UNC senior Megan Murphy has a ‘sixth sense’ — helping others

By Guillermo Molero

Sometimes they’re blue. Other times they’re green, a little corduroy number stretching from head to toe. Or maybe burnt orange or bright yellow, like leaves falling from trees.

Whatever color they are, Megan Murphy always wears overalls.

For the co-president of the Campus Y, a student-run advocacy group at UNC, they’re more than just a fashion choice. They’ve long been a symbol of her willingness to take charge and do what she must to get things done.

The Nashville native was always involved in something.

When she was a young girl, her mother founded an initiative to help women who had been the victims of violence and trafficking.

These women were all around Murphy during her childhood. They were her babysitters, watching her and her friends build makeshift towns out of old cardboard boxes and other junk in her yard. They were farmhands, right alongside her and her overalls as they tilled the soil. They were at Thanksgiving, passing mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce along a crowded table.

They were family. And she did everything she could to help them.

“I was 8 years old with a very complex understanding of injustice, inequality and systemic reasons why people would end up in the situations that they were in,” Murphy said. “And it made me really fiercely angry, honestly.”

Murphy the ballerina

That fire kept burning all throughout high school, even if she wasn’t the liveliest kid when she first started there. She was an aspiring ballerina whose most distinguishable trait was her good posture — that is, to those who didn’t know her better.

“I wouldn’t say she was shy,” said Spindel, a friend she met in seventh grade. “This is still Megan Murphy we’re talking about.”

Spindel, who prefers to be referred to by their last name, talked about how she eventually garnered a reputation for activism, even if she was quieter than most. A baby radical in a sea of plaid-skirt conservatives, Murphy found herself blacklisted by the “cool girls.” They often made group chats to make fun of her more “liberal” beliefs, adding insult to injury by including her friends in these toxic text chains.

After an audition where she was cast aside because of her body type, she stepped away from ballet for good. It was difficult for her, she said. But the dance she once thought so beautiful and graceful had become repetitive and repressive. Her pointe shoes were like shackles. Her tights, suffocating. She needed to break free.

And through her activism, she did.

Murphy the activist

The 2016 election came around the same time as that audition. Spindel talked about how the moment marked a turning point for her — an enlightenment, almost.

She had become fed up with the toxic rhetoric of Donald Trump, the race’s eventual winner. 

She was shocked by the apathy with which she thought he and those supporting him treated people from disadvantaged communities. 

She just couldn’t just stand idly by as the world around her became nastier. She had to do something. She had to help them. She had to make change — and she had to do it right then and there.

“The thing that’s unique about her is that it’s not about her at all,” Spindel said. “It’s not about Megan Murphy.”

And it wasn’t.

It was about those women she had been helping as a child and still works with today, helping them move on from their painful pasts and start a new life filled with love.

It was about the victims of gun violence for whom she and the 300 classmates walked out of school for the March for Our Lives protest.

It was about people in Nashville struggling with homelessness, who she went to bat for at more Town Council meetings than she cared to admit, and who she helped cope with the onset of gentrification in their neighborhoods.

“And that was what I lived and breathed,” Murphy said. “It was everything to me.”

Murphy the leader

She eventually applied to UNC because of the Campus Y, which she saw as the perfect place to continue serving her community. But this time, she’d have more help doing it — help from people like Laura Saavedra Forero, who joined the group last year.

Murphy was in charge of recruitment for the group at the time, so the two often ran into each other at meetings for first-years and other new members. Not long after, they started hanging out outside of the confines of the Y, quickly becoming close friends.

November 2021 was another turning point for Murphy, this time sitting in her home alongside Saavedra Forero. The two were eating tomato soup and grilled cheese. Murphy slightly burnt hers, but it still tasted good.

They talked about their experiences at the Y — the great work they’d done so far and what they wanted to do in the future. Murphy shared her thoughts, both good and bad, with her legs stretched out on the floor where they sat. Then Saavedra Forero. Then back again.

Eventually, they decided they could do more than they were doing at the time. They both ran for the group’s co-presidency. In the spring they won. And then, it was back to work.

Saavedra Forero said the start to this year has been a dream, largely because of how much work she, Murphy and their executive team have been able to do by supporting their campus community and helping those seeking affordable housing in Chapel Hill. 

But she also said that it’s Murphy’s kindness and her effervescent energy that has made the job all the more fulfilling.

“She’s stepped in and showed up, especially during some of the hardest times that I’ve had, both as a friend and as co-president,” she said.

When Saavedra Forero went through major surgery this summer, Murphy was always the first one to ask how she was doing and to tell her she loved her.

And when her friend Sam Toenjes needed a roommate this semester, Murphy was there, too.

He met Murphy at freshman orientation in 2019 and the pair have been good friends ever since. Murphy’s current achievements would probably surprise many of her high school friends, but Toenjes said he knew at first sight that Murphy had a knack for that sort of thing.

 “I mean, the overalls at orientation were a pretty dead giveaway,” he said.

He said living with her has been so simple because she always knows when to step in, whether it’s to do chores around the house when he’s studying or asking if he wants to go get coffee when she can tell he’s having a bad day.

“She’s so intuitively helpful. She can always sense when something’s off,” he said. “She has a sixth sense for these things.”

She knows so well what it means to help other people, and is more than willing to put her ego aside to do it. She always has.

Edited by Madison Ward and Brianna Atkinson.