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From GED to JD, first-generation transfer student looks forward to full scholarship to law school

Photo of James Starks
May 07, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

James Starks isn’t your typical Dean’s Medal recipient, and that’s what makes themJames Starks uses they/them pronouns. so captivating.

Starks began their collegiate journey at the age of 25 after they earned their GED during the COVID-19 lockdown. This fall, they will be attending the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law to pursue a JD on a full scholarship.

A first-generation college student and transfer student from Mesa Community College, Starks is the recipient of several scholarships recognizing their academic achievements, including the Helen & Ong C. Hing Family First-Generation Scholarship, the Transfer Achievement Award and the Earn to Learn transfer scholarship.

Starks is wrapping up their bachelor’s degree in philosophy (morality, politics and law) as the Dean’s Medalist for the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies (SHPRS), where they also served as the writing tutor at the SHPRS Writing Studio, an important resource for students in SHPRS.

Michael Currey, an academic success coordinator at the school, supervises the writing tutor. He said, “The SHPRS Writing Studio was created by SHPRS philosophy faculty who recognized a need to provide philosophy students with assistance both in the writing of philosophy and in the study of logic. The writing tutor is an advanced philosophy major, typically a senior who has excelled in their philosophy classes.”

When asked about Starks, Currey said, “Not only was James a proficient philosophy writing tutor, they also worked as a tutor in chemistry and computer information systems. ... It has been my privilege to be James’s supervisor for the past year. I am confident that I will see their name (in a very good way) again.”

For now, though, Starks is ready to take a breather by restoring some of their creative energy before law school begins in August.

“I want to focus on getting as physically and mentally fit as I can,” Starks said. “I'd love to read and write fiction. I want to spend time with my loved ones. I'm excited to spend some weekends at the lake or out in the mountains. I want to write some new songs.”

SHPRS had the opportunity to interview Starks about their ASU experience thus far.

Question: What was your "aha" moment when you realized what you wanted to study?

Answer: I have always been interested in asking and attempting to answer fundamental questions that seem to lack an obvious answer. When it came time to choose a major, it seemed to me that I would get the most of my education by choosing a discipline that I was passionate about. Very few things excite me like a good debate. I believe philosophy helps provide the tools one needs to articulate compelling answers to the most difficult questions, but also empowers one to analyze and evaluate others' answers charitably and critically. This is useful for any career path, as well as in your everyday life. Communication is so much of what we do. Learning how to do so effectively, thoughtfully and precisely is so important for our personal development.

Q: What's something you learned while at ASU (in the classroom or otherwise) that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I think I assumed that the most difficult and challenging philosophical works were the ones most worthy of reflection and consideration. During my education, I've found that the best and most compelling philosophical works have been the clearest and most concise. I am now convinced that using fancy-sounding language and convoluted sentence structure is not impressive, and usually betrays a lack of clear understanding of the topic being discussed.

Q: Which professor taught you one of the most important lessons you've learned at ASU? What was the lesson?

A: Several of my professors have emphasized this point, but Professor Douglas Portmore was the first at ASU to help me see how important it is to be clear and concise in my writing. When you are still in the early stages of trying to grasp a difficult concept, you might often default to using "close-enough" language to express yourself, but this often creates problems for both the reader and for yourself when you go back to make sense of what you said. If you take the extra time at the start to be very specific about what claims you are making, and the precise logical connection between your assumptions and what you conclude from them, this not only improves your writing but the way you think about things.

Q: What's the best piece of advice you'd give to other students?

A: Ask for help. Ask questions in class. Go to office hours. Go to the (SHPRS) Writing Studio. Form study groups. Be vocal about what you don't understand. There are a lot of resources available to help you, but they only benefit you if you take advantage of them.

Q. Is there anything else about your time as a student at ASU that you would like to share?

A: I'm just going to miss having interesting discussions in seminars with my classmates and the faculty. I've made a lot of strong connections here and hopefully those will stand the test of time. But the nature of college is that after you graduate, everyone kind of goes their separate ways and does their own thing. I wish everyone the best of luck, and I will always cherish the time we spent bettering ourselves and each other.

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