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Anna G. Larson, Published August 10 2013

Women of Influence: NDSU professor a mother to many

“Women of Influence” is an ongoing series exploring the women in our community who have the most impact and influence. Each profile will explore a different element of influence and redefine what it means.

FARGO - Students laugh on the sofa and others head to the kitchen for more food. A pingpong game gets underway in the basement, and at the heart of the happy chaos is Ann Burnett.

The scene remembered by North Dakota State University graduate Jaishikha Nautiyal is from one of the many gatherings that Ann, a professor and the director of the women and gender studies program at NDSU, hosted at her home.

“One has to experience Ann as an immensely kind human being, a great friend, a compassionate and fun instructor, an intuitive and gifted scholar and above all, a fiercely tenacious fighter,” Nautiyal says.

Ann’s inner fighter was tested when she was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer in late 2011. The 55-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., native is cancer free now, but her experience with the rare diagnosis provoked her to pause and rethink life.

“I was told a year ago that I have a 65 percent chance of still being alive in five years,” Ann says. “It’s better than 50 percent, but I would have rather heard 90. That’s sort of sobering.”

Gallbladder cancer can come back, and the rate of survival is based on studies of people who’ve had the cancer, Ann explains.

Not knowing how much time she has left sparked Ann to consider a simpler, less stressful life.

“We’ve talked about hanging it up, and I could be a barista at a coffee shop, and he could sack groceries,” Ann says, referring to husband Mark Meister, the chair of the communication department at NDSU.

She’s not sure how serious the couple’s talk was, but it’s something she keeps in the back of her mind.

“You work so hard and you get so stressed out … the jobs at any university are never ending,” Ann says. “There’s so much to be done, and you don’t put it away at 5 o’clock.”

For instance, in late July Ann was preparing for a leadership workshop by writing a mock cover letter for a position as the dean of the graduate school at North Carolina State University. A few years ago, she would’ve jumped at the chance to really apply.

“Now I feel like maybe I’m not supposed to be doing that,” she says. “Maybe I’m supposed to take it easy and help people and serve and enjoy my life.”

Enjoying life doesn’t mean doing nothing – Ann is a “hobby queen,” says her 22-year-old daughter Carolina Pettus. Besides spending time with her family and yellow Labrador, Patsy, quilting, canning, cooking and baking consume Ann’s free time.

“She has taught me everything I know about baking. I joke that once she retires, we will go into business together and open a bakery,” Carolina says.

Ann and Carolina have a close relationship, and both women say it stems from Ann being a single mother until she met Mark.

“It was like her and me against the world. I’m grateful for it,” Ann says.

One tradition the two share is eating pancakes together the morning of Carolina’s July 22 birthday each year.

“My mom is one of my best friends. She has always been there for me, even when my friends weren’t,” Carolina says.

Carolina admires her mom most for her selflessness, saying that she tries to help everyone, despite what’s going on in her life. For instance, while Ann was having surgery for her cancer, she encouraged Carolina to focus on her studies rather than the surgery.

“I was scared. I’ve tried to imagine my life without my mom, and it’s not a pleasant thought,” says the NDSU student. “I definitely do not take things for granted anymore.”

Ann’s kindness and selflessness are noticed by students who’ve worked with her, too. They praise her for being tough but caring. One of Ann’s Ph.D. advisees describes her as a “reasonable, brilliant” person.

“She’s somebody who is helping me when I have questions about my goals and my career path, but (she’s) also there to give me tips and tricks to survive the program,” says NDSU Ph.D. candidate Nancy DiTunnariello.

For example, Ann loaned her a book and dog-eared pages she thought would help in DiTunnariello’s research and personal life.

Nautiyal admires Ann for being able to put people at ease. Ann opened her home to Nautiyal after she’d arrived in Fargo-Moorhead from India.

“Within a couple of days of landing in a foreign town and getting to know her, I felt so comfortable, and I knew that I was amidst a great vibration,” Nautiyal says.

Besides influencing students, Ann’s been integral to growing the women and gender studies program and improving campus climate so it’s more accepting of women, says Kent Sandstrom, the dean of arts, humanities and social sciences at NDSU.

She helped write a grant to recruit and retain more women faculty, and she’s been involved with a faculty mentoring program.

“She’s just really somebody who puts her nose to the grindstone and does it with a gracious spirit and kind heart,” Sandstrom says. “She’s been a very popular and well regarded teacher.”

Ann’s known for hosting casual gatherings like the one described by Nautiyal, as well as holiday dinners for students who might not have a place to go.

“She makes her home a home for students as well,” Sandstrom says. “They have a strong sense that she does care about them, not just as students, but as human beings.”

Ann’s role as a mother is also part of what makes her a great educator, says her student DiTunnariello.

“She just has a really big heart,” she says.

Ann’s parenting has changed somewhat since she started teaching women and gender studies in 2002, she says. Ann encourages Carolina to speak up but has never forced feminist beliefs.

“I am definitely a feminist,” Carolina says. “I think my mom encouraged me to become a feminist just because she knows what I believe in.”

Before becoming the director of the program, feminism wasn’t on Ann’s radar although she realized she’s been a feminist her whole life. She defines a feminist as someone who believes in equal opportunities for men and women.

“When you define it that way, I think, who wouldn’t be a feminist?” Ann says.

Ann won’t be teaching classes this fall because of her work with the women’s and gender studies program, but she’ll be involved on campus with her advisees, research and campus programs. She’s still tossing around the idea of leaving it all behind in search of a simpler life, but for now, she says there’s still work to be done.

“You really do have to stop and appreciate every day for what it gives you,” Ann says. “My dad has an incredibly positive outlook on life, and he will say that this is just one of life’s big adventures.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525