Starr Williams: A BCC Success Story
Starr Williams gives the valedictory speech at Berkshire Community College's 2019 commencement.
"I like to be a statistic breaker," says Soncere "Starr" Williams
. That's putting it mildly. At age 40, Williams, Berkshire Community College's
2019 valedictorian, has overcome more obstacles than most people would in a lifetime. Once a high school dropout, she is the product of an abusive foster home who entered into a dark world of substance abuse, mental illness, and juvenile crime. Today, she's an outspoken advocate for the underprivileged — and she's headed to Columbia University
for a master's degree in social work (MSW).
"I come from poverty. I come from a place where people don't succeed, because there are far too many barriers to climb over. It's one of the reasons I'm in social work," says Starr, who graduated BCC with a perfect 4.0 GPA, earning an associate's degree in human services and an addiction recovery assistant certificate before transferring to Elms College
in Chicopee. She will graduate from Elms in a few weeks with a bachelor's degree in social work, once again earning a 4.0 GPA, before beginning classes at Columbia this summer.
Getting accepted into an Ivy League school still has Starr pinching herself. "The fact that I'm going to have an MSW from Columbia University still kind of feels like, no, this isn't happening, this is a dream," she says. "People like me are told, 'You're not going to be anything.' When you grow up in that in that environment, you're pegged as going nowhere for the rest of your life. Now, I'm going to have an Ivy League education, and I did it on my own."
Climbing out of the depths
Starr credits many mentors along the way for helping her succeed. Most recently, she has been working with Celia Clancy, president and CEO of Berkshire Business and Professional Women
, who has been cheering her on through the application process and sent her an enthusiastic note of congratulations upon learning of her acceptance to Columbia. At BCC, mentors included Assistant Dean of Students Beth Wallace (now retired), Professor of Human Services Kari Dupuis, Associate Professor of Human Services Pamela Coley McCann, and Professor of Sociology Stacy Evans. "They are amazing individuals who are there to support their students," Starr says, recalling many after-hours conversations with Evans. "We talked about climbing out of the depths of poverty and addiction and how hard that is. She gets it."
Starr applied to four highly competitive schools for her MSW degree — Fordham University, University of Southern California, Saint Louis University, and Columbia University — and was accepted into all four. She chose Columbia not only because of its stellar reputation and its renowned social work program, but also because it is the only Ivy League school that offers a completely online option for an accredited MSW degree.
Remote learning fits well with Starr's busy life juggling two jobs; she is a young-family support worker for 18 Degrees Family Services for Western Massachusetts
and a residential support worker for Berkshire County Arc
. She is also the mother of a daughter, who is soon approaching high school graduation and will begin college courses, and a high-functioning autistic son, who is a junior in high school.
"I can't just move to go to school. I have two full-time jobs, a full-time school schedule, and I'm a full-time single mother," Starr says. "I might make it look easy, but it's exhausting. There are many days when I study until 4 a.m. and get up to go to work at 6 a.m."
Career and life plans
But she doesn't let her jam-packed workload daunt her. She has a plan, and she's sticking to it.
"I had totally mapped out a plan to go to BCC, transfer to Elms, and then get my MSW. It was a plan I'd written before I even started classes at BCC," Starr recalls. She hadn't initially allowed herself to dream of going to an Ivy League school, but as she continued to maintain a 4.0 GPA, became the BCC valedictorian, and kept getting encouragement from her teachers and peers, she realized it might be a possibility. "Applying to Columbia was definitely a reach, but I wasn't going to let that stop me," she says.
And if Starr has her way, her path won't end there. She plans to remain at Columbia to pursue a doctorate degree in social work (DSW).
"I don't want to stop my momentum. I plan to have 'doctor' in front of my name," Starr says. "The great thing about that is I can say to all the people who told me I'd never make it, 'Well, I did make it, and that's Dr. Williams to you,'" she adds with a laugh.
Williams plans to pursue her master's and doctorate in social work at Columbia University.
On a more serious note, Starr says her traumatic childhood experiences gave her the incentive to become part of the change in the foster care system. "I've thought about social work and helping others for a long time," she says. "I've always had that drive inside me that I want to change things, because this system just isn't fair."
But creating life plans and making them happen are two different things, and it took Starr many years to begin achieving her goals. "I was a single parent. Going back to school wasn't an option, especially with an autistic child," she said, recalling the years she spent researching her son's diagnosis and finding him the right school where he could thrive. "Once I finally knew he was going to be okay, that's when I made the leap and signed up for classes at BCC. I knew I wanted to go to school for social work, specifically political advocacy ...
"It's a big job, but we need more social workers who are willing to speak out politically, who are willing to talk about the policies we write and how they keep people from succeeding. Our society shuns people at the low end of the totem pole, but the majority of these people don't want to be stuck where they are. They have dreams, they have goals, they have hopes. They want to reach them, but there are far too many barriers and far too little support."
Real people helping real people
Starr knows her personal experiences will make her a better social worker and mentor — one who can relate to the struggles of her clients because she's been there herself. "There are a lot of people out there like me who, if an opportunity presents itself, can succeed," she says. "But the system is not conducive to helping people who are in dire straits. For me, just overcoming mental health illnesses, addiction, and trauma is a success in and of itself, but on top of all that to keep pushing forward is incredibly hard. That's one of the reasons I want to go into political social work: We need real people who've had real experiences and real struggles to represent real people."
Starr thinks often about what the future holds for her after she completes earning her academic degrees. "I want to be a mentor, but more than that, I might become a teacher, because teaching future social workers is imperative. I have this perspective of what social work should be and what it needs to be, which comes from personal experience. So many people are struggling and suffering," she says. "We have a lot of work to do."
Starr bought a house this year, a first for her family. "I'm the first person in my family to go to college, the first to earn a degree, the first to get accepted into graduate school, and the first to buy a house," she says. "I like to prove people wrong." But with all these successes, she doesn't forget where she came from and where she got her start. She maintains friendships with the students and teachers she met at BCC, a network she calls "a huge support system." She also returns to BCC often to speak, including a recent engagement as an alumna speaker for Students for Recovery, a program encouraging students to access peer support through one-on-one discussions and drop-in sessions.
Clearly a BCC success story, Starr says it's never too late for non-traditional students like herself to start bettering their lives and further their education. "My advice is to just start, and start small. Sign up for one or two basic classes. Sit in on some forums. You don't have to know what you're going to do, but you just might find something that clicks with you," she says. "Nothing will be accomplished if you don't start it. Take that step. It's a scary step, but take it."