While preparing backstage for a high-level a cappella competition March 30, John Starr got an email that changed his life — out of 90 candidates from across the United States, he was one of 18 students who received the prestigious Beinecke scholarship.
“Halfway through the afternoon, about 3 or 4 p.m., after all of our mic checks and stuff were done, I found out I got the scholarship, so then I was crying,” Starr, the vocal percussionist for one of Pitt’s a cappella groups, The Songburghs, said. “Then, the night of the competition, we became the second-ever group from Pitt to place at that level and I won best vocal percussion, which was amazing because the guy who inspired me to be a really good beatboxer was there and I beat him.”
Starr, a junior studying linguistics, English and Persian, was selected as a recipient of the Beinecke Scholarship. The scholarship, endowed by the Sperry Fund, provides $34,000 of graduate funding to dedicated students who are looking to do research in the humanities or social sciences.
Starr, the third Pitt student in the past three years to be a recipient of the Beinecke, arrived at the award through past involvement in the Honors College. In the summer between his sophomore and junior years, he completed a Brackenridge Summer Fellowship through the Honors College. His project focused on the history of Chinese immigration to the United States and different philosophical interpretations of the concept of identity.
Now, at the end of his academic career, he’s not completely sure what he wants to do, but he aims to have a Ph.D. in linguistics with a focus in Persian, also commonly known as Farsi.
“I’m really interested in a lot of the computational aspects of language. If you look at the Google Translate for Persian, or even lesser-studied ones like Kazakh or Tajik, it’s just garbage,” Starr said. “I just want to work on a team to make those better for people, because I think the whole point of language is to be able to bring people together.”
Starr’s academic drive was instilled in him from a young age. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Starr said his parents always encouraged him and his younger sister, Sarah, to pursue their academic passions. His mom, an immigrant from Hong Kong, works as a professor of psychology and education at Bucks County Community College and his dad works as the associate director of exam services and technical operations at Temple University.
“I really like trying new things and learning, it’s pretty inspired by my family, just always learning more,” Starr said. “If there was something I liked, they would always support me. They’d encourage me to pursue things as far as I could go.”
After dabbling with the idea of a career in science in high school, Starr decided to return to his childhood passion of writing and declared an English major when he got to Pitt. His forays into linguistics and Persian were accidental.
“In the spring semester, I was like, ‘Well, I should probably know more about the language I’m working with,’ so I took Intro to Linguistics, and I loved it. I still love it, I’m TA-ing it right now,” Starr said. “[Persian] was kind of random, I had no idea what it was. And then, in the fall, I just ended up loving it.”
Now in Persian 4 and with one more academic year left before graduation, Starr is still weighing his options for graduate school. He is looking at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London as a potential place to get his master’s degree. He’s also looking into applying for the Marshall Scholarship and the Fulbright Scholars program to teach English in Tajikistan.
In addition to linguistics, Starr, a self-described “musical person,” connected with another childhood passion — singing — when he got to Pitt and decided to join The Songburghs.
“I knew I wanted to do something with music, but I didn’t want to join a choir, because I’d been doing it since pretty much the fourth grade,” Starr said. “I could sort of beatbox … but that was kind of the role I was thrown in, because the circumstances from the previous year, the group didn’t really have a beatboxer, so I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll guess I’ll do it.’”
At the end of his first year beatboxing in The Songburghs, Starr decided to run for music director alongside his friend Charlotte Fallick, now a senior studying psychology and English writing. The pair won the election and became the group’s first ever co-directors.
“He and I had hit it off from the moment we met. I don’t even remember us becoming friends, I just remember us being friends,” Fallick said. “He is a great collaborator, he’s really open to suggestions and also really hardworking.”
Jason Sepac, the director of research and creative programs, passed Starr’s name to Lesha Greene, Pitt’s national scholarship mentor.
“The scholar mentors asked if I knew anyone who would be a good fit for the Beinecke and John was the first person to come to mind,” Sepac wrote in an email. “He’s an amazing student — humble, thoughtful, friendly, and a genuinely good person. I’m so proud of him and can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.”
Greene, who also coordinates such awards as the Fullbright, Schwarzman and the Knight Hennessy, said Starr’s Beinecke application stood out because he had put a lot of thought into the applicability of his research.
“John has a verve for linguistics and Persian that is invigorating. From his application, you could tell that his passions were genuine and he had put a lot of thought into what comes next and where he could go with his research,” Greene wrote in an email. “Those factors along with his stellar academic record and demonstrated history of doing research both guided and independently made him an excellent candidate for the award.”
Starr said he was immensely grateful to those who helped him achieve all he has.
“The first thing I did when I won the award was I called my mom and emailed my scholarship adviser and said ‘Thank you so much,’” Starr said. “It wasn’t me basking in the glory. It’s me, but it’s not necessarily for me.”