- Associated Press - Sunday, April 27, 2014

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) - Valerie Edwards has come pretty far in her 23 years, even while staying close to home.

The 23-year-old Elizabeth City State University senior has gone from living in a van in the southeastern North Carolina town of Whiteville to acceptance into the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.

She readily acknowledges she had help to reach this place in her life.

Her great-grandmother, Ethel Price, lifted her from her crib each morning with her one good arm and took her to the kitchen table to read.

Price believed Edwards couldn’t start too early. She had quit school to help her sick parents on the farm and, despite having suffered a stroke, was determined to see her great-granddaughter succeed.

Later, Edwards‘ mother, Penny Williams, worked two nursing jobs while pushing her children to excel in school.

She insisted Edwards and her brother make straight A’s. Edwards got a snack every day after school and sat down at the same kitchen table to do her homework.

Edwards was ready to give up on college when her modest home on the family farm burned down just before high school graduation, her mother said.

They remained homeless for months, moving from one place to another - at one point, they lived out of their van.

Still, her mother encouraged Edwards to go to college no matter what.

Edwards responded.

“You need to do what you need to do to be successful,” she said this week.

She is believed to be the first student from ECSU to go to the Columbia journalism school, said her communications professor, Kip Branch.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve not seen many like her,” Branch said.

He described Edwards as energetic, smart, driven and a good leader, yet able to follow and learn from others.

“Like a great musician, you know when they’ve got it,” Branch said. “You can’t teach it. She’s got it.”

Edwards also describes herself as driven, but gives credit to her mother, her late great-grandmother and Branch.

She went to ECSU instead of a school too far from her mother, who still works two jobs and lives on the same farm in an aging mobile home given to her.

“When I was young - I guess I was about 7 - I had all these things I wanted to accomplish,” she said. “It struck me I was different from most of my friends and family. Whiteville was not enough. Not for me.”

Edwards has won a number of academic awards, including $10,000 for being named one of the Brown Institute Scholars at Columbia University.

She interned last year for the Department of Energy in Washington, where she was offered a job. Tempting, but her 10-month-long graduate program comes first, she said.

“We’re very excited to have her come here,” said Christine Souders, associate dean for admissions and financial aid at Columbia.

She has visited the Columbia University campus and ventured through New York City, where she “felt right at home.”

Edwards edited her college newspaper and reported for the school’s radio and television stations, where she found another home.

“Wow, I can really get used to this,” she said about her first broadcast. “I love being in front of the cameras.”

Edwards hopes to rise to report and even anchor for a national news or sports network.

“It’s just me,” she said. “I like dreaming big and achieving big.”

She loves tennis, dance and acting in college plays. She has her pilot’s license and plans to incorporate aviation into her career.

The beginning of fall classes is her favorite time of year. She calls homework fun.

“She is full of energy,” her mother said. “I don’t know how she keeps everything going.”

Anything less than stellar work bothers her. She made her first B in an ECSU physics class and cried, dreading to call her mother.

Her mother commiserated with her, and they agreed physics is a lot tougher in college than in high schools.

Since then, Edwards made it a point to make straight A’s in her communications classes.

B’s weren’t enough. Not for her.

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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