Big Ideas Leading to Big Accomplishments
“A degree in women’s studies, what does that mean? What could you possibly do with that?” Alumna (BA ‘99) Nicole Starr reflects on these key questions asked of her time and time again and replies quite simply, “More than you think.” After attending law school, Starr worked at the University in institutional relations, then served abroad in South Africa’s constitutional court. In 2014, Starr was appointed as a Ramsey County judge. Unsurprisingly, Starr received CLA’s Alumni Notable Achievement award. Her achievements certainly don’t end there, but Starr remains humble and remembers where it all began.
“I had always enjoyed school,” begins Starr. “I come from a curious family with an urge to learn and discover life’s big ideas.” Starr originally began at the University as a student in the Carlson School of Management, but she couldn’t quite find her place in her classes. Soon, she discovered what was then called the women’s studies program, and something about it drew her in. “As I was searching through the course catalog, I came across the women’s studies courses. They had big ideas in the titles, which immediately sparked my interest.” Eden Torres, a current gender, women & sexuality studies (GWSS) professor, provided for Starr an incredible place of learning and listening. “[Torres] has an idea of how the world should look, and her education style tries to recreate that,” says Starr. “She would prompt us to think: If you could recreate the world in this class, what would you create? Given a different set of parameters, what would you do?”
Starr set out to create her world within her own parameters after graduation. Her experiences required a lot of trial and error, and discovering the world outside of GWSS was somewhat of a shock. “Where am I?” laughs Starr about her first impression of law school. “If you could make a continuum, law school would live infinite spaces away from GWSS!” However, Starr stuck to her love of big ideas and continued exploring, eventually finding her place as a Ramsey County judge.
Initially, Starr heard misdemeanors for crimes like drunk driving, theft, and domestic violence in her work. Because most people plead guilty, her job is to move on to problem solving. Her approach, however, is quite different than one might expect from a judge but is characteristic of the compassion that GWSS graduates possess. “In the world we live in, I want people to know that I celebrate the fact that they are resilient and that they want to do better. These people usually aren’t bad—they just made bad decisions,” she explains. “My approach is to acknowledge their good work in getting to a place where they want to resolve their problem and move on.”
Starr credits this empathetic and understanding approach to the skills she learned while earning her degree in GWSS. “You have to connect yourself with a community. I have learned that it’s great to have big ideas, but I saw the degree as a way to give meaning to these ideas through interaction with a community.” When asked what GWSS was all about, Starr responds that it really comes down to thinking. “The skill of being able to take the world apart and put it back together, being curious and creative, and communicating in a way that folks can understand is what’s important. That’s what GWSS is all about. Being smart today is a marketable skill, and that’s what graduates have to offer.”