An open letter by Dr. Allen C. Estes:

Reflecting on 10 years since losing Carson Starkey and the lasting impact he and his parents have had on Cal Poly's ARCE Department.

It is hard to believe that ten years have passed since the tragic death of Carson Starkey from acute alcohol poisoning at a fraternity hazing ritual.  

Carson was a freshman in the Cal Poly Architectural Engineering program.  I have been the Head of the Architectural Engineering (ARCE) Department for twelve years and this terrible event still holds special significance for me.

At the time, ARCE students did not take their first ARCE class until sophomore year.  Their schedules were filled with calculus, physics, general education classes, and architecture studios.  As such, not a single ARCE faculty member knew Carson Starkey….or even recognized the name when this tragedy occurred.  In fact, when the university wanted a department head to meet with the Starkey family and the university President, the Architecture department head was summoned.   I vividly remember thinking that this is so wrong and never again – not on my watch. I felt ashamed.

I eventually met Julia and Scott Starkey and remain amazed at how they responded to Carson’s death.  Despite the unbelievable pain they were suffering, they embraced the Cal Poly community and dedicated their lives to ensuring that a similar fate does not happen to other young and impressionable students who leave for college.  Most people are familiar with their founding of the Aware Awake Alive organization and the national impact it has had.

My experience with the Starkeys is more personal.  With Carson’s death as an important motivator, we developed ARCE 106 Introduction to Building Systems that every ARCE student takes in the Fall quarter of their freshman year.  ARCE faculty member John Lawson and I developed the course and have team-taught every iteration.  The two-unit course meets twice a week.  The first meeting is in a large lecture hall where the entire ARCE freshman class is assembled.  The second meeting is a two-hour activity period limited to 24 students per activity section.  In these activities, the students weld steel, sink and test concrete anchor bolts, build and test wooden connections, digitally fabricate and break truss structures, explore arches and centenaries, map a small watershed, report on a failure case study, wire electrical circuits and participate in a culminating K’nexercise.  

As a result, at least ARCE two faculty members know the first names of every freshman during their first quarter at Cal Poly.  If an ARCE freshman ever experiences a devastating tragedy, at least two faculty members will know the student involved.  The course is officially dedicated to Carson Starkey and both Julia and Scott Starkey attended the ribbon cutting.  

ARCE 106 is in its fourth iteration and both Scott and Julia have consistently attended the first lesson of the course to tell Carson’s story and to provide personal relevance to the Aware Awake Alive message.

And if that is not enough, the Starkeys created four $2500 annual scholarships exclusively for current ARCE freshmen.  Two are need-based and two are merit-based.  
The Starkeys attend the ARCE Scholarship Luncheon each June and personally present these scholarships to the deserving freshmen.
On June 7th, four ARCHE freshmen were awarded the Carson Starkey Scholarship during the department's annual Scholarship Luncheon. Recipients: Joshua Shockey, Emmanuel (E-man) Corona Navarro, Tomlinn Cox, and Eva Wieczorek.

Scott and Julia Starkey are heroes to me.  They are ideal role models for demonstrating how to turn a parent’s worst nightmare into something positive, generous and redemptive.  I would like to think that I could behave in a similar manner in an analogous situation, but I am not sure.  At least I have had the privilege of seeing how it can be done.

Looking forward to the next 10 years, Scott and Julia donated Aware Awake Alive to Cal Poly, and it is now part of WITH US, The National Network for Peer Accountability, a bystander intervention research center within the division of student affairs. The center expanded on Aware Awake Alive’s mission and peer-to-peer education approach to address other critical health and safety issues impacting the lives of college students.

You can learn more at and see their personal reflection on the last 10 years - "A Road to Gratitude", an op-ed published by USA Today.

We are so thankful for Scott and Julia and I hope they will continue to stay involved with the Cal Poly ARCE program for the next ten years.

With Gratitude,

Dr. Allen C. Estes, Professor and Head of the Department of Architectural Engineering at California Polytechnic State University

Posted on:
December 3, 2018

Written by:
Dr. Allen C. Estes, Professor and Department Head of Architectural Engineering

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