Starring in Her Own Life: Get to Know Dr. Chelsea Starr

Dr. Chelsea Starr (Photo by Tony Bullocks)
Dr. Chelsea Starr (Photo by Tony Bullocks)

Starring in Her Own Life: Get to Know Dr. Chelsea Starr

You might be surprised to learn that Dr. Chelsea Starr, assistant professor of sociology at Eastern New Mexico University, played in California rock bands in the 1990s.

Dr. Starr has been at ENMU since 2013. Each semester her research methods class does a service learning project for the United Way, performing survey research on a variety of topics. She was Faculty Senate President for 2017-2018 and Chair of the General Education Committee.

dr starr band
Dr. Starr with her band Vegex in 1989.

Rock and Roll Starr

Dr. Starr, who was born in North Carolina in 1964 but grew up in Orange County, California, had the perfect name to front a band.

She was the singer, bass player and co-writer for Vegex. (Their 1991 recording of "Blue Lotus Feet" is available on YouTube by searching "Vegex Blue Lotus Feet.")

Vegex started out in the early 80s as a post-punk band and morphed into an alternative band in the 90s.

According to "Chelsea Starr and Peter Gilabert started Vegex in 1984. They were a well-known Los Angeles local band from 1987-1995. They started as a melodic post-punk band and later morphed into a neo-psychedelic alt-rock band.

"Starr went on to play bass for L.A. band Bed Of Eyes, which released a CD on Alive Records in 1997. She is also known for her work as Promo Goddess at Bomp! Records and as co-owner of No-Fi Records, stage manager of the 1995 L.A. Riot Grrl Convention and as co-webmaster of (1994-2000)."

Dr. Starr said, "I stopped playing professionally in 1997 so that I could finish my Ph.D. dissertation. I have also played with an experimental noise band as a drummer, and as a bassist in another band called Bed of Eyes. All of this took place in Los Angeles, where we played the club circuit, including The Roxy, and did a U.S. tour in 1991.

"Later on, I took a part-time job at Bomp! Records, a well-known label directed at record collectors and hardcore rock and roll enthusiasts. Bomp! Records is known for working with Iggy Pop, many punk and new wave bands and a drone band called the Brian Jonestown Massacre."

For a short while, she owned her own record label, No-Fi Records. They released one major project, a band from Chicago called I, Sharko.

Dr. Starr also produced a single for Los Angeles Riot Grrrl punk band Lucid Nation, which was never released. "But it was fun being behind the mixing board anyway," Dr. Starr said. She also freelanced for a local glossy music magazine called "Strobe."

Life After Rock and Roll

Dr. Starr is now a sociology professor at ENMU in Portales where she teaches "Introduction to Sociology," "Social Problems," "Social Research Methods," "Collective Behavior" and others.

Dr. Kathy Durand, recently retired professor of anthropology at ENMU, appreciates Dr. Starr as a colleague and a friend.

"I know the students love her courses, particularly as she uses a great mix of videos and other media combined with more traditional lectures," Dr. Durand said. "She is a strong leader, and I am glad to have had the chance to serve on Faculty Senate with her as president.

"On a personal level, I really enjoy spending time talking with her; her research ideas are timely and intriguing. I get to be a sociologist vicariously through hearing about her latest results. Chelsea is thoughtful and can talk about nearly any subject from today's news, to philosophy or rock and roll.

"She is also a talented musician and was part of a band in Los Angeles. I guess you could say she is a modern Renaissance woman."

Lending a Helping Hand

Before getting into academia, Dr. Starr worked as a special education advocate in California and in multicultural market research in Los Angeles for Fortune 500 companies.

In the advocate job, she helped parents apply for and receive special education services for their learning disabled or autistic children. For a short time, she also worked for a special education attorney, preparing due process cases where the child's case went before a judge to determine services.

Dr. Starr said there were special schools in the Los Angeles area for autistic and Asperger's Syndrome students, and sometimes the public school district administration did not feel the student belonged in the special school when the parent did. In this case, it would go before a judge to decide.

She also lends a helping hand to colleagues.

Dr. Omar Camarillo, assistant professor of criminal justice at ENMU, said Dr. Starr has been "a good friend and wonderful colleague. Since my first day working at Eastern New Mexico University, Chelsea has been there to offer guidance and wisdom regarding resources, committees, publishing, course assignments and advisement.

"For example, when I was submitting an article for publication and was not sure how to address one of the reviewer's comments, Chelsea provided me with an example from her own work and discussed various ways to address the reviewer's comments.

"It is great to have a colleague like Chelsea with whom one can bounce ideas off and is honest enough to provide you with their feedback. If there is something that she has found to work in her classroom, whether it be a documentary, an assignment or technology like clickers for quizzes, she is more than willing to share with the rest of the faculty.

"In my opinion, Chelsea is the type of faculty member and colleague we should all strive to be like."

Immigrants as an Emerging Market

"For many people, immigration is a hot-button issue, but in working in market research for Fortune 500 companies I learned that corporations see new immigrants as an emerging market," Dr. Starr said. "They hired the company I worked for to do research into how to sell Hispanic immigrants banking services, consumer goods, automobiles, cell phones and anything else you could think of."

She wrote bilingual surveys and organized research activities, occasionally doing group interviews with consumers. She also worked with advertising agencies to test whether their advertising messages resonated well with the different segments of the public they wanted to reach. This was broken down by ethnicity, age and gender.

"My training in sociology came in handy as we looked at how different demographics — social categories like ethnicity, age and gender — affect people's outlook and behaviors," Dr. Starr said.

Acting Out at an Early Age

After failing physical education her senior year of high school, Dr. Starr earned a GED (equivalency for high school diploma) in 1982.

While in high school, she was "heavily involved" in the drama department and the Thespians. She appeared in high school productions of "South Pacific," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Look Back in Anger."

"Being in southern California, our productions were very professional," Dr. Starr said. "We had extra coaching and support from alumni who had gone into the theatre business after graduation. I was also very involved in the school's concert choir where I sang alto.

"I used to love all the school dances; I don't think I ever missed one if I could help it.  I started my first rock band in high school, inspired by the punk and new wave movement of the late 70s and early 80s. My first gig was playing at the drama department's awards ceremony reception."

When she was 14, she started working in the circulation department of the local newspaper. By high school, she was a switchboard operator, a job that doesn't exist anymore. She would connect incoming calls to their extensions using an old "cord board" like "you may have seen in old movies."

She also worked at the switchboard for the local newspaper and then for the local hospital her senior year.

Education and Research Take Center Stage

At 23, she enrolled at Santa Monica College, then transferred to UCLA as an anthropology major. After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree, she entered graduate school at the University of California Irvine — eventually receiving a Master of Arts in Comparative Culture and a Ph.D. in Social Relations (sociology).

"By the time I was in grad school I didn't have time for activities other than being a student, working and playing music," Dr. Starr said.

Her Ph.D. dissertation was in social movements.

"The first movement I studied was the Riot Grrrl movement, which was a punk rock feminist movement. That was a lot of fun," Dr. Starr said.

"I learned how music and the creative arts could be used to advocate for social and political change. That led me to look at the role of social media in the Arab Spring, the series of revolutions in North African countries in 2011. The way that the activists used everything from landlines and fax machines to cell phone auto-translate-to-Twitter was amazing. All three countries toppled their dictators, and social media played a large role in that.

"I became interested in what makes some activism successful and how and why activist campaigns fail. I looked into the activism against government inaction in the case of femicides (mass murders of women) in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and found that local groups of victims' families were the most successful in achieving a measurable outcome — a sanction against Mexico from the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. They were very effective in their use of cultural and religious symbolism in their protests."

She said the cultural and religious symbolism she saw in Ciudad Juarez led her to begin studying the "sociology of art. I started noticing in Los Angeles art galleries very non-traditional images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. I sat down with the artists and asked them, 'How did this painting come to be?' and they told me the most wonderful stories of growing up Mexican-American and learning about their cultural heritage; their non-traditional images were not just about religious faith, they were about connecting to their roots in Mexico."

That study was the beginning of a new direction in her research: the sociology of religion.

Americans Becoming Less Religious

According to Dr. Starr, studies show that Americans, especially young Americans, are becoming less religious.

"'Why was that,' I wondered. 'And if they are leaving Christianity, where are they going?' My first study in this area was quite simple. I identified a group of non-Christians, specifically a group of nature-worshippers called neo-pagans and asked them, 'What is it like to be a neo-pagan in a majority Christian society?'

"The answers are fascinating, and the challenges they face, from getting married in a ceremony that squares with their faith, to having the religious symbol of their choice on their tombstone, are varied. This project is ongoing, and I am interviewing people all over the country."

She said the other question that came to mind was, "Why do people leave Christianity?"

To answer that, she is poring over written documents where people have told "deconversion stories," accounts of how and why they left Christianity.

"Some go on to be agnostic, not sure if there is a God, some become atheist and a minority in my sample join other faiths," Starr said. "Their reasons for leaving are varied, but there are patterns.

"So far, I've found that people leave Christianity for a variety of reasons: some feel that science and common sense disprove Bible stories in Genesis, some are frustrated that prayers are never answered and some object to their church's stance on gender roles or homosexuality. A substantial number can't square the idea of a loving God with the idea of Hell. As one respondent put it, 'God created me with doubt, so why send me to Hell for something He did?' Their stories are quite moving as a whole."

This project is still underway.

She Doesn't Realize How Good She Is

Her husband, Mathew Kauffman, thinks one of Dr. Starr's best qualities, "perhaps ironically, is that she doesn't realize how good she is at her job. I admit I might be biased, but I've had at least a few chances to observe. I say it's a good quality because I think it motivates her to always work hard and not to be complacent," he said.

"I think the best example of this is in her 'Sociology 101' classes. She spends a lot of time trying to figure out how difficult topics could be presented more clearly, or in a more relatable way. The basic outline of the class is pretty constant, but student presuppositions and attitudes change and current events change.

"I think she does a wonderful job trying to continually refine the class to work with each new group of students. It's a lot of fun for me to see a little bit of how she tries to do that."

dr starr at disneyland in 1989
Dr. Starr in Disneyland in 1989.

It Never Rains in Southern California

Dr. Starr's parents divorced when she was 10, and she grew up with her mom and younger brother in southern California.

"We went to Disneyland all the time when I was growing up because my friend's mom worked there and she could sign guests in. I think it made me a very optimistic person, being surrounded with all that cheer on a frequent basis," she said.

"Growing up in southern California was fun. The weather was perfect all the time, and we were 'free range' children all over the neighborhood where 'just be home before dark' was the rule. I taught myself to play guitar at 16, and that became an important hobby."

An obvious change from southern California, she described the High Plains of eastern New Mexico as "more than dead grass; the people are great."

Dr. Starr enjoys playing music with her husband. Both play drums and guitar, and she also plays bass. They also play with whoever happens to be around.

dr starr with husband
Dr. Starr getting married to Mathew Kauffman.

Romance Began Online

Her husband said their romance began online.

"Like all good 21st-century romances, ours began on the Internet. Specifically, in a chat room for an online forum focused on discussion of religions. So it was a very random event," Kauffman said.

"The first thing I loved about Chelsea was that she's smart. But it's more than that; it's that she's both smart in the highly-educated, intellectual, grappling-with-complex-issues way, but also in the wise, practical, down-to-earth, no-nonsense way.

"We have similar overarching world-views and tend to see big-picture questions in similar ways, but I might enjoy our disagreements more. We have the most amazing conversations when we disagree. And usually, I end up deciding afterward that she was right. So that was probably the first thing that made me attracted to her.

"After I finally made the trek from Montana to Portales to meet her in 2015, I got to know all of her other great qualities, which I could hardly attempt to enumerate."

dr starr with husband in ruidoso

Taking Chances to Make Life Matter

Her earliest happiest moment was getting accepted into UCLA ("I'm a geek like that," she said). Her later happiest moment was getting married.

She has a passion for cooking "which is hard around here because you can't always get fresh ingredients. Amazon fills in sometimes, though, so that's okay. I like grilling in the backyard with my husband and friends and listening to and playing music."

Besides a career goal of becoming a full professor, Dr. Starr wants to be "a facilitator in life; someone who makes life a little easier for those I come into contact with."

Her philosophy of life was stenciled on the guitar of Joe Strummer of the punk band The Clash: "Take A Chance."

Dr. Starr said, "I think I've taken chances in my life, have gone the extra mile for people I come into contact with and, while sometimes you get burned, you just can't stop taking chances if you want your life to matter."