Three graduating seniors reflect on what UNC has meant to them as they finish up final exams, cross things off bucket lists, don Carolina blue caps and gowns, and take on their next great adventures after May 11 commencement.
Headed to the Big Apple
It’s a long way from Tyro, N.C., to New York City.
Allen Tedder came to UNC-Chapel Hill from the tiny unincorporated community located a few miles west of Lexington, which “has one stoplight and more cows than people.”
Now he’s headed to The Juilliard School after graduation. Tedder, a dramatic art major and creative writing minor in the College of Arts and Sciences, is among only 18 people admitted to the prestigious graduate program in acting after competing against nearly 1,400 applicants from around the country and the world.
Tedder entered Carolina as a pre-dentistry major, but landed a part in the first play he auditioned for his first year, UNC alum Mike Wiley’s “Parchman Hour.” The production tells the stories of the “Freedom Riders,” who rode buses into the heart of the deep South during the first months of the civil rights movement. Many were imprisoned in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm Penitentiary, where they invented a variety show to help them cope with their time behind bars. In the fall of 2011, the play debuted as an undergraduate production, then during spring break of 2011, the show went on the road to Mississippi. It returned home to UNC later that fall, where the professional production debuted at PlayMakers Repertory Company.
Tedder calls that week on the road — riding on a bumpy bus, operating on little sleep, working 19 hour days — “one of the most miserable and the most educational” experiences of his life. It was also where he found his calling.
“Taking a play on tour is kind of like a series of away games for baseball,” he said. “You have to do this very, very taxing physically and mentally [exhausting] thing every day, in a different place every time, sometimes more than once a day. … I’d never done anything like that before, but the tour convinced me I could do this for my life.”
The first acting class Tedder took during his freshman year, Drama 150, was with Juilliard alum and dramatic art senior lecturer Julie Fishell. He says Fishell approached teaching about the craft with “relentless discipline.”
“She coached us that there’s never too far you can go, and there’s never too much effort you can give. It taught me that acting is not just a hobby, it’s a way of life.”
Fishell described Tedder as inventive, disciplined and someone who makes “bold, engaging choices.”
“Our students are easily pegged as having academic strengths, but there are quite few who strike me as having special artistic gifts. Allen is one of these rare individuals,” she said. “From the beginning, his curiosity was innate and his heart was clearly large.”
Tedder, who has also been a member of the Chapel Hill Players improv company since his sophomore year, said he can’t wait for the next chapter in his career. As he leaves Carolina behind, he said he will always envision his time on campus as being like “a bunch of hands pulling you forward.”
“UNC is a great place to be. It is like being at the center of the world without any pressure. Pun intended. Really, it is a place that can show anyone how to do great things. … As long as you are driven and grasping for opportunities, they will always find you at UNC.”
Finding a Tar Heel home far from home
Chenxi (Chex) Yu has been living away from home since age 11, when her parents sent her about four hours away from her rural China home in Zhuzhou in the Hunan Province to boarding school. She went even farther away to high school in Singapore, thanks to a full scholarship from the Singaporean government.
Yu, a first-generation college student, continued her journey far from home when she was accepted to UNC as a Colonel Robinson Scholar, a full, merit-based scholarship. She had an opportunity to return and make history in her homeland when she founded, conceptualized and spearheaded TEDxBeijing 2012, the first TEDxBeijing conference conducted entirely in Mandarin. TEDx is an international nonprofit devoted to spreading creative ideas through short, powerful talks. Yu did all of that while working as a research assistant at the China Center for Health Economic Research. [Watch a video interview with Yu about the 2012 event.] She has also been heavily involved in planning for TedxUNC since its formation.
Yu is pursuing majors in mathematical decision sciences and economics with a minor in entrepreneurship in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is interested in international development and global health. During the summer of 2013, she was a policy intern in Geneva at the World Health Organization (WHO), a position often held by graduate students. She found out about the internship through her work at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, first as a research assistant, then as a global health fellow.
“I got to be a part of the delegates attending the WHO Assembly and watched global health policy happening right in front of me,” she said.
During her first year at Carolina, Yu worked on a comprehensive health project that was implemented in rural India. She serves on the Chancellor’s Innovation Team, and as a junior won the Chancellor’s Award for International Leadership, presented to an undergraduate who has made significant contributions to increasing international awareness and understanding.
After graduation, she’ll head off to graduate studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
Jeremy Petranka, a lecturer in the department of economics, calls Yu, who won the 2014 Undergraduate Prize and the Best Thesis Award in Economics, “the singularly most amazing student I’ve had the pleasure of teaching.”
“Since I first met Chex in 2011, she has shown a maturity, experience and passion for global health issues and international development that is not remotely close to any other student I’ve encountered,” he said. “She hasn’t hesitated in taking the most challenging quantitative classes we have at UNC. She is currently taking our Ph.D.-level econometrics theory class. … She doesn’t just want to explore the world’s problems, she wants to find solutions.”
Despite her travels far and wide, Yu said what she’ll remember most about UNC is the people.
“They genuinely care about your success,” she said. “Everyone is so driven and motivated and has a sense of purpose, but at the same time, they are warm. I was challenged here all the time, both academically and in terms of personal growth. … It’s a special place. These years have been the most formative of my life.”
Unlocking the mysteries of the brain
A traumatic brain injury that track star Ryan Brady suffered during his senior year of high school sparked an overwhelming desire to learn more about how the brain works. The accident happened when he was participating in a pole vaulting event at an invitational track meet at UNC.
“I went up in the air, and I missed the mat and came down and landed on my head,” Brady recalled. “I fractured my skull and suffered a traumatic brain injury that took about seven to eight months to recover from. In my recovery time, I had a lot of side effects from having temporary brain damage, for instance I lost all of my sense of balance.”
Today, Brady doesn’t suffer from any long-term brain damage, except for occasional bouts of vertigo.
Brady found UNC associate professor of psychology Kelly Giovanello’s work in human memory particularly fascinating. He became an assistant in her research lab the summer before his sophomore year.
“Dr. Giovanello has been a huge factor in the progress of my academic career,” said Brady, a psychology major in the College of Arts and Sciences and a cognitive science minor, who is from Davidson, N.C. “I’m the person in class who asks a lot of questions. I don’t like to take things at face value if they don’t make sense. I could come to her with all of the questions I had, and if she didn’t know the answer, she’d point me in the right direction.”
Giovanello said she and Brady have had a “rewarding mentor-mentee relationship.”
“Ryan is intellectually curious, well-organized and gregarious,” she said. “He shows an impressive ability to work independently (yet as a team player), think critically and problem solve effortlessly. He takes great pride in promoting teaching and learning in the laboratory, as well as the community.”
Brady’s honors thesis is on implicit sequence learning in young adults. He describes the concept this way: Explicit memory is memory you are consciously aware of, but implicit memory is something you are not aware of — you just do it, like how to ride a bike. He is examining how the human brain can pick up on very complex patterns implicitly, “even if your brain is not trying to learn or if you’re not aware you are actively learning.”
Brady also became interested in studying the concept of implicit sequence learning in primates. Through connections made by his UNC professors, he spent a summer “living with lemurs in Duke Forest” and working in a research lab at the Duke Lemur Center.
After graduation, Brady will enter the doctoral program in neuroscience and animal behavior at Emory University, where he will work with Rob Hampton at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, one of the top primate research facilities in the world.
Brady’s family has been very supportive of his academic interests, especially his brother, Billy, a 2009 UNC psychology alum who is currently a Ph.D. student at New York University.
Eventually, Brady hopes to become a professor and to teach and lead research of his own. He said he is grateful for the motivation and encouragement he’s received at UNC.
“I’ve worked with a variety of professors here, and every one of them has been so open to my ideas and willing to work with me on pursuing things I’m interested in,” Brady said. “I feel like I’ve done things that I would never have been able to do at other places. I’m glad that I can firmly say that leaving UNC, there isn’t some burning passion that I wished I would have done.”
[ Stories by Kim Weaver Spurr ’88 ]