By Jake Becker
Xander Edwards has tied together three corners of Harpur College's academic domain—economics, medicine and music—to form a curriculum that reflects his interests.
Thanks to Binghamton University and its study abroad program, Edwards, an economics major, biology minor and cellist who just completed his junior year, has grown accustomed to interacting with ethnicities and cultures unlike his own. At age 3, his family relocated to Skaneateles, N.Y., from his native Orlando, Fla., which despite providing a peaceful, scenic environment in his formative years, closed him off from people of different backgrounds.
"Skaneateles is 99 percent white and upper-middle class, so I wanted something new," he says.
Edwards' draw to a more diverse group of peers has been echoed in his divergent academic pursuits. While a freshman in high school, a knack for biology and the sciences grew into a mature appreciation of the field after his father, a developer of medical instruments and serious tri-athlete, punctured his lung in a bicycle accident. This near-death experience revealed to Edwards the importance of studying medicine and the effect that gaining such knowledge can have on others.
"It made me realize how important your family is to you," he says, "and how much I cared about keeping that [knowledge of health and medicine] for everybody, not just myself."
Surprisingly, Edwards never considered pursuing biology as a major; rather, he decided to delve into another interest that stemmed from high school, the subject of economics.
"I like the theory of economics, not so much the number-crunching," he says. "It's a great way to study humanity as a social science; I find it fascinating, so why not study what you like?"
Though unusual for an aspiring medical school student, this decision has proven not only to be comprehensive, but also practical.
"Every doctor I've spoken to has said that they wouldn't have been a science major because the first two years of medical school is more or less a repetition of what you learn as an undergraduate," he says.
Edwards took advantage of an opportunity to incorporate his two chief academic interests as a participant in a four-week study abroad program in the Republic of Botswana from May–June of 2012. Organized by Binghamton University's Geography Department in conjunction with the University of Botswana's School of Environmental Sciences, the program sent Edwards and 13 other Binghamton students to southern Africa, where they met with public health officials and explored the trending and non-communicable diseases of the region.
"My goal was to get a better world perspective," he says. "I think traveling is unparalleled at helping you to become a more open-minded person and helping you to understand people in general. You become more analytical when you're an outsider."
Botswana's recent economic growth was another motive for Edwards to join the program.
"I looked at Botswana in economic ways," he says. "The country's gross domestic product until the Great Recession was about 8 percent, which is huge. Their economy rapidly developed largely because of the diamond trade. Their downtown district is made up of gorgeous new buildings, and there's rapid construction and change."
Despite the country's fiscal gains, a large percentage of Botswana's population, comparable to others throughout the African continent, is afflicted with the AIDS pandemic. The urgency of the medical condition and its global humanitarian relevance reinforced Edwards's determination to research medicine following his undergraduate studies.
"I was discussing with the program's professors the old doctor's mantra that you need to save as many lives as possible," he says. "But here, death is imminent for the 25 percent of the population that is infected with AIDS. It made me realize that the reason why I want to become a doctor is because I want to ensure that people can enjoy their lives healthfully until that moment."
In Binghamton, when the workload of the economics and biology courses accumulates, Edwards turns to his cello, the subject of his third field of study, as an outlet for alleviating stress. Though he had been taking private lessons from age 5 until his senior year of high school in Syracuse, winning a state competition along the way, Edwards was unsure if he would continue his music education at Harpur College.
"I didn't know about the music program at Binghamton," he says, "so I wasn't certain if I wanted to continue studying music intensively."
In his freshman year, however, Edwards joined the University Symphony Orchestra, and soon began taking lessons for credit with Stephen Stalker, the University's cello instructor. Edwards considers the change in mentors beneficial to his growth as a performer.
"Since you work everyday, you don't see the progress as well," he says. "But looking back at how I was freshman year and who I was as a person compared to my ability to play certain music today, it's definitely been worth my time. I was able to get a different perspective on my playing and receive a new teaching technique."
Edwards has taken an active role in Binghamton's student music community. He is a member of "Alla Corda," a string quartet that has performed several times this year in Casadesus and Osterhout concert halls, featuring works from Beethoven to Bartok and others across the classical realm. He also co-founded another, rather unconventional ensemble, an unnamed quartet comprised entirely of cellos, which incorporates more modern, jazzy music into his repertoire.
"I appreciate almost any type of music and composers from any era," he says.
Though he has admitted that preparing for performances can increase the academic burden, in his eyes the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.
"Music is like meditation; it's a great stress reliever—that's one of the reasons I've kept with it for so long. My schedule doesn't really fit it, but I do it anyway, and I'd be far worse off as a person if I didn't keep with it."
Though he knows the path leads to medical school after Binghamton, Edwards is as flexible when it comes to selecting a medical specialty as he is in musical maneuverability. His next destination has yet to be determined, but he believes that Harpur College has given him the ability to enhance his interests socially and academically.
"I feel if I focus myself too much [on where I want to attend medical school] and hit a dead end, it would be worse than if I kept an open mind," he says. "I would like to give urban life a try, but when it comes to undergraduate studies, you can't do much better than Binghamton."
Last Updated: 6/3/15