Phil Starks believes in thanking those who have helped him get where he is today.

That's why the Andover native, who earned degrees from both Harvard and Cornell universities, plans on returning to his educational "roots" later next month | Northern Essex Community College. Starks will deliver the commencement speech at the school's May 19 graduation exercises. And the school believes he can inspire students to believe that they can attain anything they want.

After all, since leaving Northern Essex, Starks has been a soldier, an Ivy League student, even a beekeeper. Today, Starks is a Tufts University assistant professor and a leading researcher in the field of behavioral ecology.

"I use an evolutionary approach to study animal behavior in their natural environment," said Starks, who studies colonies of ants, honeybees and wasps and also tends beehives with his wife, Caroline, at their Andover residence.

"I've been stung so many times, it's comical," he laughed.

A 1985 graduate of Andover High School, Starks joined the army following graduation, serving as a military policeman in Germany. After he returned from Europe, he enrolled in some classes at Northern Essex. He said he was pleasantly surprised.

"I studied everything there," Starks said. "My degree was in biology, liberal arts, pre-medicine and pre-veterinary," he chuckled.

Professors such as Edward DeSchuyter quickly became mentors, Starks said.

"He was very promoting, and had a great amount of belief in his students," said Starks, who was in DeSchuyter's anatomy and physiology class."I considered him my primary mentor at the school."

That passion for science ultimately led Stark on the path to Harvard. But the road was a rather winding one. Around the time Starks completed his associate degree at Northern Essex, the Gulf War broke out. Starks soon found himself bound for the Middle East.

"Philosophically, I think I enjoyed college more," Starks said.

While still deployed, he learned of his acceptance into the Cambridge Ivy League institution. He holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard in biology and a doctorate in neurobiology and behavior from Cornell University.

In spite of his impressive resume, Starks remains grateful for the lessons he learned not at Ivy League schools, but in community college.

"I wouldn't have gone to Cornell without Harvard, just like I wouldn't have gone to Harvard without NECC," Starks said. "My experiences there gave me confidence necessary to pursue my career in academics."

Northern Essex president David Hartleb said he believes Starks has the ability to inspire this year's graduates.

"Their degree from Northern Essex can be a stepping stone to great things," Hartleb said. "With his academic and career success, Phil is the perfect person to deliver that message."


WHAT: Northern Essex Community College commencement. Around 800 graduates are scheduled to receive certificates and associate degrees.

WHERE: Haverhill Campus, 100 Elliot St.

WHEN: Saturday, May 19, 11 a.m.

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