SPARC workshops a valuable experience for first-year students

The Students Promoting Awareness, Respect, and Community workshop (SPARC) is a valuable tool for first-year entries and the campus as a whole. Despite its ability to bring a diverse group of people closer, SPARC has suffered from both poor advertising and negative publicity.

Though it has been extensively redesigned over the last few years, resulting in a shorter, more efficient and more effective workshop, an image problem still exists.

This problem can only be alleviated by addressing the concerns and suggestions of the students, as they are the ones who either profit or lose from the SPARC experience.

Most of the criticism leveled at SPARC focuses on the length of SPARC workshops for first-years.

This criticism is no longer valid because of the new SPARC, part of the Williams Community Building Program.

What used to be a five hour workshop, taking up all of a Sunday morning and early afternoon, has been transformed into a streamlined three-hour workshop in the afternoon or early evening.

This change was a direct result of the evaluations filled out during previous SPARC workshops, in which students commented that SPARC started too early in the day and lasted too long.

Even with the shorter time commitment, one could ask whether these three hours are worthwhile.

After an opening circle of introductions, the workshop explores personal readings, and then heads directly into the active and fun ‘Ups and Downs’ segment. During these exercises, the participants are able to learn about shared interests, unknown passions or skills and the diverse viewpoints of their entrymates.

Following the more serious section of ‘Ups and Downs,’ personal symbols are introduced and discussed. Like the identity readings, the symbols provide a unique way for each participant to interact and discuss issues of importance to them.

After a break for snacks, the entry is divided into smaller groups to talk about instances of prejudice. As a community building program, SPARC is designed to help counter prejudice and suggest the best ways in which it can be handled. The groups reconvene and then create ‘affirmation charts,’ papers full of positive comments about the individual participants.

Many first-years keep these charts throughout their Williams years, a testament to the power of positive feedback.

Finally the groups debrief and evaluate the workshop.

The key to SPARC is establishing relationships between the entrymates, and letting them know that their entry can be used as a model for the Williams community.

Bonds can be formed across great differences, precisely because after SPARC the first-years have learned so much about each other.

The real problem with SPARC comes not from the exercises, games, or community lessons, but from the few people who do not approach the workshop with an open mind.

Tales from years past of long, wasted hours and pointless exercises condition a few of the first-years to bring pre-conceived notions of SPARC with them. With each passing year however, through constant revision and a dedication to taking every suggestion to heart, the workshop has improved as much as the attitudes of the first-years towards it.

At the conclusion of one workshop this year, someone suggested that the SPARC facilitators ‘spread the word’ that the workshop is both informative and highly enjoyable.

This then is the only solution to criticism of SPARC: increased discourse. Such interaction will both prove the value of such a program, as well as increase the community bonds that SPARC itself is designed to foster.