for a short time, and I love to continue being busy.
CC: How has the transition been moving back to the east coast?
NM: I lived in L.A. for eight years, but I was ready to move back to the east coast. The east coast just has a certain character and culture about it, so it wasn't a hard transition. I love the east coast.
CC: What's next for you?
NM: I was born in South Africa, but if I had been born here, I would have my sights on becoming president one day. I have med school as an option. I also have offers in entertainment that I might pursue or I might pursue something in politics. We'll see.
CC: What do you do in your free time? What are some of your hobbies?
NM: My hobbies include sleeping – a lot. This job is so busy that when you do have free time you just sleep. Also, I live in one of the greatest cities in the world, so I love exploring New York and going on really long dinners with friends and just talk.
CC: You're 27 years old yet you've accomplished some great feats. Do you have any advice for youngsters who might be struggling to pursue their dreams?
NM: I think sports helped me. I was a very quiet person in high school. It wasn't until college that I started to open up and sports helped with that. I really encourage people to do extra-curricular activities and really challenge themselves, and go for things that are bigger than themselves. When I decided to pursue Miss USA, it was something I had no idea about. It was a monster I had to tackle. You really have to pursue your goals, because it helps develop you as a person. Even if you don't win, you gain so much out of it.
CC: If you could change one thing about our country to make it a better place, what would it be and why?
NM: I would somehow eliminate senior year of high school and allow people to travel abroad instead. You gain such a different perspective from travelling to different countries. I think Americans don't really have that opportunity to put themselves out there and travel, but you can learn so much from it.
CC: Throughout your life, have your parents been your role models, or have there been other people who have influenced you?
NM: It's mainly come from my dad. He was the first African-American med school graduate at Duke, and he was already a doctor around my age. He would also train for track in med school, and he kept winning and winning. He set records, and he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1971. Then he went on to do his work overseas and helped over a half a million people. And he's still practicing; he's going to be 70 this year but still practices and works out every day. He's such a role model. I've talked a bit about my mom, but she grew up in such a bad situation, yet she used education to better her position.
CC: How often do you work out to stay fit, and what does your diet consist of?
NM: I usually start my day off with a vegetable juice or fruits. Then I will have a light sandwich or yogurt. In New York City, dinners are very big and Italian. I really let myself enjoy New York City food, but I work out four-to-five times a week – usually hour-long workouts. I love doing yoga, cardio and runs around Central Park. I have a trainer named Dorothy who I work out with. I just love working out.
CC: What kind of music do you listen to?
NM: I listen to everything. My favorite artists are Coldplay and Swedish House Mafia, and they're completely different.
CC: How do you use social media?
NM: I actually recently started a company with a partner in L.A. in June, and it focuses on social media marketing and management. So I really understand the power of social media. I credit social media for my success. I love communicating with fans. People tweet me and I tweet them back, and I really believe in the power of social media.