ADA – The importance and value of obtaining a college degree hasn’t slid by East Central University senior Talon Starkey.
But at one time it almost did.
Starkey is on track to graduate this May. But the long road has been anything but smooth for the political science major. Taking the blame for practically all of his transgressions, Starkey is a rags-to-riches story in an educational sense.
He recently delivered his story to state legislators and higher education leaders during Higher Education Day in Oklahoma City.
“Five years ago, I never thought I would be giving a speech in front of the (State) House of Representatives,” said Starkey.
As a star athlete, he graduated from McAlester High School and had the minimum requirements to attend ECU and play on the Tiger football team. Starkey remembers the day he committed to ECU.
“I got a phone call and remember the opening sentence like it was yesterday: ‘We want you to be a Tiger’,” he said. “I did not wait to say yes.”
But after a few semesters, he began wondering if there were better things out there, particularly money.
“I found out that money did not lead to true happiness. I realized my happiest times were at East Central University, the very place I turned my back on,” Starkey said. “I left ECU and the workforce was miserable without a degree.”
He strayed away from his focus of earning an all-important degree and ultimately suffered academically. However, he worked his way through it, attending classes at Eastern Oklahoma State College and ultimately secured an associate’s degree.
What he discovered after that were waiting and welcoming arms from ECU.
“I had to go through so much stuff to get back to ECU. But through it all, ECU never gave up on me,” said Starkey. “I have always had support here. ECU saw me for what I could be and pushed me to be better.”
Two of those welcoming arms came from ECU head football coach Tim McCarty.
“Coach McCarty kept in touch with me when I left. I would get a phone call or text every month,” Starkey said. “I owe Coach McCarty. He and the other coaches fought to get me back. This is home.”
McCarty’s encouragement, along with the ongoing guidance of Dr. Christine Pappas, professor and coordinator of ECU’s Political Science and Legal Studies Department, Starkey came back to ECU with a renewed outlook and continuous vigor.
“I went from just being a football player to being the football player who is in the Student Senate and the football player who recruits other kids to learn politics through Oklahoma Intercollegiate Legislation,” said Starkey.
Pappas has seen, firsthand, Starkey’s growth as a political science student.
“When Talon became a political science student it was clear that he was very passionate but found it difficult to express himself,” Pappas said. “Through his coursework and involvement with activities such as Oklahoma Intercollegiate Legislature and College Republicans, he has honed his oral communication skills as well as his critical thinking abilities. He livens up every class he is in.”
The relationships between the instructor and student have made a major difference in Starkey’s pursuit of an ECU degree.
“To have that one-on-one time and to know every one of my professors, that interpersonal relationship is what is important,” Starkey said. “I have met some of the most interesting professors at ECU. They could leave and do bigger things, but they don’t because of the atmosphere and experience at ECU. It’s not about the quantity of enrollment, but about the quality.”
Affordability, compared to larger universities, was a prime factor in Starkey completing his ECU degree.
“I could not have attended a larger university, even though I received financial
assistance from the tribes and a Pell Grant,” said Starkey. “Due to having one income, a larger university was out of our budget. At ECU, with the scholarships and other financial help I have received, my usual out-of-pocket expense is $1,200 per year. In my eyes, to be given a future with so much promise is a small fee to pay.”
His plans, after graduation, are to go into civil service.
“My goal is to serve the people of Oklahoma because Oklahoma is my home,” Starkey said.
During his speech, he touted ECU’s business, nursing and education programs for their excellence. As for his speech itself among state lawmakers, Starkey says he had never experienced such nervousness.
“It was more nerve-wrecking than anytime I played football games for Tim McCarty,” said Starkey.
But he pulled through, just like he is pulling through the final stages of earning a degree.
As the cost of tuition continues to rise, the Regional University System of Oklahoma offers an affordable alternative. The average cost to attend one of the six regional universities is about $11,600 per year, half the national average of $23,200 per year.
The system includes six universities: ECU, Northeastern State, Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Southwestern Oklahoma State University and the University of Central Oklahoma.