Participants celebrated as they cross the finish line of the seventh annual Mustang Mile obstacle course. Zach Donnenfield| Mustang News

“He looked at the world around him and saw limitless possibilities. He approached life with a practical tenacity that led him to pursue every path that caught his interest with vigor, intelligence and an uncanny intuition,” Carson Starkey’s family wrote in a description of him on the Aware Awake Alive (AAA) website.

Starkey was a Cal Poly student who died from acute alcohol poisoning at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity hazing event Dec. 2, 2008.

According to university spokesperson Matt Lazier, recognition of Cal Poly’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter was revoked by both the university and the national organization after Starkey’s death. The chapter then disbanded and cannot be considered for reinstatement at Cal Poly prior to Dec. 2, 2033.

Starkey was an architecture freshman when he was left on a mattress by his fraternity brothers after a hazing event that involved binge drinking. They had planned to take Starkey to the hospital, but out of fear of getting in legal trouble, they decided against it.

The decision cost Starkey’s life.

From With Carson to Aware Awake Alive

After Starkey’s death, his family founded With Carson, a non-profit organization to prevent more families from experiencing the same tragedy.

The program was in high demand and grew rapidly within their hometown in Texas. In 2011 the organization transitioned to AAA, which took With Carson’s goals and elevated the program to a national scale, according to Starkey’s mother, Julia.

According to Michael Eberhard, the Cal Poly coordinator for AAA, the mission is to educate communities about alcohol poisoning and to prevent loss of lives.

AAA has raised awareness about the dangers of alcohol poisoning, hazing and binge drinking through campaigns and educational programs. It has also implemented peer-to-peer education training about bystander intervention and prevention, Eberhard wrote in an email to Mustang News.

They have also lobbied for Good Samaritan laws, which allow for underage students to call for help without risk of criminal charges for under-aged drinking so long as they stay with the person at risk of acute alcohol poisoning.

According to the AAA website, Lifeline 911 laws have been passed in a majority of the nation, allowing for medical amnesty.


This year, the Texas-based organization moved its headquarters to Cal Poly. According to Eberhard, AAA founders and Carson’s parents, Scott and Julia, transferred the program hoping it would broaden its mission and evolve into a university-based research center.

“Everything started at Cal Poly and Carson loved Cal Poly. He loved his time here, we’ve had a great relationship with Cal Poly and they’ve helped us to develop out programming through the years and been really the launching pad for so many of our programs and it was just the natural place for us to give [AAA] to,” Julia said.

The research center that houses AAA, formally named WITH US — The National Network for Peer Accountability, opened this year within Student Affairs. It is a national bystander intervention program housed at Cal Poly that serves as a resource for universities and high schools across the nation, Julia said.

Its mission encompasses that of AAA, while also hoping to prevent loss of life from other drug abuse and misuse, hazing, hate and bias, sexual violence and other barriers to student health.

“The Aware Awake Alive brand and mission lives on as a sub-brand and alcohol poisoning/hazing prevention focused program are still offered for free to students, parents, and educators across the U.S. and abroad through WITH US,” Eberhard wrote in an email to Mustang News.

According to Eberhard, although AAA is now owned by WITH US, they intend to maintain the program for campuses and communities who want to use it as
a resource.

“Since our transition to campus, we have been taking a hard look at how we can have a greater impact here at [Cal Poly] through supporting our partners on campus in New Student and Transition Programs, Fraternity and Sorority Life, Health and Wellbeing, and others,” Eberhard wrote. “Young people are still dying from alcohol poisoning and hazing, so we believe this focused area of WITH US is still incredibly relevant
and important.”

The center leads bystander intervention- focused research and prevention program development with the help of experienced researchers, prevention practitioners and student affairs professionals.

It has also created several internship opportunities for students interested in public health, violence prevention and
social justice.

“Our goal is to impact student behavior and that just isn’t going to happen without student buy in and involving them in the process … whether it be to give their voice in a focus group or serve on the Aware Awake Alive team where we’ve been able to have Cal Poly students leading this movement not only here on campus, but nationally connecting with other students that are reaching out to us almost everyday,” Eberhard wrote.

Aware Awake Alive’s progress

Although WITH US has a lot of research to offer universities, AAA has already made significant progress and changes within the education system during the past seven years.

In 2013, the California State University (CSU) Chancellor made the decision to implement AAA at all 23 CSU campuses.

“The program had been very successful on a number of high school and colleges campuses and the Chancellor’s financial and symbolic commitment to embrace the message was truly powerful,” Eberhard wrote.

In addition to the CSU system, AAA has also collaborated with greek life. AAA partnered with the Alpha Sigma Phi International fraternity, which has more than 150 chapters across the United States and Canada. According to Eberhard, the organization has also partnered with the Cal Poly Interfraternity Council.

“I’ve personally always admired how Scott and Julia handled this senseless tragedy. Grieving parents with every right to feel ill toward fraternities and Greek Life after a fraternity hazing ritual is what led to their son’s death, but instead they continue to open their arms to partnership and collaboration to reach young people wherever they are,” Eberhard wrote.

The Mustang Mile

The Mustang Mile is another result of AAA’s partnerships over the years. The annual event is hosted by Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) in memory of Carson.

Traditionally, the Mustang Mile is a 5k run through campus. When possible, the event is held on Carson’s birthday, April 17. However, this year the Mustang Mile planning committee decided to switch the event from a run to an obstacle course to boost participation.

“Participation had fallen a bit over the past few years so all parties involved felt it was time for some revitalization,”
Eberhard wrote.

The seventh annual Mustang Mile took place Friday, May 17 and had more than 80 teams of five people participate.

“I thought the obstacle course was really fun and different. Last year when it was just running, I felt a little intimidated, ” biological sciences sophomore Erica Samota said. “Honoring his family is really important … a cause that our whole campus is
passionate about.”

Carson’s family was in attendance and as Julia watched students run through obstacles, she wondered what her son would think of the event if he were here today.

“You know, I think he would be really proud and happy with what all has gone on in his memory,” Julia said.

A decade since Carson’s death

This December will be the 10th year since Carson’s death. However, for the Starkey family, it does not feel as though a decade has passed.

“I think it is hard to believe for both of us and for our son Hayden that it’s been 10 years. It’s hard to imagine what Carson would be doing right now,” Julia said.

To continue to honor Carson as the 10-year mark approaches, ASI and the AAA interns celebrated Carson Day April 17. They hung memorial posters around campus to honor the lives of students who had died from acute alcohol poisoning.

The team also created a mobile “Carson Tree,” where students can pledge to stand With Carson to spread awareness and help others. The tree will be in the University Union Plaza this week, Eberhard said.

In addition, Carson’s parents had a new bike rack dedicated to him at Lincoln Deli in San Luis Obispo and Promotions, Solutions, Awareness, a WITH US partner, donated and helped design a new start and finish arch for the Mustang Mile.

According to Julia, although the Starkey family will no longer be running AAA, they will continue to serve as advisers for the program to honor their son’s memory.

“We pull the strength from remembering Carson and wanting his memory to continue to live on and that people would know him and know his story and continue to save lives,” Julia said. “It may sound cliché, but it is true. We really honestly don’t want another family to go through what we’ve gone through.”

Correction: Carson’s brother’s name was changed from Aiden to Hayden. 

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