Starr Cunningham

President and CEO, Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia

Bachelor of Journalism (Hons.), 1990

When the time came to apply to universities, King’s was my top choice, everything else was a distant second, and I was thrilled when I was accepted.

Having worked as a producer, reporter and anchor for ATV and CTV for 23 years, it appears that Starr Cunningham’s success as a journalist may have been preordained. As it turns out, Starr had her first byline in fourth grade, as a contributor to The Pictou Advocate, a publication that is still going strong today and which is, according to the masthead, “Pictou County’s weekly since 1893.”

In a column called “Bits and Pieces,” the precocious nine year-old reported on events and happenings at her school, including interviews with students and teachers. (Time away from class to pursue her stories was an added bonus!)

“From that point on,” says Starr, with a laugh, “I was bitten by the journalism bug.”

Starr’s love of writing never wavered. In high school, she became involved with the yearbook committee and added photography to her skill set.

“I used to love hanging those black-and-white photos on the clothesline in the darkroom and watching them develop,” she says. “When the time came to apply to universities, King’s was my top choice, everything else was a distant second, and I was thrilled when I was accepted.”

The King’s syllabus, especially Dante, inspires

Enrolling in the Foundation Year Program, Starr knew immediately she had made the right decision, feeling very much at home surrounded by humanity’s epic stories. She is quick to single out a particular text, Dante’s Inferno, as a favourite.

“I had never been exposed to anything like Dante’s Inferno and I absolutely consumed it, from start to finish, and it’s a book that I would go on to read again later in life, it’s a book I still return to. I have FYP to thank for that.”

One of the courses at King’s that caught her by surprise, however, was the course on  television.

“I never dreamed television would be where I’d end up,” says Starr. “I went to King’s convinced that I would become a newspaper journalist. That was what I wanted to do. But one of my professors encouraged me to consider what television reporting had to offer, and he was right—I fell in love with it.”

Fast-forward to 2013 and a career change

As a well-known news media personality, Starr would often be called upon by charities to host fundraising galas and had developed a long-term relationship in this regard with the Special Olympics.

During a fundraising gala for the organization in 2013, Starr did something different with her keynote speech—she told a personal story, the story of growing up with her sister, Stacey, a Special Olympics athlete. She talked about their life and about how the Special Olympics had helped her sister. At the conclusion of the event, people were coming forward to volunteer for the organization.

At that moment, Starr knew she wanted to do more to help—and she did. Later that year she applied for—and got—the job of President & CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, where she has remained ever since.

While one may not think it, Starr says many of her skills as a journalist, the skills learned at King’s, crossed over seamlessly to her new role in mental health.

“The skills involved in communicating, forming relationships with people, building trust. Honesty, empathy. All of this leads to a broad understanding of people, and these were skills I learned at King’s, and especially in FYP. These are tools of the trade in journalism and I was able to apply them directly to my new job, which is so much about building trusting relationships.”

As with many alumni, Starr credits the tutorials at King’s with helping her to understand the importance of relationships. She speaks about these post-lecture discussion groups, often with as few as ten students, and how these sessions with her peers, which she says were initially “nerve-racking,” very quickly became something else, something very valuable.

“The tutorials became an open and safe space to share your thoughts and discuss your opinions,” says Starr, “and to listen to others and appreciate their views. These are not easy skills to teach, so I really credit my professors at King’s for opening these doors for me.”

But all the same, isn’t it a big step, even a step into the unknown, to go from producer and anchor in news media to President and CEO of a mental health foundation?

“The realization that you’re ready to make a change comes first and that may be the most important step. After that, it became a matter of looking at the nuts and bolts of the job, looking at the skills I would need, and so many of those skills, including the ones I’ve discussed here today, I realized I had been honing for years in the newsroom. I also had lots of connections from my broadcasting career, people knew my name, which was another benefit. Plus, I just felt I had a responsibility to pursue this, the feeling was that strong. It was very much a feeling that this was my time.”

So it was. Starr continues to lead the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia on its many province-wide initiatives and, in her own words, has “never looked back.”