Perspectives Online

Stretching Boundaries, Student commencement speaker Anna Edens preaches the philosophy of education that she practiced. By Terri Leith

Student commencement speaker Anna Edens
Photo by Roger Winstead

The idea of a university is something that is annually on the minds of commencement speakers who, looking out upon a sea of mortarboards, must eloquently sum up what a university education will mean to graduating collegians. What those graduates hear often may allude to the “Idea” John Henry Newman presented in lectures on the founding of Ireland’s Catholic University in the 1850s.

“The Idea of a University” is the title of Newman’s famous discourse that defines the university as a place where “all branches of knowledge are connected together” and where students have opportunities to partake of “universal knowledge,” even if they pursue “only a few sciences out of the multitude.”

At N.C. State University’s 2005 spring commencement, student speaker Anna Edens delivered her own thoughts on the university experience. But perhaps as much by the example of her college career as by the words she spoke, Edens embodied Newman’s philosophy of what a student should strive for in a university education: partaking of it all.

A Park Scholar and N.C. State University Scholar, Edens graduated summa cum laude from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a minor in genetics, as well as minors in English and journalism.

Anna Edens
Anna Edens
Photo by Mark Dearmon
At N.C. State, Edens served as student chief justice, the head of the judicial branch of the student government. She was co-host of a weekly campus radio show on WKNC, as well as a weekly columnist, news editor and opinion editor of Technician, the student newspaper, from which her editorials were picked up by the Raleigh News & Observer, USA Today and the New York Times. She was co-founder and vice president of the March of Dimes collegiate chapter and the outreach education officer for the university chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Pre-medical club, Pi Beta Phi sorority, N.C. State Scholars Council and intramural soccer, volleyball and football also had places on her schedule, as did her work as an assistant in the developmental genetics laboratory of Dr. Patricia Estes.

And although her Undergraduate Research Symposium entry — using an online student-network listing as a voting-preference indicator — didn’t win that competition, it did succeed in projecting that the “Pirate Captain,” William Piavis, would be elected student body president.

Edens ranks her own student government work among her most rewarding experiences. Serving as chief justice “has been one the best roles, because I’ve been able to make a difference, being involved in student judicial cases and helping students be heard and be part of decision-making processes,” she says. “And it has helped me a lot as a person, developing confidence, along with leadership skills and the ability to think on the fly.”

She’s also proud of her work with the “MOD squad,” the collegiate March of Dimes group. “We worked with the Raleigh MOD, fund raising through Walk America and other projects. Donations from Walk America went to research on premature birth and folic acid awareness. I’m proud because so much effort went into this, and the impact on the community will last,” she says.

Amidst all this activity, Edens finished with a 3.78 GPA. Her honor society memberships include Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, Golden Key and Phi Eta Sigma, as well as the National Society for Collegiate Journalists and National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

How did she do it all? “Determination, balancing and prioritizing,” says Edens, noting the guidance of faculty members Estes and Dr. Wendell McKenzie, genetics; Dr. Gerald Van Dyke, botany; Dr. Lisa Parks, zoology; and Rod Cockshutt, journalism.

Edens’ philosophy as a student was “to take advantage of the opportunities here at N.C. State — to try everything and hang onto what you like and throw your heart into it.”

That was the heart of her address to her fellow graduates. “Every student should have the ability to try something new and difficult beyond their reach, to test limitations and perceived boundaries,” she told them.

She delivered that message to nearly 3,700 fellow graduates — quite a leap from her South Carolina high school, Wilson Hall, where there were 46 students in her graduating class.

Home is Dalzell, S.C., where her father, Mark Edens, a graduate of the College’s Agricultural Institute, and her mother, Ellen Chesson Edens, a Meredith College alumna, have a peanut farm.

“I came here interested in biology and genetics,” says Edens. “But in high school I also did a lot of work with the newspaper and yearbook, so when I got here, I took the editing course. That flowed into the journalism minor. I also minored in English, so I could take all the literature I wanted,” she says, noting a preference for 20th-century American literature.

Quoting a favorite poet in her commencement address, Edens told her classmates, “T.S. Eliot once said, ‘Only those who risk going too far can find out how far one can possibly go.’ I challenge everyone to think critically about perceived boundaries in your own life and whether or not these limit your attempts at success.”

She told her audience not to fear failure: “I would like to hope as graduates we are able to see failure for what it really is — a stepping stone to new perspectives.”

Or, as another of her favorite writers, Ernest Hemingway, might have put it, “Never be daunted.”

After commencement, Edens headed west for backpacking and camping at the Grand Canyon and in the backcountry of the Tetons. Then, at summer’s end she’ll be back in her home state at the University of South Carolina, where she has been accepted in the master’s degree program in genetics counseling. “It’s a program that focuses on prenatal genetics, looking at genetic risks for diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Down syndrome,” she says. “It involves educating people — preparing them to care for a special needs baby, for example — and empowering them to make decisions for themselves.”

Edens says that she chose this pursuit “because it combines science and working with people.”

Just like her fours years at N.C. State.

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