Carson Starkey would have graduated from Cal Poly last spring at 23 years old. But, as many Cal Poly students know, Starkey died from acute alcohol poisoning alone on a mattress in 2008 at age 18.
Most Cal Poly students identify with Starkey’s story — he was, after all, “one of their own,” Julia Starkey, Carson’s mother, said.
But her son’s story isn’t just important within the Cal Poly community, she said. He’s just one example of “a college student that dies every 44 hours of alcohol poisoning.”
“His story will always be relevant, and there will always be stories that are just like his story,” Julia said.
Five years after Starkey’s death, Aware Awake Alive, the peer-to-peer alcohol education program created by his parents in his memory, is expanding to all 23 California State University (CSU) campuses.
“This is huge for Aware Awake Alive,” Julia said. “It will help put us on the map nationally, and that’s great because this program doesn’t just need to be CSU-wide, it needs to be nationwide. It needs to be on every college campus and in every high school. We don’t want another family to have to go through a tragedy like we did.”
CSU committed to rolling out the Aware Awake Alive program to all its campuses during the CSU Board of Trustees meeting on July 23.
The decision was an emotional one, said David Wyatt, communications director for Aware Awake Alive.
“Carson’s parents went and gave a 5-minute speech and gave Carson’s whole story, and at the end of the speech, where it was just supposed to be this FYI update, the chancellor was nearly in tears,” Wyatt said. “He had this unilateral vision to bring it to all CSU campuses right away. It was an on-the-spot decision, and it was this wonderful sort of turning point where a grassroots, emotional-based vision was given this huge opportunity to expand.”
The program is already empowering students at more than 60 campuses nationwide, including eight CSU campuses.
“Cal Poly has kind of been a beta tester for Aware Awake Alive,” Wyatt said, “and the goodwill that sprung out of the tragedy in San Luis Obispo is really continuing to keep San Luis Obispo the place where the leadership and commitment started and continues to this day.”
Orientation programming was one of the places the commitment was first made, said Andrene Kaiwi-Lenting, director of orientation and training programs and a university consultant for Aware Awake Alive.
“When the organization came along, it was perfect timing,” Kaiwi-Lenting said.
Right away, orientation programming incorporated Aware Awake Alive into the Awareness Gallery and other Week of Welcome awareness programming.
More recently, orientation programming started presenting a version of the Aware Awake Alive session during SOAR to parents.
“For the parents, when they see the Starkeys up there talking about the effect it had on them, about finding out the Sheriff’s Department was calling them to tell them their son was dead, I think it really hits home,” Kaiwi-Lenting said. “This is real, and it really happens to people. The feedback we’ve gotten from parents a lot of the time has been, ‘Thank you for opening my eyes to this.’ The impact we’ve had on parents has been crucial. We really wanted to make sure parents were ready and equipped to talk to their students.”
Cal Poly still needs to look into measuring tangible results of the Aware Awake Alive program on campus, but from what studies have been done, it appears to have positive effects, Kaiwi-Lenting said.
Significantly more — approximately 43 percent — Cal Poly students intervened when they thought a peer was drinking too much, compared to the national average of approximately 33 percent, according to the Healthy Minds Study in 2013, the campus program coordinator of California Mental Health Services Authority wrote in an email.
“We have seen an increase in student bystander intervention — we’ve seen students stepping in and stepping up,” Kaiwi-Lenting said. “The difficult part is that we’ve seen increases to the emergency room in terms of alcohol poisoning, but I truly attribute that to the fact that we’ve been educating students as to our amnesty policy. So, is it good that they’re going to the hospital? No, of course not. But is it great that they know they can? If only those boys knew that the night Carson needed help, then maybe he’d be here today.”
Tentatively, by Nov. 1, all 23 CSU campuses will begin to incorporate Aware Awake Alive, Wyatt said.