Two things got in the way when Donna Starnes began pursuing a bachelor’s degree in 1975: college algebra and life itself.
For the past 29 years, Starnes has been working for Dilley ISD, a small independent school district south of San Antonio, Texas. She was content in her job as a library aide when a new principal put a fork in her road. In a performance evaluation, he encouraged her to finish the requirements for her associate degree.
“So I took college algebra again in the summer of 2018. When I passed it, I thought, ‘If I can do that, I can go on,’” she said.
In April of 2019, Starnes enrolled in Lamar University’s Bachelor of Science in Communication online program.
She qualified for a $10,000 education incentive from Dilley ISD’s Grow Our Own program, which she was able to apply toward her tuition. She chose Lamar University for the school’s reputation and affordability.
“I was so excited when I got my acceptance letter,” she remembered. “I said, I’m going to do this. I want that degree.”
The flexible online format of the BS in Communication program is helping Starnes balance coursework with her full-time job and family life.
“I get off work, I cook supper for my family, and then I sit down and I do my assignments for a couple of hours,” she said.
Starnes appreciates the support she receives from her husband, Royce, who schedules family activities around her studies. He also pitches in with household duties and helps care for their grandson, R.J. (12), who lives with them.
“He always encouraged me to go back because he knew I could do it,” she said.
Starnes has hit her stride in the program with two eight-week sessions under her belt and a 4.0 GPA to show for it. Now that she’s gained more confidence as a student, she wants to keep the momentum going.
“I’m putting that pressure on myself to do well,” she said. “I wasn’t a very good college student when my parents sent me to school, obviously, or I would have finished back then. I take it more seriously now because I am older, and I’m doing it for my career.”
Starnes was first exposed to communication studies more than 40 years ago, as a journalism major at Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University). The online BS in Communication program at Lamar University has rekindled her interest, and given her a new perspective on the field.
Of the courses Starnes has taken so far, COMM 3378: Pop Culture Theories is one of her favorites. The assignments even helped her find a new career focus.
“I want to teach communication,” she said. “I want to use what I’ve learned in that particular class in a classroom setting.
“It was probably one of the hardest classes I’ve ever had and one of the most interesting” she said. “We had to watch the movie Unforgiven and apply the theories we learned to analyze the movie. It opened my eyes on how to look at it in a different way.”
Starnes is now inspired to give her future students the same experience. Once she becomes a classroom teacher, she wants to have a long career, lasting well beyond the service requirement she must fulfill.
“I have to teach for three years in order to give back to my school district,” she said. “I’ll be at an age where I can retire at that point, but I hope to keep going until they absolutely make me retire.”
Building on Success
While Starnes studies for her bachelor’s degree, she uses her growing knowledge to help others. She particularly enjoys mentoring high school students in Dilley ISD’s early college program, and passing on the essential skills she’s mastered through her online courses.
“I teach them how to study, how to prioritize their time and how to look up sources online,” she said. “I’m using my work from Lamar University to show them how to do their college work.”
Professors have also praised Starnes’ ability to connect with her online classmates, and the positive feedback has made her aware of talents she didn’t realize she had.
“My COMM 4310: Communication Law professor Dr. Cynthia Nichols appreciated the way I interacted with the other students in the class and encouraged them … I didn’t even know I was doing that,” she said.
Starnes’ new motivation to pursue teaching stems from her strong belief in the value of education, and the importance of a helping hand for struggling students.
“There’s such a need,” she said. “As long as I can be part of helping to fill that need, I would like to do it.”