For the first time ever, this year’s Common Read features Marist College students. “It Takes A School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World’s #1 Failed State” by Jonathan Starr chronicles his experience building a school in Somaliland.

On Sept. 24, Starr spoke in the McCann Arena, filled with students, faculty, administrators, professors, and community members.

Starr graduated summa cum laude from Emory University with a Bachelor Of Arts in economics and he began his career as a research associate. In addition, Starr founded and led Flagg Street Capital, a private investment firm that managed $170 million of assets. Prior to Flagg Street, he served as an analyst at SAB Capital and at Blavin and Company.

Despite Starr’s successful career, he wanted to do something different. In 2008, Starr founded the Abaarso School in Somaliland and served as the managing director and headmaster until 2015.

Marist student Qadan Mohamed ‘19 was a member of the second graduating class of the Abaarso school and is a current Marist senior. Mohamed introduced Starr before he walked up to the podium.

“Mr. Starr played a critical role in my realization that I had to learn to accept myself. He helped me to feel comfortable being me and opened my eyes to what I might accomplish,” Mohamed said.

Mohamed emphasized Starr’s influential role in her educational pursuits.

“The success of Abaarso students did not happen by accident. [Starr’s] perseverance through all of the challenges and hardships he faced establishing Abaarso is an integral part of Abaarso’s student’s successes,” said Mohamed.

When Starr spoke about opening up the school, he admits that it was difficult.

“When I did go to Somaliland, people did not think this could happen,” Starr said. He added that people often applauded him for his bravery, but he does not consider himself brave.

“I believe that what is extraordinary about me is that I found something important to me,” Starr said. “Bravery implies a choice. I did not have a choice. That’s what it’s like when something is a part of you, inside of you.”

Starr touched upon the importance of finding one’s passions. He said he found his passion at 32 years old and decided to build a school. He urged Marist students to find their unique passion.

“There is something all of us can actually be special at, but you’re not going to be successful unless it’s something that is truly, deeply so meaningful to you that there’s no distinction between you and it,” Starr said.

The school, founded in 2009, stands as one of the most selective schools in the world. Last year, 1,500 students vied for only 50 spots. There are currently over 80 students studying internationally, three of whom are currently studying at Marist.

“What we provided was an opportunity for greatness, to fix their lives and their families’ lives, the whole country’s lives, and once they saw that, they saw that it was real,” Starr said.