Transfer student, STARS staffer, and mother of two

Silver Slug Scholarship award winner DeShonne Keller talks finding her niche

DeShonne Keller (’24, critical race and ethnic studies) is an administrative specialist at STARS at UCSC. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

DeShonne Keller gets it. 

Just ask: Keller is a treasure-trove of knowledge about scholarship applications, finding friends, and succeeding through the rigors of academic life. From her office on the second-floor of the Bay Tree Building, the 51-year old administrative specialist oversees the ins and outs of Services for Transfers and Re-Entry Students (STARS)—UC Santa Cruz’s one-stop-shop for students who do not fit the stereotypical undergraduate mold, such as veterans, parents, and foster children. 

But what many of the students who meet Keller don’t know is that she has, quite literally, been there. Currently an undergraduate herself, Keller knows exactly what it’s like to find friends as a transfer student—or enter a classroom full of students younger than your kids. 

“I had to shift gears and say, ‘put yourself in that position, when you were 20, 21 years old. How did you think, when you were just leaving your parents’ house?’” Keller said. 

“So I dealt with impostor syndrome a little bit—and on occasion, I still do in some spaces.” 

In 2022, Keller was honored with the Silver Slug Award, a scholarship that recognizes UCSC staff and their dependents pursuing undergraduate degrees at the university. Longtime UCSC staffers Mary Wells and Sharon Dirnberger created the award in 2016 to maximize the impact of their estate funds. 

Bolstered with a matching donation from David Kirk, who worked at McHenry Library from 1972 to 2001, the award named its first recipient, Tony Soto, in 2018. 

Soto, who began his journey at the university as a CSO, said the award helped him have an undergraduate experience closer to his younger peers—with some crucial differences. 

“You actually have a lot more in common with the professors,” Soto said. “And then, you know, you find other older students to hang out with and talk about classes and partner up and study and do things like that.” 

A lifelong resident of Santa Cruz County, UCSC always felt like an “over there” to Keller—a “city on a hill.” Being a student at the university, she said, seemed like a remote possibility. It didn’t help that she has always struggled with math.

So when Keller entered the campus’s gravitational orbit, it wasn’t as a student. In 2012, after working as a cashier at the university for six months, Keller was hired by Kresge College for a temporary position. Keller’s supervisor later encouraged her to apply for a permanent position with the College. The only problem was that the position required a bachelor’s degree—which, at the time, she lacked. 

That’s when Keller restarted her academic journey. Stringing together classes at Cabrillo College over several years, she earned associates degrees in the arts and in liberal arts and sciences. In the process, she fell in love with school again—which led her to enroll at UCSC in Winter 2021. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. 

Ultimately, it was a colleague of hers who pushed Keller to apply for the Silver Slug Award. 

If you think you might qualify for a scholarship, apply for it, because you'll never know if you don't try,” Keller said. 

Keller plans to graduate in June 2024 with a degree in critical race and ethnic studies. Like many of her classmates, she’s facing a small amount of existential angst at the moment: the future, she says, is uncertain—and she’ll be in the unique predicament of having earned an undergraduate degree a decade or so before she intends to retire. 

But there’s a beauty in that uncertainty. Keller said the truism that the journey is more important than the destination rings true and that she’s realized the good of education in-and-of-itself. 

“I'm comfortable where I'm at,” Keller said. “And I really enjoy what STARS stands for.” 

“I really want to help those students that are underrepresented, whether it's from a cultural standpoint, or someone who was emancipated from their family at a very young age, or student parents. I'm a student parent as well: those are the demographics that don't always receive a lot of support.” 

To help support the Silver Slug Award and staff or their dependents who are pursuing a degree at UCSC, visit the Giving site or email