By Curt Yeomans
Larry Wiley has seen Clayton State University go through a lot of changes in the 28 years he has taught speech communications.
Clayton State has gone from a junior college, then to a state college, and a university.
The university has gone from being a commuter school, to being a university with on-campus student housing. It has gone from not offering graduate degrees, to having a school of graduate studies.
Wiley saw the university change once again on Thursday. But, this time, it was someone very close to him who was involved in the change. His daughter, Anna Cox, became the first recipient of a graduate level degree at Clayton State. She received master's degree in liberal studies.
"I am very proud of her, but I am more proud that she decided to try Clayton State when this program started [in 2006]," said Wiley. "I believe that's the pioneer spirit in her."
Anna Cox, a Latin teacher at Jonesboro High School, is no stranger to the spotlight.
Cox, and her husband, Andrew, are faculty coaches for Jonesboro Mock Trial Teams that won back-to-back national championships in 2007 and 2008. In that role, Anna Cox helped to guide the team. She also was recognized as Clayton County's Teacher of the Year in 2007.
But, being the person who makes history for a university, is a little different than coaching students and being recognized by her peers.
When Clayton State established its graduate level course-work, liberal studies was its first. Then, came business, nursing and
health administration. Cox's distinction adds to her trailblazing efforts at CSU.
"The first graduate in any program is important, but this is particularly nice. She is not just the first in any particular academic program. She is the first person to receive a graduate-level degree," said Thomas K. Harden, CSU president.
"It stands out quite a bit more because rather than having a class of graduate students receiving their degrees at one time, we have just one person," said Tom Eaves, associate provost and head of the graduate school. "Anna stands alone on the graduation stage, but she also stands out."
Cox was made the center of attention throughout the ceremony. She was the first graduate in the processional. In fact the ceremony was tailored to celebrate her accomplishment. The university did not have a commencement speaker. Instead, university Provost Sharon Hoffman gave a speech explaining the hoods that graduate students receive at graduation.
Cox was then called up, by herself, to be hooded by her academic advisor, Gwendolyn Harold, and Nasser Momayezi, dean of Clayton State's College of Arts and Science in front of a crowded gymnasium.
"Way to go Mrs. Cox!" someone in the audience shouted out after she received her hood.
"It's very exciting, and I feel very honored to be a pioneer for this university," said Cox.
Cox successfully defended her thesis, entitled "The Critical Reception of Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God,'" on Nov. 19. She researched New York Times book reviews from the 1930s when the book was published, and compared them to reviews of book which have been published in various journals over the years.
Her studies, combined with her duties as a mock trial coach, kept Cox busy almost every night of the week for the last two and a half years. "Tuesday and Thursday, I would be at the [Clayton County] courthouse working with the mock trial team," said Cox. "Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, I was in the dining room, on the computer, doing my research and writing my thesis."
Wendy Burns-Ardolino, the head of the Master's of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program, said Cox set a high bar for future graduates. Burns-Ardolino sat in on Cox's thesis defense, and watched her defend her thesis.
"As a new director for this program, I am proud to see the bar was set very high by Anna through the quality of her work and the quality of her presentation," said Burns-Ardolino. "She spoke very knowledgeably, and very intelligently, on her subject."
The bar will be tested soon. Eaves said as many as 40 graduate students are expected in May 2009. President Harden said he hopes Cox has set "a good example for what a graduate student ought to be."
Her husband was particularly pleased to see his wife receive her new degree.
"She's worked really hard and I'm glad it's paid off," Andrew Cox said. "I'm glad its over, though. I got to see the other side of it. The frustration, the anxiety, and the irritability as she worked on this. Now, I get Anna back."