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Princeton’s Starks Makes ‘Best Buddies’ Everywhere She Goes

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Joe Loomis was caught off guard when Serena Starks approached him out of the blue with an idea.

During her senior year at Edison High in Huntington Beach, Calif., Starks was the president of the school’s Best Buddies program, which helped foster one-to-one friendships and inclusion for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Starks wanted to start a surf event for Best Buddies. She told Loomis they could partner with a local surf school to help teach the disabled students to ride the waves. She would make sure the state lifeguards were involved for safety and recruit members of Edison High’s surf team to help.

Nearly five years later, the event has become a staple at Edison High. Although Starks is now a senior outfielder playing at Princeton University, her legacy at Edison is firmly secure.

“I have been in education for more than 20 years and I can count on one hand the kids like Serena,” said Loomis, the special programs administrator at Edison. “She is remarkable. She was always looking for opportunities to serve and ways to help others first. Honestly, as the leader of the program, I was learning from her. She inspired me and motivated me to be better.”

Starks has continued her advocacy and altruism at Princeton.

Last November, Starks was awarded the university’s A. James Fisher Memorial Award from Princeton’s Pace Center for Civic Engagement. The award is given to a Princeton senior with “an entrepreneurial spirit, zest for life, love of people and loyalty to Princeton through their work in the realm of civic engagement.”

Starks is co-President of the Princeton Disability Awareness Board, co-founder and co-president of the Asian Student-Athletes of Princeton and also serves as an advisor to the Princeton athletic department administration towards its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion objectives. 

Starks is also a member of the New Jersey Best Buddies chapter and a student mentor in the Academic Success Today program, where she coordinates mentor-mentee match ups between Princeton students and local community school aged children.

“I do sleep sometimes,” Starks said with a laugh. “But I really love being involved with community groups that aren’t athletes and I found that through service. It’s really easy to just stick with people you’re already with. But I really like branching out and learning about new groups.”

Starks Received Princeton’s A. James Fisher Memorial Award Last November

Being busy away from the field hasn’t hindered Starks’ performance for the Tigers, who open the season Friday at the Liberty Softball Classic. 

Starks was a first-team All-Ivy League selection last season, hitting a team-high .355 while playing in all 46 games. She helped Princeton capture the Ivy League title and earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, where the Tigers played Arkansas and Wichita State.

Because of the Covid pandemic, Starks hasn’t been able to reap the full benefits of college softball at Princeton. Her 2020 season was cut short after just six games, and the Ivy League canceled the entire 2021 season.

Since Ivy League players can’t redshirt, Starks will have two years of eligibility still remaining after this season. She has already entered her name in the transfer portal to find a new program to join for the 2024 and 2025 seasons.

“The really hard part is I am a senior and almost done with my Princeton career and I have only played one season so far,” Starks said. “But I think I really learned to just enjoy the game as much as I can whenever I can get to play. I really learned about the people that make the sport really fun and really leaning into my teammates and finding community here and just growing as much as I can.”

During the year the Ivy League was on the sideline while other Division I conferences continued to play, Starks realized the emotional toll it was having on her classmates. She became a Student-Athlete Wellness Leader at Princeton, and is trained to recognize early signs of distress in teammates and peers and help direct them to the right resources on campus to get help.

“I noticed in the post-pandemic world just how important mental health is. I’ve had a lot of people in my life really struggle with mental health and it’s really changed how I view it,” Starks said. “I realize how important it is to have these conversations on my team and to make sure to have a safe, open space for everyone to share how they are feeling and just de-stigmatizing mental health.”

Evan Schneider, the program coordinator at Princeton’s Pace Center for Civic Engagement, first met Starks through her work with Princeton Disability Awareness. The group was putting on a fall carnival for kids with disabilities in the local community and wanted to improve the experience for everyone involved.

“They were wringing their hands a lot because the group received a lot of negative attention from another disability justice student group on campus that was not part of the Pace Center. They were basically telling them all the things they were doing wrong,” Schneider said. “Although Serena’s group inherited all of that from the past leaders, she was willing to sit down and listen and try to make changes to find the best way to help everyone. That really shows who Serena is.”

During one of their meetings, Starks noticed a picture of the Princeton volleyball team behind Schneider’s desk.

“She said, ‘you should come to my practice,’ which was open to athletic fellows and faculty,” he said. “I had never had another student do anything like that. She understood immediately the importance of building better relationships and having people from all over campus be involved with the softball team.”

Starks is a student in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. She is working on her senior thesis, an 80-90 page paper about how the number of minorities in the United States are projected to outnumber the white majority by 2044.

“I am surveying individuals from all four different racial groups – Blacks, Latinos, Whites and Asians – to see if the minorities will mobilize as one big group once they become the majority or stay separated in their own groups,” she said. “I personally think they won’t all mobilize because the groups are too different. But I will be very interested to see the results.”

The Best Buddies Surfing Event Starks Started at Edison High Has Continued Since She Graduated

Starks is still deciding what type of grad school she wants to pursue once she transfers. She has considered eventually starting her own nonprofit or becoming an athletic director.

No matter what path she follows, Starks knows working with the disabled community will remain a constant in her heart.

“I definitely think I will always be involved in some way, whether it’s Best Buddies or Special Olympics or anything else,” she said. “It will definitely continue to be a part of my life because it just gives me a passion that I desire to get through life and just brings me so much joy.”

Starks can see how much value her work brings whenever she returns to Huntington Beach and watches the Edison High Best Buddies surf event.

It’s a tradition everyone wants to see live on for many generations to come.

“It’s been pretty remarkable from what Serena started,” Loomis said. “The kids light up and the parents get tears in their eyes. They just never believed their kid, who maybe doesn’t have the use of his legs, is on a surfboard paddling into the waves with kids from the school surf team. It is really amazing.”